Tuesday, November 19, 2013

History mystery: Castrati Singers

Castrati Singers
Singing is not only ancient and universal, but in primitive cultures, it was considered as an important factor with regards to entertainment or service and was important to individuals, social groups or religion. Singing as the vocal production of musical tones, is so basic to man that its origins are lost in the antiquity and predates the development of spoken language and the voice is presumed as the original musical instrument and there are no instances where human culture however isolated or otherwise that does not sing. In the mid 16th century, which lasted for around 300 years, the musical castrati was a craze in Europe where male soprano singers, originally from Italy, were castrated before puberty in order to preserve their high voices and singers having angelic and soaring voices were used for important role in singing.

This coincided with the development in the popularity of opera where the castrati were considered as featured performers. The castrati, the plural form of castrato, an Italian word for one who is castrated, were male singers castrated before puberty in order to enable them to develop a powerful voice in soprano or contralto range and the usual age for castration was between the age of 7 and 12 years. It became necessary for boys between this age group to sign a contract wishing to be castrated; the vast majority was still ignorant about the implication of the entire procedure. Some were led to believe that it was necessary for boys between this age group to sign a contract wishing to be castrated, while the vast majority was still ignorant about the implication of the entire procedure.

Castrati Singers
Some were under the misconception that the operation was the result of medical necessity rather than the economic benefit of those involved in this procedure. It was believed that when a boy was castrated before puberty, his voice would always remain high pitched and they would be great singers. Such singers were employed mainly in Italian churches during the 17th and 18th century who become prominent performers for operas. The practice of castration for the purpose of music was peculiar in Italy and to a certain extent in Germany. Evidence show that castrati were often employed as chapel singers in the early 1500s in these countries where the church for centuries had banned women from singing during services and had to depend on boy sopranos or men singing in high vocal tones. This practice was important in Baroque music which preceded the development of music in modern classical era and was a way of preserving the beautiful voices of male singers.

Castrati Singers
These castrated singers performed when women were not allowed to do so and the men could sing much better than women in many ways. Having beautiful voices of women with strong powerful lungs and chest muscles of men, composers began to write music which could demonstrate their abilities and for Baroque composers, excellent music meant more difficult with an elaborate ornamental melodious lines. This music of high Baroque era was tailored to the demands of the castrati and the prima donnas where the melodies and harmonies were simpler, clear-cut and the bass remaining iterated and static.

Castrati Singers
The reason for pre pubertal castration was to preserve the male unbroken voice into adult life and from pre puberty to adulthood there is an increase in the anteroposterior length of the thyroid cartilage which is three times greater in the male than in female, giving rise to the prominent `Adam’s apple’, where there is a greater chance of increase in weight of the thyroid, cricoids and arytenoids cartilages. Some specific receptors for dihydrotestosterone are identified in most tissues of male larynx and oestrogen receptors have also been found in non human primate larynx though it is uncertain whether oestradiol is responsible in the smaller growth of the human female larynx. In both the genders, the increased somatic growth which occurs at the time of puberty is brought about by growth hormone and other factors as well as the genetic influence of the X and Y chromosomes and this generalized growth leads to enlargement of the pharynx, oral cavity, thoracic cavity, skull sinuses resulting in the characteristic resonance and power of the adult voice when compared to that of a child. For Baroque music, the castrati was an important element and there were several major factors responsible for the development of Baroque music, resulting in large amount of money together with attention that was given to musicians and artist at that time. The style of the Baroque music spread from simple form of ornamenting the vocal line of the castratos’ singers to display their dynamic range and abilities and it was the church which played an important role in introducing the castrati to western music where they were at an advantage to sing naturally in the range of a boy soprano with the stamina and power of a man.

With regards to career, singers as young of twelve years of age were introduced in minor roles in the operas while the older newcomers were at times used in female roles until they were well established and could fit into the roles of main characters. Exceptional good singers who rose up in fame and well known had opera houses offering them the choicest roles in their productions. The salaries of these castrato singers increased with the rise in demand surprising their contemporaries at the rapid rise in their salaries. As opera seasons were normally of short duration, singers were often uncertain about the revenue during the times when there were no opera performances. Some of the castratos’ singers on their part with fame and fortune would behave like celebrity and many a times would be demanding. Most of the fact related to the rise and development of the castrati, remains a mystery since castration was by no means a new practice though it had been performed in various cultures and for several reasons in ancient times. The practice of castrating young boys virtually declined by the 19th century but the musical tradition did not immediately disappear in the conservative church.


  1. Brilliant piece. It's very original and in sync with your motto - Elixir of Knowledge.


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