The Castrati-Mutilation in the Name of Religion
The castrati - they were male singers with the power of a manís
body but with a boyís voice. The era of the castrati was indeed a sad
one. Who were they? The answer has to do with a shocking practice-mutilation
in the name of religion.
Why would males choose to mutilate themselves or other males in this fashion? Often, they have done so in the name of religion.
Singing has played an important role in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgy, the mainstay of a church choir being boy sopranos. A boyís voice, though, breaks in his early teens. How could the church overcome the constant change in personnel and the training it entailed? True, a somewhat colorless higher range of voice known as falsetto was often employed, but this was not an acceptable replacement for the boy soprano.
Women sopranos were the obvious alternative, but from early times the pope had forbidden women to sing in church. An added problem was that church singers could be called upon to assist their priest, a duty reserved exclusively for men. So women could not be used to augment church choirs.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V banned women from singing on stage in any public theater or opera house. This ban was reiterated by Pope Innocent XI about 100 years later. "The disapproval of female theatrical performers and the coupling of their name with that of prostitution and licentiousness was an ancient tradition, going back to the days of St Augustine and even earlier," observes researcher Angus Heriot. By taking this inflexible stand, however, the church opened up the way to another, more serious problem-castrati!
Who were the castrati, and how did Christendom become involved with them?
Mutilation for the Sake of Music
Opera and public theaters needed sopranos, but so did the papal choir. What could be done? It had long been known that if a boy was castrated, his voice would not break. The vocal cords grow only a little, whereas the chest and diaphragm grow normally. As a result, the castrato has the power of a manís body but has a boyís voice-"the kind of voice angels were imagined as possessing," comments Maria Luisa Ambrosini in The Secret Archives of the Vatican. It is also possible to regulate to some extent the type of voice by varying the age at which the child is castrated.
The Greek Church had employed castrati as choristers from the 12th century onward, but what would the Roman Catholic Church do? Would it now also sanction and employ castrati?
Padre Soto, a singer in the papal choir in 1562, is listed in the Vatican records as a falsetto. But Soto was a castrato. Thus at least 27 years before 1589, when the bull of Pope Sixtus V reorganized the singers of St. Peterís Basilica to include four castrati, the Vatican had quietly set aside the authority of the Council of Nicaea.
From 1599 the existence of castrati in the Vatican was acknowledged. Once the highest authority in the church had openly sanctioned the practice, castrati became acceptable. Gluck, Handel, Meyerbeer, and Rossini are among those who composed both sacred and secular music specifically for castrati.
Popularity, Parents, and Public Opinion
Castrati rapidly gained popularity. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605), for example, was greatly impressed with the flexibility and sweetness of their voices. Even though anyone known to have connection with the act of castration was supposed to have been excommunicated, a steady influx of young boys became available as the musical needs of the church prevailed.
Shops were said to advertise, "Qui si castrono ragazzi (Boys are castrated here)." One barbershop in Rome proudly proclaimed: "Singers castrated here for the papal chapel choirs." It is claimed that during the 18th century, some 4,000 Italian boys may have been castrated for this purpose. How many died in the process is not known.
Why did parents permit their sons to be mutilated in this way? Generally, castrati were born of poor parents. If a son showed any aptitude for music, then he could be sold, sometimes outright, to a musical institution. Others were drawn from the choirs of St. Peterís Basilica in Rome and similar church academies. The parents naturally hoped their castrato would become famous and provide well for them in their old age.
So often, however, tragedy ensued when it became apparent that the boy had no voice to train. Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, writing A Picture of Italy in the late 18th century, explained that such outcasts, along with any surplus of castrati, were "allowed to take [holy] orders" and were permitted to say Mass. This followed the extraordinary precedent set in St. Peterís itself when, in violation of church canon, two castrati were admitted as Roman Catholic priests in 1599 and others subsequently.
Pope Benedict XIV himself referred back to the Council of Nicaeaís decision and acknowledged that castration was unlawful. But in 1748 he firmly rejected a suggestion from his own bishops that castrati be banned, for he feared that churches would become empty if he did. Such was the appeal and importance of church music. So castrati choristers continued to sing in Italian church choirs, in St. Peterís, and in the popeís own Sistine Chapel.