Subject: Re: [liturgy-l] First Mass of Easter question
Then I realized she was a transsexual. I was startled one year to have an attractive woman sit next to me and join in the singing of the bass part of the "Halleluia" Chorus. Hormonal therapy easily converts a soprano to a bass, but not the reverse.
Beginning in the late 16th century, it was common to inflict a surgical snipping of the vas deferens in talented prepubescent choir boys to prevent the normal breaking of the voice and preserve the soprano voice into adulthood. These 'castrati' (although their testicles were not removed) dominated opera and church music until almost the end of the 18th century (Mozart's "Exultate Jubilate" was the last great work written for male soprano).
Although the use of choir boys was normative for most Catholic and all Lutheran and Anglican choirs, it's astonishing that the Sistine Chapel choir never had choirboys but remained an adult choir with falsettists in the 16th century and castrati until the end of the 19th century.
The last castrato was actually recorded in 1902. He was never a great singer and he was recorded at the end of his career, but you get an idea of what a child's voice in the body of a man sounded like:
It was only in 1903 as part of the liturgical reforms that Pius X gave the Sistine Choir a new constitution which banned the use of castrati and established a choir school for boys. Thus, the modern choir of bleating Italian men and boys is only a century old.
Although musicians and historians snigger at the castrati, it remains a horrific instance of both institutionalized child abuse -- the boys themselves often requested the operation to ensure a lucrative career!— and almost psychopathic misogyny. When one cardinal allowed a woman to sing in a sacred oratorio by Handel — not even in a church — the pope threatened to have her publically flogged.
And lest non-Catholics think themselves immune from such extremes, the kidnapping of talented choirboys was common by the Tudor monarchs, and one of Bach's predecessors was imprisoned for sexual abuse, escaping to Italy, but returning to Germany when his reputation was "rehabilitated".
Director of Music
St. Philip's Church, Etobicoke