World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article


Article Id: WHEBN0000005742
Reproduction Date:

Title: Castrato  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Opera, Giusto Fernando Tenducci, Pimmalione, Eunuch, Artaxerxes (opera)
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


A castrato (Italian, plural: castrati) is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty, or it occurs in one who, due to an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.

Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy's larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. Prepubescent castration for this purpose diminished greatly in the late 18th century and was made illegal in Italy in 1870.

As the castrato's body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity.[1] Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice. Their vocal range was higher than that of the uncastrated adult male (see soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, sopranist, countertenor and contralto). Listening to the only surviving recordings of a castrato (see below), one can hear that the lower part of the voice sounds like a "super-high" tenor, with a more falsetto-like upper register above that.

Castrati were rarely referred to as such: in the 18th century, the euphemism musico (pl musici) was much more generally used, although it usually carried derogatory implications;[2] Another synonym was evirato, literally meaning "emasculated". Eunuch is a more general term, since historically many eunuchs were castrated after puberty and thus the castration had no impact on their voices.


A Byzantine castrato from the 11th century.

Castration as a means of subjugation, enslavement or other punishment has a very long pedigree, dating back to ancient Sumer. In a Western context, eunuch singers are known to have existed from the early Byzantine Empire. In Constantinople around AD 400 the empress Aelia Eudoxia had a eunuch choir-master, Brison, who may have established the use of castrati in Byzantine choirs, though whether Brison himself was a singer and whether he had colleagues who were eunuch singers is not certain. By the 9th century, eunuch singers were well-known (not least in the choir of Hagia Sophia) and remained so until the sack of Constantinople by the Western forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Their fate from then until their reappearance in Italy more than three hundred years later is not clear. It seems likely that the Spanish tradition of soprano falsettists may have hidden castrati. Much of Spain was under Muslim rulers during the Middle Ages, and castration had a history going back to the ancient Near East. Stereotypically, eunuchs served as harem guards, but they were also valued as high-level political appointees since they could not start a dynasty which would threaten the ruler.

European classical tradition

Castrati first appeared in Italy in the mid-16th century, though at first the terms describing them were not always clear. The phrase soprano maschio (male soprano), which could also mean falsettist, occurs in the Due Dialoghi della Musica of Luigi Dentice, an Oratorian priest, published in Rome in 1553. On 9 November 1555 Cardinal St Peter's, Rome specifically to include castrati.[4] Thus the castrati came to supplant both boys (whose voices broke after only a few years) and falsettists (whose voices were weaker and less reliable) from the top line in such choirs. Women were banned by the Pauline dictum mulieres in ecclesiis taceant ("let women keep silent in church"; see I Corinthians, ch 14, v 34).


A caricature of Farinelli in a female role, by Pier Leone Ghezzi 1724.

Although the castrato (or musico) predates opera, there is some evidence that castrati had parts in the earliest operas. In the first performance of opera seria favoured their high voices as symbols of heroic virtue, though they were frequently mocked for their strange appearance and bad acting. In his 1755 Reflections upon theatrical expression in tragedy, Roger Pickering wrote:

Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear! But, Heavens! What Clumsiness! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James', thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the milkwoman's foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI.[7]

More modern objections to the existence of castrati in Europe might centre on the means by which the preparation of future singers could lead to premature death. To prevent the child from experiencing the intense pain of castration, many were inadvertently administered lethal doses of opium or some other narcotic, or were killed by overlong compression of the carotid artery in the neck (intended to render them unconscious during the castration procedure).[8]

During the 18th century itself, the music historian Charles Burney was sent from pillar to post in search of places where the operation was carried out:

I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence. I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples ... it is said that there are shops in Naples with this inscription: 'QUI SI CASTRANO RAGAZZI' ("Here boys are castrated"); but I was utterly unable to see or hear of any such shops during my residence in that city.[9]

The training of the boys was rigorous. The regimen of one singing school in Rome (c. 1700) consisted of one hour of singing difficult and awkward pieces, one hour practising trills, one hour practising ornamented passaggi, one hour of singing exercises in their teacher's presence and in front of a mirror so as to avoid unnecessary movement of the body or facial grimaces, and one hour of literary study; all this, moreover, before lunch. After, half-an-hour would be devoted to musical theory, another to writing counterpoint, an hour copying down the same from dictation, and another hour of literary study. During the remainder of the day, the young castrati had to find time to practice their harpsichord playing, and to compose vocal music, either sacred or secular depending on their inclination.[10] This demanding schedule meant that, if sufficiently talented, they were able to make a debut in their mid-teens with a perfect technique and a voice of a flexibility and power no woman or ordinary male singer could match.

The castrato Carlo Scalzi, by Joseph Flipart, c. 1737.

In the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4,000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art.[11] Many came from poor homes and were castrated by their parents in the hope that their child might be successful and lift them from poverty (this was the case with Senesino). There are, though, records of some young boys asking to be operated on to preserve their voices (e.g. Caffarelli, who was from a wealthy family: his grandmother gave him the income from two vineyards to pay for his studies[12]). Caffarelli was also typical of many castrati in being famous for tantrums on and off-stage, and for amorous adventures with noble ladies.[13] Some, as described by Casanova, preferred gentlemen (noble or otherwise).[14] Modern endocrinology would suggest that the castrati's much-vaunted sexual prowess was more the stuff of legend than reality – in addition to lacking a hormonal (but not a socio-psychological) sex drive, a castrato's remaining genitalia will not develop in size.[15] Only a small percentage of boys castrated to preserve their voices had successful careers on the operatic stage; the better "also-rans" sang in cathedral or church choirs, but because of their marked appearance and the ban on their marrying, there was little room for them in society outside a musical context.[16]

The castrati came in for a great amount of scurrilous and unkind abuse, and as their fame increased, so did the hatred of them. They were often castigated as malign creatures who lured men into homosexuality. There were homosexual castrati, as [17]


Alessandro Moreschi, the last of the Sistine castrati
By the late 18th century, changes in operatic taste and social attitudes spelled the end for castrati. They lingered on past the end of the ancien régime (which their style of opera parallels), and two of their number, Pacchierotti and Crescentini, even entranced the iconoclastic Napoleon. The last great operatic castrato was Giovanni Battista Velluti (1781–1861), who performed the last operatic castrato role ever written: Armando in Il crociato in Egitto by Meyerbeer (Venice, 1824). Soon after this they were replaced definitively as the first men of the operatic stage by a new breed of heroic tenor, as first incarnated by the Frenchman Gilbert-Louis Duprez, the earliest so-called "king of the high Cs". His successors have included such singers as Enrico Tamberlik, Jean de Reszke, Francesco Tamagno, Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, Beniamino Gigli, Jussi Björling, Franco Corelli and Luciano Pavarotti, among others.
Alessandro Moreschi performs part of Eugenio Terziani's Hostias et preces

Problems playing this file? See .

After the unification of Italy in 1861, castration for musical purposes was officially made illegal (the new Italian state had adopted a French legal code which expressly forbade the practice). In 1878, Pope Leo XIII prohibited the hiring of new castrati by the church: only in the Sistine Chapel and in other papal basilicas in Rome did a few castrati linger. A group photo of the Sistine Choir taken in 1898 shows that by then only six remained (plus the Direttore Perpetuo, the fine soprano castrato Domenico Mustafà), and in 1902 a ruling was extracted from Pope Leo that no further castrati should be admitted. The official end to the castrati came on St. Cecilia's Day, 22 November 1903, when the new pope, Pius X, issued his motu proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini ('Amongst the Cares'), which contained this instruction: "Whenever ... it is desirable to employ the high voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church."

The last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to have made solo recordings. While an interesting historical record, these discs of his give us only a glimpse of the castrato voice – although he had been renowned as "The Angel of Rome" at the beginning of his career, some would say he was past his prime when the recordings were made in 1902 and 1904 and he never attempted to sing opera.[18] He retired officially in March 1913, and died in 1922.

The Catholic Church's involvement in the castrato phenomenon has long been controversial, and there have recently been calls for it to issue an official apology for its role. As early as 1748, Pope Benedict XIV tried to ban castrati from churches,[19] but such was their popularity at the time that he realised that doing so might result in a drastic decline in church attendance.[20][21]

The rumours of another castrato sequestered in the Vatican for the personal delectation of the Pontiff until as recently as 1959 have been proven false. The singer in question was a pupil of Moreschi's, Domenico Mancini, such a successful imitator of his teacher's voice that even Lorenzo Perosi, Direttore Perpetuo of the Sistine Choir from 1898 to 1956 and a lifelong opponent of castrati, thought he was a castrato. Mancini was in fact a moderately skilful falsettist and professional double bass player.[22]

Modern castrati and similar voices

So-called "natural" or "endocrinological castrati" are born with hormonal anomalies. such as Klinefelter's syndrome and Kallmann's syndrome, or have undergone unusual physical or medical events during their early lives that reproduce the vocal effects of castration without being castrated. Jimmy Scott and Radu Marian are examples of this type of high male voice.[23] Michael Maniaci is somewhat different, in that he has no hormonal or other anomalies, but for some unknown reason, his voice did not "break" in the usual manner, leaving him still able to sing in the soprano register.[24] Other uncastrated male adults sing soprano, generally using some form of falsetto but in a much higher range than most countertenors. Examples are Aris Christofellis,[25] Jörg Waschinski,[26] and Ghio Nannini.[27] However, it is believed the castrati possessed more of a tenorial chest register (the aria "Navigante che non spera" in Leonardo Vinci's opera Il Medo, written for Farinelli, requires notes down to C3).[28] Similar low-voiced singing can be heard from the jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott, whose range matches approximately that used by female blues singers,[29] while the Turkish popular singer Cem Adrian has the ability to sing from bass to soprano, his vocal folds having been reported to be three times the average length.[30] Actor Chris Colfer has a similar range. Colfer has stated in interviews that when his voice began to change at puberty he sang in a high voice "constantly" in an effort to retain his range.[31] The late musician Jeff Buckley had a four-octave range, which allowed him to cover women's songs in a natural voice and reach notes from bass to soprano.[32]

Notable castrati

Francesco Bernardi, known as "Senesino"

See also


  1. ^ The Voice of the Castrato,Lancet 1998; 351: pp. 1877-80.
  2. ^ New Grove Dictionary of Opera, vol 3, p.529, sv "musico"
  3. ^ a b c Sherr
  4. ^ Milner, Anthony. (1973). "The Sacred Capons". Musical Times 114(1561): 250-252
  5. ^ see Heriot, A: The Castrati in Opera (London, 1956), p. 31 ff
  6. ^ Heriot chs. 1–3 passim
  7. ^ Pickering, R: Reflections on Theatrical Expression in Tragedy (London, 1755), p. 63
  8. ^ such procedures are described in D'Ancillon, as translated into English by Samber, R.: Eunuchism Display'd ... (London, 1718), pp. 15–16
  9. ^ Scholes, P (ed): Dr Burney's Musical Tours in Europe (London, 1959), vol 1, p. 247
  10. ^ see Bontempi, G: Historia Musica (Perugia, 1695), p. 170
  11. ^ a claim first made in Pleasants, H., "The Castrati", Stereo Review, July 1966, p. 38)
  12. ^ Faustini-Fassini, E.: Gli astri maggiori del bel canto napoletano in Note d'archivio 15, (1938), p 12
  13. ^ see Heriot, p. 141–154
  14. ^ Casanova, G. Memoirs (tr. A. Machen, with additional tr. by A. Symons (London, 1894) vol. 4c, ch. 10; available online at
  15. ^ but see Barbier, pp. 13–15
  16. ^ for a general discussion of castrati in society, see Barbier, ch. 7
  17. ^ Angus Heriot, The Castrati in Opera, London, 1956; Ed Wayne Dynes, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, New York, 1990
  18. ^ Clapton, N.: Alessandro Moreschi and the World of the Castrato (London, 2008), p. 197–216
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Clapton, N.: Alessandro Moreschi and the World of the Castrato (London, 2008), pp. 180–181, 200
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ [1] Archived 30 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^
  27. ^ [2] Archived 17 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ F. Haböck, Die Gesangkunst der Kastraten, (Vienna, 1923), pp. 10–15
  29. ^ [3] Archived 20 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ Frosch, W.A. (2006). "The sopranos: post-op virtuosi". The FASEB Journal 20 (6): 475-479
  • Bontempi, G: Historia Musica (Perugia, 1695)
  • Casanova, G: Memoirs (tr Machen, A., with additional tr by Symons, A; London, 1894)
  • Clapton, N: Moreschi, the Last Castrato (London, 2004)
  • Freitas, R: The Eroticism of Emasculation: Confronting the Baroque Body of the Castrato ("Journal of Musicology", vol 20, no 2, Spring 2003, pp 196–249)
  • Haböck, F: Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst (Berlin, 1927)
  • Heriot, A: The Castrati in Opera (London, 1956)
  • Howard, P: "The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the coming of a new operatic age", (New York, 2014)
  • Moran, N: Byzantine castrati ("Plainsong and medieval Music", vol 11, no 2, Cambridge, 2002, pp 99–112)
  • Pleasants, H: The Castrati ("Stereo Review", July 1966)
  • Scholes, P (ed): Dr Burney's Musical Tours in Europe (London, 1959)
  • Sherr, R: Guglielmo Gonzaga and the Castrati ("Renaissance Quarterly", vol 33, no 1, Spring 1980, pp 33–56)
  • Rosselli, J: The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550–1850, ("Acta Musicologica", LX, Basel, 1988)
  • Tougher, S (ed): Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (London, 2002)

External links

  • All you would like to know about Castrati
  • Castrados por amor al arte
  • Singing Voice: Castrati
  • Recordings:
    • Antonio Maria Bononcini's Vorrei pupille belle, sung by Radu Marian
    • 1904 Recording of Alessandro Moreschi singing Bach/Gounod Ave Maria
    • Javier Medina Avila, including an audio sample (Riccardo Broschi: Ombra fedele anch'io)
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.