Voices from the 18th Century: Charles Burney on the Making of a Castrato



In October of 1770, the peripatetic writer Charles Burney traveled to Naples, Italy, where he sought to understand how the city’s music conservatories were run and its young musicians trained. He was especially interested in the well-known practice of castrating boys in order to preserve their high singing voices (Naples was infamous as the center that produced the aptly-titled castrati).

At the time, Burney sought information from two men he became acquainted with during his stay—Mr. Jamineau (British Consul) and a Dr. Cirillo.

In spite of assurances that supported the ethical treatment of boys, Burney was not convinced. Part of his diary entry from October 18th tells us his thoughts on the matter.

“Mr. Jamineau and Dr. Cirillo both say that is it absolutely forbidden to castrate boys in these music schools—that they chiefly come from Leccia in Puglia, but are first tried here or elsewhere as to the likelihood of voice and then taken out by their parents to be cut: but this is even forbidden under severe penalties unless with the consent of the boy, and there are instances of its being done at the request of the boys themselves, as was the case of the detto il Grassetto at Rome.

But as to these previous trials of the voice, it is my opinion that this cruel operation is but too frequently performed without trial or at least without sufficient proofs of a dawning and improvable voice—otherwise there could never be found such numbers of them in every great town throughout Italy without any voice at all—or at least without one sufficient to compensate for the loss.

Indeed all the musici in the churches at present are made up of the refuse of the opera houses, and it is a very rare thing to meet with a tolerable voice upon the establishment of any church in Italy.”

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