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Castrato in Music: History and Famous Singers Essay

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2020


Music is one of the most influential tools in the society that is used to achieve numerous things. In the 18th Century, music played a very crucial role in aiding the spread of religion, growth of cultures across the world, and entertaining people (Howard, 2014). Studies have established that when people were being introduced to religion in the 18th Century, singing was a crucial element of church services (Howard, 2014). The culture of singing in church services became quite popular in Rome. After a few years, the culture quickly became a norm for Catholics across the world to incorporate singing in their church services.

In the churches, women were prohibited from singing after a wrong interpretation of a statement made by an apostle called Paul (Adele, 2006). The original statement by the apostle directed women to always maintain silence during church services, but never banned them from singing. This misinterpretation meant that the duty of singing in church was fully delegated to men. However, since the men had in the earlier years demonstrated their lack of prowess in music, there was an urgent need to have people with vocals in church choirs. This led to the emergence of a special group in the society called castrato or castrati.

Castrati refer to male singers who were castrated before puberty in order to retain a soprano or alto voice (Adele, 2006). They primarily used to sing opera, a drama set of music that involved singing with orchestral accompaniments, overtures, and interludes (Gallo, 2013). However, despite their exemplary musical performances, castrati did not have a lively social life because they were highly discriminated against by most people. Studies have established that the practice of castrating men existed in Italy long before men assumed the responsibility of singing in churches (Gallo, 2013). Experts argue that even in the contemporary world, the role of castrati in the music industry is still relevant, as men with a soprano voice still sing in choirs.

History of castrato

The practice of castrating men for musical purposes before puberty started in Italy towards the end of the 17th Century (Adele, 2006). The practice mainly targeted boys from poor families that had several children. The boys castrated had to be at least seven years old. Reports indicate that a number of boys died as they underwent the castration process due to numerous complications that resulted from the operation (Carter & Butt, 2005). After the operation, the castrati normally went through music training for a minimum of five years before they would start performing or recording music. Numerous experts have provided an explanation behind the concept of castration as a way of maintaining soprano or alto voices in men (Rose, 2011).

When a young boy reaches puberty, the body often begins to experience numerous changes that influence crucial elements such as the voice. These changes happen due to testicular secretions, which lengthen the vocal cords (Adele, 2006). Experts argue that the longer and heavier a vocal cord becomes the lower the pitch of a man’s voice (Carter & Butt, 2005). Men start experiencing testicular secretions once they reach puberty, thus the reason castration was done to boys who had not reached the stage. Castration prevents boys from breaking their voice when they reach puberty. The unique high pitched voices of castrati were due to the fact that they did not have high levels of testosterone in their bodies. In addition, the thoracic capacity of men usually increases as they grow, thus allowing the voices to be louder (Carter & Butt, 2005).

Studies have established that a number of castrati managed to become opera superstars. Their rise to fame was characterized by risky sacrifices, rigorous training, and strict adherence to a high code of ethical conduct (Gallo, 2013). Their trainings happened on a daily basis with lessons spread out across various subjects. Some of the classes that the castrati attended included voice coaching and learning to play various musical instruments (Adele, 2006). They were also trained on different European cultures, as their performed outside Italy on numerous occasions. However, reports indicate that a number of castrati did not finish their training to become opera singers.

Due to various factors, some castrati failed to maintain their voices as they entered adulthood and had to be released from the music conservatories. Those that were released often got different jobs in churches. Those that had nothing to do had to become priests (Carter & Butt, 2005). The priesthood was the only choice for castrati as they were prohibited from marrying. The church believed that having a family was the primary role of marriage. Since the castrati could not fulfill that duty, there was no need for them to get married. However, a few rebelled against this decision and chose to marry someone. The punishment for such individuals was being excommunicated from the church (Adele, 2006).

The castrati were unique compared to other men in terms of their physical features. Most of them did not have beards and had more weight around the hips like women (Rose, 2011). Other characteristic features of castrati were that they often grew very tall and developed a huge body frame. Reports indicate that these features affected their performances a lot, as many could not move comfortably on stage. After a couple of poor performances the castrati stopped making movements on stage and opted to do all their performances seated (Rose, 2011).

Reports indicate that this move did not affect their work in a negative way because their biggest asset was the voice. Studies indicate that the decline of castrati begun in the late 18th Century, when people started developing new musical interests, coupled with changing social attitudes (Adele, 2006). Experts argue that the decision to criminalize castration of boys in Italy for musical reasons in 1861, contributed a lot to the change in attitude by the people. Women singers were starting to involve themselves in music. People developed a quick penchant for female singers because their voices were better compared to that of the castratos (Howard, 2014). Their performances, which involved a lot of body movement, also attracted people to their shows. Experts argue that participation of women in music also contributed to the emergence of other genres of music, which are more popular in the contemporary world (Gallo, 2013).

Some of the famous castrati

Although castrati originated from Italy, their culture spread across a few European countries without making a lot of impact (Adele, 2006). Castrati were mainly involved in church services through singing in choirs. However, they were allowed to perform at religious functions and events held outside the church. With time, the popularity of castrati began to rise and people developed a strong connection with their voices, music, and performances. One of the earliest and most famous castrati was Carlo Broschi, also known as Farinelli (Adele, 2006). Broschi was active from 1705 to 1782. During his active period as an opera singer, Broschi managed to compose and sing numerous songs (Adele, 2006). He was famous for a song he had composed about two Spanish kings that severely abused power during their reigns. Farinelli is considered as the greatest and most powerful castrati ever. Alessandro Moreschi was the other famous castrati. He was active from 1858 to 1922 (Carter & Butt, 2005). He became the first castrati in history to have recorded a song. He was very active in the choir that sung in the Sistine Chapel (Adele, 2006).

Francesco Bernardi, also known as Senesino was very talented and famous. Senesino was active in the mid 18th Century (Adele, 2006). Reports indicate that Senesino and Farinelli were big musical rivals, who enjoyed varying degrees of success in terms of the remuneration from performances and size of the fan base. The rivalry between the two opera maestros played a crucial role in popularizing the genre and changing the attitude of people towards castrati. Senesino was the most popular and marketable castrati, mainly because of the electric nature of his performances in which he had perfected the art of engaging the audience. Most people loved associating with him as their hero. Giovanni Carestini also known as Cusanino was another famous and highly respected castrato (Adele, 2006). He started singing in 1970 and went ahead to become the first opera artist to sing a song about a title. He was famous for his highly energized performances and music that people could easily relate to. Other famous castrati included Gasparo Pacchierotti, Domenico Mustafa, Gaetano Majorano, and Silvio Giorgetti (Carter & Butt, 2005).


The culture of castration in Italy had been there before the concept of castrati was developed. In the earlier years, castration was used as a means of punishing wrong doers in the society and controlling the rate of population growth. The culture of singing in church services started in Spain during the 16th Century. After its popularization in Rome, it became a norm for Catholics across the world to incorporate this element in their services. Castrati had physical differences compared to other men that had not been castrated. Most of them did not have beards, masculine bodies, and had accumulated a lot of weight around the hips like women. Other differences included their extremely low desire for copulation and unimpressive performance levels.

Castrati deserve a lot of credit for the emergence and development of the diversity currently witnessed in the contemporary music industry. They inspired many people to become singers. Despite some critics condemning the manner in which music in the church was promoted in the early days, it is important to appreciate the risks and sacrifices that all the castrati took in order to aid the growth of religion and music. Experts argue that even the discrimination they were being subjected to was a sign of irresponsibility and disrespect to humanity because they deserved to enjoy life just like everyone else. Castrati did not have a lively social life because they were highly discriminated against by most people.


Adele, N. (2006). Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early-Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Carter, T., & Butt, J. (2005). The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Music. New Jersey: Cambridge University Press.

Gallo, D. (2013). Opera: The Basics. New York: Routledge.

Howard, P. (2014). The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age. London: Oxford University Press.

Rose, S. (2011). The Musician in Literature in the Age of Bach. New Jersey: Cambridge University Press.

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