Francesca Caccini

(b. 18 September 1587)

Francesca Caccini was an accomplished composer of the Italian Baroque period. As a woman and the daughter of a successful composer, Francesca Caccini had to work tirelessly to earn respect as one of the most prominent composers of her time. She was the first women known to have composed an opera, paving the way for future female composers.

Francesca Caccini was born in Florence, Italy on 18 September 1587 to a musical family. Her father was the prolific and successful composer Giulio Caccini. She was surrounded by singers in her family, including her father, siblings, husband and her children. Caccini’s father ensured that she was properly trained as a musician. She received lessons in singing, guitar, harp, keyboard and composition. In addition to her musical education, it is assumed that Caccini also received a literary education, as she was a proficient poet in multiple languages, including Italian and Latin.

Together with her sister Settima and her stepmother Margherita della Scala, Francesca Caccini is assumed to have been one of the members of an ensemble known as the ‘donne di Giulio Romano’ (referring to her father). The ensemble was later replaced by ‘la signora Francesca e le sue figiuole’ (Francesca and her pupils). These ladies performed together not only in Jacobo Peri’s L’Eurice, but also in Giulio Caccini’s Il rapimento di Cefali. In addition, they were prominent in the Medici court for many years.

Remarkable and fruitful virtuosity.

Caccini received a position with the Medicis as ordered by the Grand Duchess Christine of Lorraine after the 1607 carnival, in which her music for La stiava was highly praised. She then married the impoverished court singer Giovanni Battista Signorini, with whom she had one child, Margherita, who became a singer and a nun. Signorini died in late 1626. While in the service of the Medicis, Caccini was active as a singer, teacher and composer and by the 1620s she was the highest paid musician employed by the Medici family.

She composed a number of works while with the Medicis, including music for more than a dozen entertainment events at the court . These works include Rinuccini’s La mascherata delle ninfe di Senna (1611), Buonarroti’s comedies La Tancia (1611), Il passatempo (1614) and La fiera (1619), Ferdinando Saracinelli’s Il ballo delle Zingane (1615) and Jacopo Cicognini’s Il martiro di S Agata (1622). In addition to composing for the court theatre, she was in charge of teaching many women and girls to sing, play an instrument and compose. She was also known to sing at the Office for Holy Week services and at court receptions.

Caccini published a large collection of songs, Il primo libro delle musiche, in the summer of 1618. This collection features 32 solo songs and four soprano and bass duets. It is assumed to have been a pedagogical book and introduces the singer to many forms such as sonnets, madrigals, arias, romanescas, motets, hymns and canzonettas. Approximately half of the songs are sacred, and a portion of those are in Latin. A master of melody, Caccini was able to create subtle phrases and much nuance. Her linguistic expertise is also evident in the precision of the speech rhythms.

One of her next major works was the La liberazione di Ruggiero (1625) commissioned by Florence’s Regent Archduchess Maria Magdalena of Austria. The work expresses the power of two women, more specifically of a ‘good, androgynous sorceress’ and an ‘evil, sexually alluring sorceress’ in their competition to win over a young knight, Ruggiero. Caccini brilliantly differenciated between the women in her use of style and harmony. The good sorceress received through-composed stile recitativo with a ‘natural’ hexachord (C major) and the evil sorceress was represented by distant tonalities in flat keys (‘mollis’) . The men sing in sharp keys (‘durus’). This use of tonal contrast to represent gender was very unique among her contemporaries. The stereotypical grieving woman is also replaced by a woman filled with anger, thus challenging the stereotype. This feminist libretto was written by Ferdinando Saracinelli. Five-part madrigals are also contained within the opera.

The opera was premiered in Florence for Prince Władisław of Poland’s visit during the 1625 Carnival. Prince Władisław was so delighted with the opera that he commissioned two new operas from her the next year. One was to be composed on the subject of St Sigimund and the other she could determine herself. These operas, if completed, have been lost.

This opera, which is Caccini’s only extant opera, has been performed/revived in major cities throughout Europe and America since the 1980s. Her compositional style has been compared to that of Jacopo Peri and also to Monteverdi, though she is much more influenced by the popular Florentine concept of matching musical and poetic structures than Monteverdi.

After the death of her husband, Caccini left Florence and agreed to remarry, which she did in October 1627 to the Lucchese aristocrat and patron Tomaso Raffaelli (also an amateur singer). Caccini entered the service of the banking heir Vincenzo Buonvisi in Lucca at this time. The couple was only married for a short time, as Raffaelli died in April 1630. As a result, Caccini became a very wealthy landowner and was to take care of their son Tomaso.

Caccini returned to the Medicis in 1633, where she remained until 1641. She performed there together with her daughter. In addition she taught the nuns to sing and composed and directed the entertainment for Vittoria della Rovere, the young Grand Duchess. After leaving the Medicis again in 1641, with their lifelong protection in appreciation of her ‘remarkable and fruitful virtuosity’, Caccini’s whereabouts and activities are not certain. It is possible that she died, or even remarried, by February 1645, as this is when her son was passed to his uncle Girolamo Raffaelli. Some sources even state that Caccini worked for the Medicis only until 1637, after which she died.

Though Caccini was certainly a prolific composer, as revealed in letters and court documents, very little of her work survives. She composed for the theatre, incidental music and songs. Also evident from 26 surviving letters is that Caccini was very in-tune with the preferences of her patrons and that she was a very gifted teacher and composer.

Header image: Orazio Gentileschi's 'The Lute Player', (Washington DC) is strongly associated with Francesca Caccini. The painter's daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi was a friend of Francesca Caccini's, but there is no evidence that Caccini was the sitter in this portrait.

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