Living in mid-sixteenth century Italy was boring as shit. There was no television to watch, no video games to play, no internet to....uh.....look up cat videos on, and to top it all off, most people were illiterate. About the only forms of entertainment available to most people were listening to some douchey jack ass play a lute, dying of the plague, and gossiping about which member of the nobility was putting what in whom. All together it just wasn't all that exciting. That's probably why church choirs were so popular at the time. In the middle of an entertainment vacuum, church choirs stood out as the rock and roll shows of their day. Now we're not talking about a choir like at your Granny's church. This wasn't just a couple of frumpy looking people in robes singing about Jesus. No, the church choirs of the era were massive ensembles made up of singers who trained for life in order to give the listener a hint of the pristine sounds made by the angels. So you know, they were pretty good.
Originally the music sung by the choirs was a descendant of the monkish chants of the Middle Ages. Deep booming voices plodding forward endlessly. However, starting in the sixteenth century people began to view heaven as hopefully sounding a little more light and airy. After all, every painting of the an angel at the time showed a fat little childlike cherub, so it didn't make much sense for heaven to sound like a Football team locker room. The only problem with this change in trend was that there was very few men who could hit the higher octaves, and women weren't allowed to sing in choirs because a single passage in the bible suggested that they needed to keep their damn traps shut in church. Luckily, people back then were just as logical as they were today. So the solution was easy. No, they didn't let women sing in choirs. They instead began forcing children to sing. Literally taking those with the most beautiful voices away from their families and forcing them into singing schools. However, this wasn't the best solution either. It cost a lot of money to train a child to have the voice of an angel, far too much considering the fact that those beautiful voices would shift into making guttural man sounds in just a few years time.
It was at this time that they began letting women into the choirs. Just kidding. They began castrating the boys. That's right. Just because of one stupid six word passage in the bible they cut the balls off a shit ton of children. Called castrati, these lightened singers became popular throughout Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. Renowned for the range, flexibility, and magnificence of their singing, nobles paid any price to have the best castrati in their choirs. Even the Pope got in on the action. The church officially condemned the practice, excommunicating those who carried out the castrations, but at the same time seeked the best castrati for its choirs.
The poor gave their children to the singing schools, willingly letting them get castrated in hopes of them living a better life. Some children even volunteered, preferring to give up the family jewels rather than live a life of hardship and toil. At the height of the castrati's popularity in the mid-seventeenth century, it is estimated that 4,000 or more boys were castrated annually. They were the rock stars of their day, singing not only in choirs, but also in operas. Like the rock stars they threw tantrums and had sexual escapades with both women and men (which is kind of impressive when you think about it), and were mostly thought of as vile creatures of sin and over indulgence.
By the start of the nineteenth century, the castrati craze began to die down. While there were definitely groups who found the whole idea repugnant, it was rather changing tastes which stopped the practice. Tastes in both choir music and opera had changed and people were becoming more okay with the idea of women singing in church. However, a few die hard fans kept the practice going for the next century, with the practice not becoming illegal throughout Europe until the 1870's. The few surviving castrati were gathered up and hidden away at the Vatican for their protection, where they were allowed to continue singing in the Sistine Chapel choir until 1903. The last castrati died in 1922.