Castrati: Castrated for the Love of Music

24Aug09

 41495496 Cutters203Castrati were young boys who were castrated (had their testicles removed) before they hit puberty, to ensure that their voices would not “break”. The result of the operation was that the boy would grow up being able to sing with the same voice as a boy soprano, but with the strength of a man. 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. The boys were often fed opium to make them unaware of the operation. In the image to the left we see the instrument used to castrate the boys.

Once castrated, the young boys were sent to conservatories. At the “Conservatorio di Sant’ Onofrio” in Napoli, during the 1780s, the work schedule was as follows: In the morning, one hour of singing difficult passages, one hour of literature and one hour of solfeggi in front of mirrors. In the afternoon, one half hour of music theory, one half hour of counterpoint on improvisation and one hour of literature.

The history of Castrati

Castrato-ProcessThe first castrati were reported in Spain around 1550 and their presence in the Rome Sistine Chapel Choir was reported to have started around 1565. The Spanish falsettisti ruled the Sistine Chapel. The falsettisti’s voices were more agile and had a richer sound. It has been debated that some of the Spanish falsettisti were castrati. The change from falsettisti to castrati came about because the castrato’s voice sounded more natural.

The earliest castrati known were Jacomo Spagnoletti (probably a Spaniard) and Martino, both of whom were admitted to the Sistine Chapel Choir in 1588. Other two good castrati were mentioned in the archives of 1599, the Italians Pietro Folignani and Girolamo Rosini. By 1640, castrati were used throughout Italy despite much theological debate, the music need of the church always prevailing over anti-mutilation surgery. They were formally banned from the papal chapel by Pius X in 1903.

What do we know of Castrati?

Many things are known about castrati. For example, they were not allowed to marry in church and sing in Lutheran churches. In France , Italian singers and castrati were not welcomed because of their excessive ornamentation and decadent life style. In the 17th and 18th century Italy , castrati were considered to be natural sopranos, whereas falsettisti, which would still possess all tokens of masculinity, were considered to have artificial voices. They were so treasured that, in 1625, all sopranos in the choir of the Sistine Chapel were castrati. In Bach’s time, there was already heavy competition between the clerical courts of Venice and Rome, so that the local opera theatres were ordered to engage the best castrati. At the peak of time, there were 4000 boys between the age of 7 and 9 castrated per year.

What did they sound like?

Moreschi1902Castrati loathed their parents and families for allowing the surgical intervention. Domenico Mustafa’s family told him that, when he was a child, his testicles were eaten by a pig and he always swore he would kill his father for lying.

Alessandro Moreschi was born into a large Roman Catholic family in the town of Monte Compatri, near Frascati. Baptised on the day of his birth, it is clear that his life was in danger. Perhaps he was born with an inguinal hernia, for which castration was still a “cure” in nineteenth-century Italy. Or he could have been castrated later, around 1865, which would have been more in line with the centuries-old practice of castrating vocally talented boys well before puberty. In any case, much later in life, he referred to his enjoying singing as a boy in the chapel of the Madonna del Castagno, just outside his native town.

Fortunately, Pope Leo XIII was a bit of a geek and he asked Thomas Edison to bring his new phonograph to the Cistene Chapel to record the choir. The choir master happened to be Alessandro Moreschi (image left), the last living true castrato. As a result of the meeting between Leo XIII and Edison’s aides, a series of recordings were made of Moreschi in 1908. While the quality is not the greatest, these recordings allow us to hear the true voice of a castrato.

Here is a video clip containing a recording of Moreschi singing the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria which should be familiar to most readers:

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51 Responses to “Castrati: Castrated for the Love of Music”

  1. 1 Nigeltown

    Pigs love nuts

    • 2 Katherine

      don’t pay attention to the fifteen people who didn’t like your comment. I LOVED IT. best damn thing i have seen all day! 🙂

    • If you are still interested, read Ann Rice’s novel “Cry to Heaven” which she wrote after hearing this recording.

  2. 4 Nancita

    I came across Alessandro’s Moreschi’s “Ave Maria” a few years ago on archive.org. I remember listening to it at like 3 am and feeling chills (the creeped out kind) all over. There was just something about it that disturbed me…so I googled him and eventually discovered castrati…

    I still listen to the recording, but it doesn’t creep me out as much as it did the first time… In fact, I think I appreciate it more!

    P.S. Great site you have here!

    • Nancita: I have a few of his recordings and felt exactly the same way you did when I first listened to him. I love the fact that we are fortunate enough to have a recording of the real thing.

    • 6 Ron

      Yeah, I just listened to it and I agree. Creeped me out too. I think its mainly because it was a voice from over 100 years ago and such bad recording that freaked me out.

      • 7 mandi

        And that it was on YouTube. 100 year old recording, recorded by Thomas Edison, the last Castrato and it’s now on freaking YouTube. spins me out!

        Have been ill this weekend and I’ve spent so much time on this site in absolute awe. Thanks so much!

  3. 8 Zenayda

    Considering that I love men with deep voices, this makes my ovaries cringe.

    It’s super disturbing though as some women can’t even reach the notes that Moreschi does in that clip. I’d heard it somewhere before but it doesn’t fail to astound me now.

    It’s also interesting how the restriction of testosterone to the body can effect it so much (i.e. limbs, ribs etc.).

    Of course, I guess it’s indicative of the time that women weren’t even considered for choirs. Any men that criticise feminism should thank women’s equality for not getting their nuts cut off just so they can sing a few tunes.

    • 9 Mackenzie

      That last sentence was the best thing I’ve read in weeks! Haha!

  4. 10 Serious

    ROFL LMAOOOOO!!!!!! hahahahahahHAHAHAHAhahahHAHHAHAHAHAHAA,, just couldnt stop laughing at his(?) voice..Omg,,never laughed so hard……and he(?) sings low notes aswell HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAA

    • 11 Simone

      that’s really not cool. These people were CASTRATED. Their lives were ruined because their family wanted them to sing. Are you 12? Suffering is not funny, so please shut up you fucking idiot.

    • 12 Jenna

      You’re deplorable. Would you laugh at a child forced into prostitution? Because this is the same thing…maybe even worse.

      • 13 harrison

        It’s not really like prostitution, unless he was being paid to fuck people as he sang. It’s exploitation, not prostitution.

  5. 14 sofkes

    Were Eneuchs also castrated?

    • Mostly yes – but Eunuchs had a different role in society to that of the castrati.

    • 16 jenn

      lol… a eunuch is someone who has been castrated, and/or is missing all or part of the penis. Generally, castration refers to the testicles, and a eunuch refers to any missing part of the male genitalia.

  6. 17 Openeyed

    Pretty sick, it made me cringe to hear him. I could not help visualizing some guy dressed up in Victorian drag :(. They were like rockstars in their day though, woman loved them! They were often stalked by female fans for lovemaking as there was no pregnancy possible – and they went on until the woman was satisfied.
    I would rather have my balls and live in obscurity though!

    • I don’t think you will find many men who would disagree with your sentiments 🙂

  7. 19 PirateXxEsque

    the worst part is, he doesn’t even sound that pleasant.
    Yes, its feminine, smooth and covers vocal ranges I can only dream of, but.. It just doesn’t sound that good.

    Poor guy.

    • 20 Looser

      probably due to the poor recording quality.

    • 21 Jenna

      I believe he was fairly old at the time of the recording and had lost some of the quality of his voice.

      • 22 Paul

        All the above is true; however, it is worth mentioning that a recent BBC documentary analyzed this recording and determined that the highest level of Acoustic Interference (Hiss, Pop, Faulty Room Acoustics) occurred in the same part of the Acoustic Spectrum as would be the top range of Moreschi’s voice – so in this Recording, we are essentially missing part of the Voice – as admittedly mediocre a voice as it does indeed sound. What this article refers to as “Falsettitst” in our time are roughly equivalent to Countertenors. With no Castrati to sing the Music written for them, there are some young singers active today (Scholl, Maniaci, Jaroussky) who are doing amazing work bringing Castrato Music back to life. If, as splendid as they are, they are perhaps but a pale reflection, then the real article must have been mind-blowing! We truly will never really know…

    • 23 Siân

      Moreschi is usually regarded as being mediocre at best.
      The article doesn’t mention it, but many castrati didn’t even end up singing in choirs. Many, who had even worse voices, went off to do other jobs for the papacy.
      You can’t promise he’ll have a good voice just because you risked his life, castrated him, and sent him away to church.

  8. 24 Looser

    jfrater: Congrats on the new site. great article. weird though isn’t it? that people would do that to other people just so they could sing super high! ugh. people are weird sometimes.

  9. 25 erickarthik

    Interesting. Maybe the “Kojjas” in India can use this.

  10. 26 erickarthik

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijra_%28South_Asia%29 they really need it !!!!

  11. 27 imcrystalclear

    Very good list, great follow up from listverse.

  12. 28 Cuntageous

    Could it be that Michael Jackson was a castrato? It’d explain his high voice, his apparant asexuality, and why he allegedly used sperm donars to father his kids.

  13. 29 jackson fan

    The remark about michael jackson is disgusting. he was a real man who fathered his own children and tried to protect them from the filthy world of pop and celebrity culture.
    Michael was a beacon to all of us not just young boys.

    Remember Michael made Neverland for the entertainment of poor disadvantaged kids with trouble minds – he of all the brothers should be remembered forever for the sensitive and loving way he looked after youngsters.

    The world is a much sadder and more dangerous place without Michael – so sad when a genius is snatched away from us lesser mortals.

    • 30 ohyeah

      ohhh shut up!!

    • 31 harrison

      MJ was a freak, pure and simple. He molested kids, bought some more kids, wasted a fortune and died of a drug overdose.

    • 32 Asmodeus

      Meanwhile, back in reality….

  14. I did some further research, and believe that Moreschi was not at all demonstrative of a top castrato. Whether poor training, voice or bad habits in his latter years, these recordings do not demonstrate the power and control of the most successful castrati.

    Saying that, these recordings are still awe inspiring, being the only ones of a true castato. One can easily imagine a more youthful voice with confident breath control and power, based off of these recordings.

    I also think that they are even more important if Edison, himself was there recording it. That is a powerful thought, indeed.

    And for the record, I believe castrati could still have orgasms – just as men today who have vasectomies still are able to do so. And I’m sure some boys hated it, and some loved it. The lifestyle was very opulent and dazzling. They were like celebrities today – but like child celebrities today, they didn’t have a choice about it, and I’m sure some struggled more than others with the fame.

    As for Michael Jackson, I doubt he was a castrato. He simply had trained his falsetto so well, it seemed as if it was his natural range, at times. That’s a credit to his discipline and dedication to his art, and yes, his Genius. (Whether he fathered his own children has not yet been disclosed.)

    • 34 usualquotaofnuts

      Edison did not make these recordings, they were made by Fred Gaisberg of the Gramaphone Company. He was the man who persuaded Caruso to perform on disc.

      Edison for a long time frowned on the use of his recording system being used for entertainment.

      Castrati were as capable of orgasms as a prepubescent boy; it’s a long time ago now but I think I’d remember if I had been capable of orgasm before puberty.

  15. 35 chioma

    we really missed a great era of music. though am not in support of castrating young boys for the sake of art. it would have being a pleasure to have heard farinelli sing.

  16. 36 Yvette

    I remember seeing Michael Jackson on Ed Sullivan (I think) when he was maybe 11. He was asked what would happen when his voice changed, and all I remember of his answer is that it was evasive. My parents had to explain to me what it meant for a boy’s voice to change. I don’t imagine he was castrated physically, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his chemistry was interfered with to keep his voice child-like, which he had his whole life.

  17. 37 Terri

    Okay, not trying to be funny or disrespectful here, but that Michael Jackson comment got me thinking. He really DID have a childlike voice and he really DID have disproportionately long arms. It’s not outside of reason to think that his overbearing and abusive father could have found someone to do this to him for the sake of fame and fortune. That would explain a lot…

  18. 38 Georg von Starkermann

    Isn’t the Catholic Church just wonderful?

  19. 39 Rudeger_F

    I realize that morality can be somewhat subjective, but I personally find the thought of enjoying this recording terribly disturbing. The only pleasure I take in it is to imagine Moreschi’s faded voice as the last dying echo of an inhuman practice. (He was over 50 at the time of this recording and by all accounts his voice was not nearly what it had been…)

    Thank you for the article!

  20. 40 Anna

    This makes me wonder how people feel about circumcision. Though quite different, still on with the idea of overbearing parents thinking they’re doing something helpful for their children when they are really just mutilating them without their consent.

  21. 41 Gemma

    creepy. did not enjoy it. i prefer Pavarotti’s rendition. i dont find anything attractive about little boy’s voices in men’s bodies. my heart broke.

  22. 42 Tommy Manning

    I am made to wonder whether the Castrati might have lived very sad lives, despite the beauty of the music they were able to accomplish, as evidenced by the audio clip provided of Moreschi’s voice. In actuality (however), I think, upon listening to the rendition of “Ave Marie,” there seems to be a strange straining on several notes, perhaps because of his failing voice during this time in his life. Most teachers of voice do say that singers decline in quality and skill after 40 years of age.

    It is nevertheless a benefit to have a real recording of a genuine castrato, so that for all prosperity there will be a reference.

    I cannot help but feel emotional after having heard the plaintive “cry” of this man. How can one realize what was required of him and not believe that, despite his success, he must have been quite unhappy.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Very sincerely,

    Tommy Manning
    noel.manning@sbcglobal.net

  23. 43 NessaDavis

    A great but obscure movie is Farenelli, based of a Real Castrati and his career!
    It is about him and his brother! Do Watch, seriously it is amazing for it cinematography as the music and acting!

  24. 44 Tommy Manning

    I bought and watched the DVD version of the Farenelli movie and found it immensely interesting. The costumes and interiors, and the scenery in general, made it a worthwhile endeavor. Even with subtitles, the movie held my interest throughout. I recommend it. — TM

  25. 45 Tommy Manning

    He does sound as if he is straining at some notes, but given the era of recording and his age at the time, I suppose one could forgive imperfections. I believe, since we are not accustomed to hearing such music, it is natural for us to detect some flaws. I do think it is sad, as I mentioned earlier, that anyone would have to endure the possible ridicule of this achievement, although some of his contemporaries (like him) were very much appreciated and lauded for their efforts. I think the rather bizarre fascination one has regarding the “how” of castrati is one reason one continues to view with real interest. I cannot, however, comprehend how a man would feel knowing that he had been rendered less than masculine in the eyes of many.

  26. 46 Zanuth

    Probably one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard… poor fellow – and this sort of shit went on for… what? nearly four-hundred years…? Bah, it’s a shame that humanity can stoop so low in the name of entertainment, fame and a sad attempt to reach a morbid, twisted form of perfection

    Better that period in history is behind us, I think… let’s just hope that we can keep it that way

  27. 47 Cora

    It makes my heart sad to realize that adults could do such horrid and cruel things to children. To actually take a small boy and cut away his testicles ( without any anesthetic, horrors ) is beyond anything that could be called for a good reason except maybe to save his life. I totally agree with Zanuth, better that part of history and others like it are behind us and it is up to us and future generations to keep it that way. That part of history tells us for sure that entertainment can be taken overboard as it is today in a different form.

  28. 48 Tommy Manning

    11-6-2010

    Did anyone see “Prince Poppycock’s” performances on “America’s Got Talent” a few weeks back? He brought to mind the Castrati and how some of them may have sounded, although it’s fairly certain that he was singing in falsetto. Poppycock’s performances and costumes transported one to another era, but with a considerable amount of humor and real entertainment. I am thinking, however, that true Castrati performed more seriously.

    Those who ridicule the Castrati and their sound would do well to review some of today’s “music.” It is a matter of taste, but in my opinion some contemporary singing amounts to little more than noise, however popular and lucrative. We should remember that Castrati fulfilled a particular need and desire of the culture, however mysterious and repugnant to modern thought.

    Tommy Manning
    noel.manning@sbcglobal.net

  29. 49 Andrew Timm

    The recordings with Moreschi were made in 1902 and 1904, NOT 1908. Likewise, the recording people had nothing to do with that thieving Edison, who did NOT invent the phonograph any more than he invented the light bulb.

    People can “ooh” and gasp about castrati today, but how is that fundamentally different from the parents who force their children into paedophile “child pageants” or the Hollywood types who mutilate their bodies with silicon, botox, surgical scalpels etc etc to fit a grotesque ideal of “beauty”?

    Yes, forcibly castrating young boys is and was wrong. But, what is shocking is how people think we’ve “moved past” that. There are still areas of the world where children are ritually mutilated, and that has nothing to do with music.

    • 50 lexi

      what you say is very true. we only have to look at every day samples in the media to confirm that we have not changed or learned from our mutilated past; there are people who inject their 8 year old daughters with botox, or preform female circumcises. not to mention infants receiving tattoos and tongue piercings…. we shouldn’t be creeped out by castrati when our society is tenfold worse.

  30. 51 Tommy Manning

    Mutilation, for the sake or art or culture or for whatever reason, seems wrong to me.

    If one wanted to broaden the issue, one could lament strict parenting which accepts nothing less than perfect from one’s child, whether in the classroom, on the athletic field, or in the music studio. Thus, “mutilation” could be seen to be more than physical. Do the ends really justify the means? I wonder.

    I imagine that the castrati endured psychological as well as physical scars. And while I do not know, I doubt if any of them requested to be included in the elite group of castrated singers.


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