Reviews Art

The unkindest cut: emasculated musicians

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 20 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:980
  1. Colin Martin, independent consultant in healthcare communication (Cmpubrel{at}
  1. London

    Although we are now circumspect about even circumcising infant boys, many thousands of prepubes-cent choristers were castrated during the 17th and 18th centuries to prevent their larynxes enlarging and preserve their soprano or contralto vocal ranges, supported by adult male lung capacities. The testes of boys as young as eight were removed by scrotal incision or resection, without antiseptic and with minimal anaesthesia provided by alcohol, opium, or carotid artery compression. It is estimated that only 1 in 200 of those who survived the operation, and endured the eight year vocal training period for castrati that followed, finally sang in renowned sacred choirs or achieved secular celebrity and fortune in Italian opera. Informed consent was rarely an option for the boys, although their fathers usually signed castration contracts for them.

    Two pairs of surgical shears or castratore from 1700, included in an exhibition about castrati at the London house where composer George Frederic Handel lived from 1723 to 1759, provide eye-wateringly graphic evidence of the operation, often performed by specialist surgeons called norcini. Although castration was banned under Canon Law, the church turned a blind eye and the practice ended only when Italy was reunified in 1870. Castrati were famed for their powerful, agile, and penetrating voices; enthusiastically described as “divinely penetrating” by 18th century musical commentator Fanny Burney, without apparent irony.

    There are no records of anypsychological damage sustained by castrati; however, physiological effects resulting from lack of testosterone—a female pattern of body fat distribution and an absence off acialhair—enabled them to impersonate women convincingly on stage. Lack of testosterone prevented their epiphyses from hardening and they developed elongated limbs and barrel-shaped chests, as caricatured in a 1723 etching of castrati Berenstadt (misla-belled as Farinelli) and Senesino towering over tiny soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, possi-bly during a performance of Handel's Flavio.

    Handel composed extensively for the castratovoice, in his early church music and from his first It alian opera Rodrigo (1707) through to his oratorio Theodora (1750), exploiting its capacity for expressive sustained notes (sostenuto) and brilliant coloratura to remarkable effect. Castrati performed primo uomo roles, the castrato equivalent of a prima donna, and secondo uomo roles. Star castrati earned more than composers, and the exhibition traces the careers of nine of those who sang in London during Handel's time there, premiering the operatic roles he wrote for them. The soprano voice of Moreschi, the last castrato and the only one to have made a recording, has a thin, tinny quality typical of early 20th century technology, which hardly justifies a barbaric practice.

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    Female impersonators: a caricature of castrati by John Vanderbank, c 1723

    Although castrati left no progeny, their enduring heritage is the sublime music that Handel and other composers wrote for them.


    • Handel and the Castrati, an exhibition at The Handel House Museum, London W1, until 1 October 2006

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