The Voice | Classical Voices | Classical Era | Classical

From the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century, heroic roles were generally composed for castratos: male sopranos or altos who had been castrated before puberty to preserve their high voice. Throughout the Baroque and classical eras castratos were common on the stage. They disappeared, however, in the early nineteenth century as the practice of castration for musical purposes was deemed barbaric, though they were kept on in the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome; the last survivor lived long enough to make gramophone recordings. The question then arose: how to perform the music written for them? One solution, favoured in Germany, was to transpose it down an octave for tenor or baritone. This was unsatisfactory, because it introduced an alien timbre and caused problems in ensembles.

The most common solution is to assign the roles to a woman, soprano or alto. Berlioz did this in his conflation of the two versions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and it was in the role of Orpheus that the contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912–53) made her name. But however skilful the costume and make-up, one is always conscious of watching a woman dressed as a man.

With the advent on stage in the twentieth century of the countertenor, the integrity of both pitch and appearance is preserved: singers such as James Bowman or Andreas Scholl (b. 1967) can be wonderfully convincing, although the actual sound is quite different from the castrato’s. Soprano castrato parts, however, which remain outside the countertenor’s range, continue perforce to be sung by women.

The Voice | High C | Early Romantic | Classical


An extensive music information resource, bringing together the talents and expertise of a wide range of editors and musicologists, including Stanley Sadie, Charles Wilson, Paul Du Noyer, Tony Byworth, Bob Allen, Howard Mandel, Cliff Douse, William Schafer, John Wilson...


Classical, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country and more. Flame Tree has been making encyclopaedias and guides about music for over 20 years. Now Flame Tree Pro brings together a huge canon of carefully curated information on genres, styles, artists and instruments. It's a perfect tool for study, and entertaining too, a great companion to our music books.

Rock, A Life Story

Rock, A Life Story

The ultimate story of a life of rock music, from the 1950s to the present day.

David Bowie

David Bowie

Fantastic new, unofficial biography covers his life, music, art and movies, with a sweep of incredible photographs.