Monday, September 17, 2007


I was recently listening to a piece of Classical music, actually it was a Baroque or maybe even Rococo piece with vocals and the male singer sang in such a high register that I thought it sounded a lot like a castrato.

For those of you not familiar with the term, a castrato is a male soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of an endocrinological, never reaches sexual maturity.

The Catholic Church and most civilized governments frowned upon this act making it unlawful in the late 1800s. In 1878, Pope Leo XIII prohibited the hiring of new castrati by the church. 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.

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. 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.

If you would like to hear the voice of a castrato singing, visit this link and click on player button where it says 1. AlessandroMoreschi-AveMaria


Blogger Beth said...

Went to that site.
I don't care how beautiful the voice of a castrato is, that tradition was barbaric.
I cringe just thinking about it.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Auntie said...

Thanks for writing on this subject Guy. I read a wonderful fictional account of Castrati that was by Anne Rice. Can't remember the name, but it was interesting and a good starting point to learn more about the non-fictional side of this brutal fad.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Mel said...

I'm not a fan of the recording on that site... sorta sounds like coyotes or foxes to me. Of course, I have pedestrian tastes and don't really even like opera at all.
BUT! The information was interesting. I'd never realized that castration affected bone growth. That's wild.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Thom said...

The recording sounds like Mr. Moreschi was being castrated while he sang.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Mike S said...

Love the sound, but like being in charge of the Harem or Chinese Emporer's $$$, not a great career in my opinion. Ouch!!!:(

4:13 PM  
Blogger The Guy Who Writes This said...

Had they only known about helium...

5:26 AM  
Blogger Mom of Three said...

What I want to know is what caused you to seize upon THIS topic? Is Mrs. Guy feeling naggy?

Wasn't it a Monty Python skit where the boy sat on the nun's lap and she asked "How would you like to sing soprano forever?"

12:20 PM  
Blogger The Guy Who Writes This said...

Mo3, no reading between the lines. It actually came to mind while listening to someone who sounded like a castrato. Trust me, every thought that goes through my head is considered for its blog worthiness. Fortunately I've been able to keep the ugly stuff at bay...for now.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Amaya said...

Wow! How interesting that someone's fate was chosen for them at such an early age. Does this reflect the opinion that only men should be in the theater? So they needed to find a way to get the men to sing the high notes?

1:31 PM  
Blogger The Guy Who Writes This said...

Amaya, it could be a case of choir masters with arrested development. It is interesting though, isn't it. But hey, circumcision is still practiced in this country...

2:30 PM  

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