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A castrato is a male soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.
Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy's larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. As the castrato's body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice, as well as higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male (see soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, sopranist, countertenor and contralto). Listening to the only surviving recordings of a castrato (see below), one can hear that the lower part of the voice sounds like a "super-high" tenor, with a more falsetto-like upper register above that.
Castrati were rarely referred to as such: in the eighteenth century, the term musico (pl musici) was much more generally used, though it usually carried derogatory implications; another synonym was evirato (literally meaning "emasculated").
History of castration
Castration as a means of subjugation, enslavement or other punishment has a very long pedigree, dating back to ancient Sumeria (see also Eunuch). In a Western context, eunuch singers are known to have existed from the early Byzantine Empire. In Constantinople around 400 AD the empress Aelia Eudoxia had a eunuch choir-master, Brison, who may have established the use of castrati in Byzantine choirs, though whether Brison himself was a singer, and whether he had colleagues who were eunuch singers, is not certain. By the ninth century, eunuch singers were well-known (not least in the choir of Hagia Sophia), and remained so until the sack of Constantinople by the Western forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Their fate from then until their reappearance in Italy more than three hundred years later is by no means clear, though it seems likely that the Spanish tradition of soprano falsettists may have "hidden" castrati (it should be remembered that much of Spain was under Arab domination at various times during the Middle Ages, and that eunuch harem-keepers and the like, almost always taken from conquered populations, were a commonplace of that society: by sheer statistics, some of them are likely to have been singers).
Castrati in the European Classical tradition
Castrati, many of them having Spanish names, first appeared in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century, though at first the terms describing them were not always clear. The phrase Soprano maschio (male soprano), which could also mean falsettist, occurs in the Due Dialoghi della Musica of Luigi Dentini, an Oratorian priest, published in Rome in 1553. On 9 November 1555 Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (famed as the builder of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli), wrote to Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1538-1587), that he has heard that His Grace is interested in his cantoretti, and offering to send him two, so that he could choose one for his own service. This is a rare term, but probably does equate to castrato. The Cardinal's brother, Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, was another early enthusiast, enquiring about castrati in 1556. There were certainly castrati in the Sistine Chapel choir in 1558, although not described as such: on 27 April of that year, Hernando Bustamante, a Spaniard from Palencia, was admitted (the first castrati so termed who joined the Sistine choir were Pietro Paolo Folignato and Girolamo Rossini, admitted in 1599). Surprisingly, considering the later French distaste for castrati they certainly existed in France at this time also, being known of in Paris, Orléans, Picardy and Normandy, though they were not abundant, the King of France himself having difficulty in obtaining them. By 1574 there were castrati in the Imperial court chapel at Munich, where the Kapellmeister (music director) was Orlando di Lasso. In 1589, by the bull Cum pro nostri temporali munere, Pope Sixtus V re-organised the choir of St Peter's, Rome specifically to include castrati. Thus the castrati came to supplant both boys (whose voices broke after only a few years) and falsettists (whose voices were weaker and less reliable) from the top line in such choirs. Women were banned by the Pauline dictum mulieres in ecclesiis taceant ("let women keep silent in church"; see I Corinthians, ch 14, v 34).
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