Quoted from the author's "The Pope's Eunuchs," p. 3.
"A few years ago I had occasion to refer in one of my books to the male soprani of the papal chapel at Rome. These castrated males, sexually mutilated, as every priest and every Italian knew, for soprani in the choir of the Sistine Chapel, were the amusement of Rome when it
developed a large degree of skepticism but a grave scandal to the American and British Catholics who began to arrive about the middle of the last century. One of the vices which the Spaniards had brought to Italy in the 16th century along with the Borgia family and the Spanish Roman Emperors was the falsetto singer. There were artists who could sing falsetto with distinction, but as the opera gained in popularity in Italy the practice began of emasculating boys with good voices and retaining them as male soprani or, as the Italians, with their usual lack of Christian reticence about sex called them, the castrati. They were in every opera in the 18th century, but foreign visitors were never reconciled to them. The famous English weekly, "The Spectator," wrote about "the shrill celestial whine of eunuchs," and by the end of the 18th century they began to fade out of the opera-house.
But, as the word "celestial" indicates, they were found also in the choir of all churches that were proud of their music, particularly in the chapel of the Vatican Palace, the Sistine Chapel, one of the greatest shrines of art as well as of virtue and piety in Rome. And the churches clung to their eunuchs when public opinion almost drove them out of opera. The plea seems to have been that there was some indelicacy, or risk of it. In having females in the church choir, so the priests chose to ignore the rather indelicate nature of the operation of emasculation. The fact was as well known as the celibacy of the clergy. Grove's standard
"Dictionary of Music and Musicians" (1927) says in a section titled "Castrati":
"Eunuchs were in vogue as singers until comparatively recent times; they were employed in the choirs of Rome."
So Macmillan's and all other leading dictionaries of music, and English and American visitors to Rome before 1870 who wrote books rarely failed to mention, with smirks of humor or frowns of piety, how the beautiful music of the papal choir was due in large part to manufactured soprani. In the later years of the last century I talked with elderly men who had, out of curiosity, dined or lunched with these quaint servants of God.
An American reader wrote me that a Catholic friend, who had doubtless, as is usual, consulted his pastor, indignantly denied the statement. It was one of the usual "lies of Freethinkers." For an easily accessible authority, reliable on such a point, I referred him to the Encyclopedia Britannica. In all editions to 1928 the article "Eunuchs," after discussing the barbaric African custom of making eunuchs for the harem, said:
"Even more vile, as being practiced by a civilized European nation, was the Italian practice of castrating boys to prevent the natural development of the voice, in order to train them as adult
soprano singers, such as might formerly be found in the Sistine Chapel. Though such mutilation is a crime punishable with severity, the supply of soprani never failed as long as these musical powers were in demand in high quarters. Driven long ago from the Italian stage by public opinion they remained the musical glory and the moral shame of the papal choir till the accession of Pope Leo XII, one of whose first acts was to get rid of them."
My correspondent replied, to my astonishment, that there was no such passage in the Britannica, and I began the investigation of whichh I give the results in the present little book. I found at once that in the 14th edition, which was published in 1929, the passage had been scandalously mutilated, the facts about church choirs suppressed, and the reader given an entirely false impression of the work of Leo XII. In this new edition the whole of the above passage is cut out and this replaces it:
"The Italian practice of castrating boys in order to train them as adult soprano singers ended with the accession of Pope Leo XIII."
I have the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (29 volumes) and the passage quoted above by McCabe --- beginning with "Even more vile …" --- is exactly as he reports it, word for word.