At least within the context of Christian worship, the male chorus can be dated back to priests singing liturgical prayers, a practice even older than Gregorian chant. By the time singing choral music in parts became commonplace, the church disapproved of women participating in worship anywhere but in a convent. Mixed church choirs would have been anathema.
Churches initially found two ways to provide treble voices within a male chorus. Men could develop the so-called falsetto register, substituting a kind of head voice for the normal, deeper chest voice. Probably plenty of tenors in volunteer church choirs today occasionally cheat and go into falsetto for some of the higher notes. A trained singer can develop a good enough falsetto to sing an entire song in it (either as a choral singer or soloist). Such voices are often called counter-tenor. While most counter-tenors sing in the alto register, some have been able to develop their voices to the soprano register.
Adult men can develop a falsetto capable of making a pleasing sound as sopranos only with difficulty. Even so, their voices have a weaker sound than the tenors and bases. Boy singers, on the other hand, often have natural soprano voices. Even in the era of unaccompanied Gregorian chant, churches routinely trained boys to sing. In fact, the well-known syllables do, re, mi, etc. were invented as an easy way to teach boys the chants.
Boys, of course, bring their own disadvantages. They behave like boys instead of adults. Choirmasters had to beat them repeatedly and severely in order to get them to maintain dignity suitable to a worship service. (Even well into the last century, corporal punishment remained an expected part of education and training of children, and especially boys.) Second, boys voices tend to break at awkward and unpredictable times. The most beautiful boys’ voices become quite ugly when they break, and it can take years of further vocal training for them to sound good again.
Castrati represented the best of both worlds. From antiquity, emperors had often preferred eunuchs as personal servants and high political appointees. The sound of eunuchs singing must have been commonplace. The development from such eunuchs to the castrati is not at all clear, but some time in the mid-sixteenth century, some of the nobility began to castrate some of the boys with the best voices so they could continue to sing treble for the rest of their lives.
The practice caught on quickly. Pope Sixtus V reorganized the papal choir so it could include castrati. What began as a means to insure the quality of church music quickly spilled over into opera. Throughout the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth, all of the best castrati preferred the stardom and riches they could make as operatic stars. That left the church with lesser voices. In time,
European society forgot earlier objections to women singing in church or on stage.
As female trebles became accepted, society began to disapprove of the whole process of castrating boys to preserve their voices. Rossini’s Petite messe solonelle, for “twelve singers of three sexes” called for both women and castrati. It is probably the last important piece of church music composed with castrati in mind. In 1878, the Catholic church finally forbade the process, following both the French and newly united Italian governments.
Most male choruses from the nineteenth century to the present have comprised the robust combination of tenors and basses. In recent decades, however, rock musicians began to experiment with the falsetto voice. Perhaps in part because of that, male choirs (notably Chanticleer and the King’s Singers) have revived the male falsettist and used them for the alto and soprano parts.
Here is Chanticleer singing an arrangement of Gustav Holst’s setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I truly love this arrangement, with its key changes and imaginative voicing. It also shows as well as anything else that in reviving an old choral practice, Chanticleer does not limit itself to music composed when it was current.