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Castrati in Music 1

img  Tobias

It is only a short time ago, in terms of history, that Allessandro Moreschi retired in 1913 from a career as a singer in sacral music. He was a massive man, built like a sumo wrestler, but his voice was as clear and pure as that of a young boy, reaching high notes like sopranos seemingly without any effort in a strong and powerful way. If we may believe the testimony of his contemporaries, Allessandro Moreschi was probably not the best singer ever, but he has the doubtful fame of being the last one of his kind: The last musically active castrato, a man who lost his testicles as a boy by forced castration in order to save his voice from changing in puberty.

In 1585, Pope Sixtus the Fifth ordered that choirs should include castrati to honor God in the purest way possible: With high, clean and innocent voices. Since women were not allowed to enter any active church duties, the solution seemed simple: Castrate young boys with beautiful voices to avoid puberty-induced changes.

Whoever joined the clerical education after being successfully rid of their testosterone-producing organs found themselves a subordinate of a strict regime. For hours and hours on end, the voice was trained in different ways: From loudness to clarity, from training complicated tonal variations, to composition and effortless endurance. Of course, religion was one of the main subjects, too. The days of these boys were filled with exercises that made sure they never came in touch with real life and they never saw other people other than those around them. They had been sold, and consequently, their lives had been sold.

The above mentioned papal decree of Pope Sixtus the Fifth demonstrates how young and innocent people were brutally abused in order to get the most out of musical exhibits. In those times, the surgical procedure of castration was not without risk. You have to remember that there was no anesthetization. Reportedly, more than thirty percent of those young boys died either from infections or bleedings. A devastating rate of deaths and yet there were enough parents to voluntarily give away their own children to undergo this unbelievably brutal and life-changing procedure. Usually, these parents would never see their spouses again. It has been reported that they were mostly financially compensated in some way when ‘selling' their child. But the biggest motive for them in those unsafe days were not thoughts of making gains for themselves. In a time, when general mortality rates and especially those of children were sky-high, enabling their boys a career as a castrato appeared to secure a safe life for them. And, from their point of view, what could possibly be better than living that life in the service to God and under the auspices of religious authorities?

For those who ‘bought’ these boys, it seemed no different from investing $20,000 in sound equipment or ordering some tickets for the New York Metropolitan Opera today. This whole scenario could anyway only work in an environment, where the value of the life of a person was held in severe disregard. And indeed, in those days, death was such a common event that no one was really impressed by it any more, except for those who lost their loved ones. In the face of hunger, infections, black death and numerous other ways of fatal illnesses, religion seemed the only hope, the only way out of a disastrous world, an escape into the ‘land of milk and honey’, that promised eternal life under fabulous circumstances. Why not ‘release’ your child into an environment, where all these attributes could seemingly be achieved in real life itself and the chances for the kid to reach heaven after death were so much better?

By Fred M. Wheeler

Part 2 coming soon: In the beginning of the 18th century almost 5,000 boys were castrated each year for the music industry alone. (...) Many castratos gained fame in the musical world, comparable to today’s rock stars, and subsequently, even young boys themselves asked to be castrated in order to achieve a glamorous and rich life.

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