Today's contribution is a little off the beaten track in comparison to my usual literary fare. Here I briefly consider, in my opinion, one of the vilest and most despicable practises enacted by the Catholic Church in a long history and litany of horror put forth in the name of 'Religious Devotion'. A practice performed on boys, subject to coercion, or at worst, performed without consent. A procedure that left the abused mutilated and forever locked in sexual immaturity.
Castrati were male singers castrated before puberty to preserve their high-pitched singing voices. This practice originated in Italy in the 16th century and continued for a further three centuries. Testicular removal was deemed, and designed, to preserve a male's prepubertal voice. A most desired characteristic to please the rich and higher clergy alike. Mutilation was seen as a way to produce a type of singer who could perform the elaborate and highly ornamented music of the Baroque and early Classical periods. In this post, I will examine both the history and controversy surrounding this perverse/perverted practice.
The act of castrating young boys for the purpose of musical prowess began in the late 16th century in Italy. The demand for castrati arose from the growing popularity of opera, which featured highly virtuosic singing that required a range and flexibility of voice that few mature, and intact, male singers could achieve. Castration, prior to puberty, prevented the boy's larynx from fully developing, allowing them to retain their high-pitched singing voices forevermore.
The procedure was performed by cutting off the testicles, which produced a number of physiological changes in the body (no shit). The lack of testosterone during a critical developmental time prevented the vocal cords from thickening, which, in turn, allowed the retention of prepubescent vocal tones. The castrati also had larger lung capacity and therefore greater endurance, which allowed them to sustain long, complex vocal passages.
Castrati quickly became the stars of the opera world, and their popularity spread throughout Europe. They were highly sought after by opera companies and performed for royalty and the wealthy elite. Their voices were considered to be the pinnacle of vocal artistry, and they were revered for their ability to sing with incredible power, range and emotion.
Despite their success and popularity, the practice of castration was controversial, and enlightened folk railed against the custom. The Catholic Church initially supported the practice, as castrati were considered to be an acceptable alternative to women singing in church choirs, which was deemed inappropriate. Of course, there was no way the inferior female, the wretched instigator of the 'The Fall' would be allowed to sing in God's sacred house. Arse. The Church believed that only castrati could provide a pure, angelic sound to enhance the liturgy, sans bollocks.
However, as the popularity of castrati grew, so did its criticism. In time, it began to be viewed, by many, as an abomination against nature. The procedure was also dangerous, and many boys died during the procedure, or by subsequent infection or other medical complications, post-op.
As the 18th century progressed and with the 'Enlightenment' in full swing, attitudes toward castrati began to shift about a bit. Enlightened times brought forth a greater focus on reason and ethics, and castration was increasingly seen as barbaric and a violation of basic human rights. The Church also began to distance itself from the practice and issued a decree in 1770 that prohibited the castration of boys for musical purposes.
Despite this, the popularity of castrati persisted into the 19th century, although it began to decline as musical tastes changed. The rise of Romanticism and the emphasis on naturalism in music led to a greater appreciation for more natural, unadorned singing styles. By the mid-19th century, the practice of castration had largely disappeared.
Today, there is a renewed interest in the castrati and their music. Modern technology has allowed us to recreate the sound of the castrati using computer modelling and voice analysis. Recordings of modern singers performing castrati repertoire can be found online and in music stores.
The controversy surrounding castrati raises important ethical questions that still resonate today. The practice of castration for musical purposes violated the natural rights of the child and caused immense physical and emotional pain. At the same time, it produced some of the most sublime and beautiful music ever written. The legacy of the castrati reminds us of the power of music and the lengths to which people will go to achieve musical perfection. And also, it is a reminder of the power of the Catholic Church in times past. What an execrable institution.