By Meghann Wilhoite
In my last post I wrote about little known composer Sophie Elisabeth. Today’s subject, Francesca Caccini, is somewhat better known. The last decade or so has seen a renewed interest in her work. Born in Florence, Italy on 18 September 1587, Caccini was a prolific composer who also sang and was proficient at the harp, harpsichord, lute, theorbo, and guitar.
She was the first woman to compose an opera, and was employed by the Medici family for a total of three decades, becoming at one point the highest-paid musician on their payroll. I highly recommend reading this summary of Caccini’s life and accomplishments written by Suzanne Cusick to get a fuller picture of the composer’s life. My favorite tidbit: Caccini’s colleague and biographer reports that at age 12 she wrote a commentary on books 3 and 4 of the Aeneid.
As is the case with Sophie Elisabeth, much of Francesca Caccini’s music is lost to us. Her style has been compared to Monteverdi and Jacopo Peri, whose L’Euridice is the earliest opera for which the complete score has survived, and in which Caccini performed at age 13. A generation older than she, these two composers participated in an exciting time of transition in musical style as the Renaissance drew to a close, and Caccini certainly took part in ushering in the Baroque style.
A few of her compositions do survive, however. Caccini wrote beautiful songs like “Nube Gentil”, preserved in a collection of her music called Il Primo Libro delle Musiche:
She also wrote dramatic works (now often referred to as operas) like La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (“The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina”):
First performed in Florence in 1625, La liberazione is the only one of Caccini’s operas to survive intact. The libretto is based on one of the many subplots of the epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, and its plot would have been well known at the time: Good sorceress Melissa is on a mission to free Ruggiero from bad sorceress Alcina, who has the warrior under her sexual spell (check out Cusick’s exploration of the opera’s gender-related subtext). Melissa succeeds in freeing Ruggiero by disguising herself as his African teacher, and Alcina ultimately rides off on a dragon in a rage. The premiere performance wrapped up with a ballet for 24 horses and riders.
Caccini was indeed a remarkable person, and worthy of more study than she has yet received. Though essentially a highly-paid servant for the Medicis, she won the respect and admiration of many powerful people throughout her lifetime. According to her first biographer, she was an extremely evocative performer with the ability to elicit any number of passions from her audience. I personally would love to see a biopic on her life. She apparently had a longstanding feud with a librettist, which at one point involved her publicly recounting many of his sexual exploits with the court singers — tell me that isn’t blockbusting fodder. Plus, Daniel Day-Lewis would make a good Claudio Monteverdi:
Meghann Wilhoite is an Assistant Editor at Grove Music/Oxford Music Online, music blogger, and organist. Follow her on Twitter at @megwilhoite. Read her previous blog posts on Sibelius, the pipe organ, John Zorn, West Side Story, and other subjects.
Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.