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Castrati in Music 2

img  Tobias

It would, however, not be fair to only point the finger at the Catholic Church as the institution who caused the practice of castration. As a matter of fact, Alfonso Il d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (pictured) in Italy around the mid 1500’s, was one of the first who reportedly enjoyed high and pure voices, years before Pope Sixtus the Fifth allowed it for clerical purposes. Consequently, the role of castrati was overwhelmingly introduced into the opera for years to come, even after the church had officially denounced this way of obtaining soprano- and mezzo-soprano voices. The Vatican, after all, did not regard worldly music as important enough to allow the castration of young boys: Under the Canon Law, those who engaged in it were subject to the punishment of excommunication.

Back then, this posed a severe threat. And yet, it had almost no effect on what happened in real life. Especially in the beginning of the 18th century, many historians believe, almost 5,000 boys were castrated each year for the music industry alone. While women were only on the brink of playing active roles in the opera, let alone the church, the desire for high voices was growing immensely. Many castratos gained fame in the musical world, comparable to today’s rock stars. Subsequently, even young boys themselves asked to be castrated in order to achieve a glamorous and rich life. Just like today, not everyone with ambitions reached the ultimate goal. So many of those young men ended in very unglamorous circumstances, from singing in common theatres for little money to even ending on the rough and merciless streets of prostitution.

In fact, the careers of the castrati are no different from those of contemporary musicians, who start with the highest of ambitions but end up with no success at all. Unlike today, though, in the days of the castrati, it was anything but easy turning your professional life around. They had to stick to their profession or drift into a life at the very bottom of society. On top of it, they were robbed of their abilities to find a future with a person they loved, they couldn’t have families or children of their own. They were mutilated and severely deprived of a so called ‘normal life’.

The wish of a few to enjoy musical exhibits of an almost perfect standard, however motivated it may have been, destroyed the lives of uncountable young people. When in 1870 Italy made castration of boys illegal, the taste of the public had already changed. Now tenors, with their mighty voices, had become the heroes of the musical world. Castrati, as we would say today, were “out”. An episode of more than 300 years, which has drastically tainted the musical world, was slowly coming to an end. Women found their way to the opera stages, and the classical music world changed to what we know today. The Catholic church also ruled out castration by a decree of Pope Leo as late as 1902, who declared that no castrati would be allowed to join the choir of the Sistine Chapel.

So at this point, we find our way back to Allessandro Moreschi. He was the last one in a long chain of people, who voluntarily or forcefully – we don’t know at this point – gave up his life, his ability to love, his ability to grow up to a normal adult life, for music’s sake. He died in 1922, and I would have loved to talk to him. But he is gone, along with a somber and dark history of music enthusiasm, that claimed so many innocent victims.

The End

By Fred M. Wheeler

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