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Castrato: History & Singers

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Artists are often forced to go to great lengths for their work, but few have went as far as the castrati. Castrated by force or by choice to preserve their pre-pubescent voices, these men had gave their whole being over to music.

Who Were the Castrati?

The castrati were among the most interesting castes of musicians ever conceived. Praised for their musical talent at a young age, they sought to preserve their abilities through castration, thus stopping them from entering puberty. By doing so, they kept their voices at a boyish pitch, but also effectively devoted their lives to music.

For many young men with promising musical talents, castration offered the opportunity at a better life, albeit one with several restrictions. Wealth was no small part of the gain, but also increased status featured heavily. In fact, at least a few castrati were actually quite wealthy, and begged for the opportunity to enjoy the increased status that came with being a castrato. Sadly, for many who made the choice, or had the choice made for them, their talents never progressed beyond mediocrity, forcing them into lesser roles within music or into the Church.

The practice of castrating male servants was nothing new, as eunuchs had been employed by the rich and powerful for centuries as trustworthy advisors, harem overseers, and bodyguards. After all, such individuals had no chance of overthrowing the ruler and starting their own dynasty. It did not take too long for the musical talents of such individuals to become noticed. They had effectively frozen their voices at a boyhood pitch, and with women being banned from singing, it was the only conceivable way to reach certain pitches. In fact, the Byzantines were using them as early as 400 AD.

11th century castrato
11th Century Castrato

Their voices, however, met their destiny in opera, where the wide range of required voices, and the prohibition of women performers, made their unique sound essential to reach the highest notes. Also of note was the popularity of the performers in church choirs, where there could be something truly other-worldly about their voices.

Of course, even for the most successful castrati, there were serious side effects. By undergoing castration, the men gave up all chance of a family life, and were often shunned by others within society. As a result, they ended up giving their whole lives over to music, and once they lost the ability to sing through even the asexual effects of aging, they found themselves with little support and lower life spans.

Famous Castrati

Carlo Scalzi enjoyed a successful career as a castrato, remaining a fixture at opera houses throughout Italy for more than twenty years. Following his successes, he traveled to England, only to find a lukewarm reception. Afterwards, he returned to Italy and disappeared from history.

Senesino, also known as Francesco Bernardi, was one of the most celebrated castrati of all time. He joined the church choir and within a few years was making far beyond his humble roots as a barber's son. Indeed, he became one of the rare castrati to make a favorable impression in Northern Europe; Handel cast him in several roles, and he became a fixture in English high society of the period.

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