Francesco Cavalli

(14 February 1602 - 14 January 1676)

Francesco Cavalli was a 17th century composer, organist and singer. He was best known for his operas, which followed in the stylistic footsteps of Monteverdi. Cavalli represents a true rags-to-riches story and was regarded as the best Italian composer of the mid-17th century.

Cavalli was born in Crema in 1602 as Pier Francesco Caletti-Bruni to Giovanni Battista Caletti. He was first introduced to music through his father. Cavalli was active in the church choir as a boy soprano, at which he was very gifted. His singing attracted the notice of Federico Cavalli, the Venetian governor of Crema from 1614-1616. After Federico Cavalli’s term ended, he convinced Giovanni Battista Caletti to allow his son to go to Vienna with him. Under the protection of Federico Cavalli, Francesco joined the choir of San Marco in 1616. During these early years the choir was directed by Monteverdi, who had a profound influence on Francesco. He also had contact with older singer-composers such as Giovanni Rovetta.

In 1620, Francesco Cavalli was appointed organist at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. However, due to his many duties as a singer at San Marco, he often had to hire a substitute to cover his organ duties. Eventually he resigned in 1630, as he was rarely present to perform at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In addition, Cavalli was active at church feasts and celebrations to supplement his income.

Cavalli received some financial relief in 1630 with his marriage to Maria Sozomeno, the widow of the wealthy Venetian Alvise Schiavina. This allowed Cavalli the freedom to travel and invest time in operas. It is also at this time that he began using the name of his first patron.

Cavalli represents a true rags-to-riches story and was regarded as the best Italian composer of the mid-17th century.

Cavalli’s success as organist continued with his appointment to second organist at San Marco in 1639, after the death of G.P. Berti. After Monteverdi’s death in 1643, Rovetta was appointed maestro di cappella and Massimilian Neri became first organist although, in practice, Cavalli was the principal organist. It was not until 1665 that Cavalli received the official title of first organist. Cavalli’s playing was often praised and according to Ziotti in 1655, ‘truly in Italy he has no equal.’

In 1639, just one day after his appointment as organist to San Marco, Cavalli made his debut as an opera composer. He entered an agreement to compose for Venice’s first opera house, Teatro San Cassiano. He first composed Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo (1639) in collaboration with the librettist Orazio Persiani. He went on to compose eight more operas for this theatre in the following ten years. During that period he also composed Amore Innamorato (1942) for Teatro S Moisè. The majority of his operas from this decade were in collaboration with librettist Giovanni Faustini, though a few were with G.F Busenello.

The first products of Cavalli’s collaboration with Faustini were the successful operas La virtù de' strali d'Amore (1642) and Egisto (1643). Their works greatly influenced 17th-century Venetian opera. Egista was also performed throughout Italy and in Paris by travelling companies, spreading the influence. Cavalli also experienced great success with Giasone (1949), set to a libretto by G.A. Cicognini.

During the 1650s, Cavalli’s operatic efforts shaped public opera dramatically. Following Faustini to the Teatro San Apollinare in 1650, Cavalli composed four more operas in two years. After Faustini’s death in December 1651, Cavalli worked with librettist Nicolò Minato at the Teatro di Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Throughout the 1650s and 60s, Cavalli works remained in the theatres in both the big cities and small towns. After the death of his wife in 1652, Cavalli composed more operas for other cities. These operas include Veremonda (1652, Naples), Orione (1652, Milan) and Hipermestra (1654, Florence).

Cavalli was invited to France to compose an opera for the celebration of the marriage between Louis XIV and Maria Theresa, daughter of the King of Spain. Upon his arrival in Paris in 1660, Cavalli discovered that the theatre was nowhere near ready for a performance. He spent two years in Paris during which he wrote the celebratory opera Ercole amante (1660) on a libretto by Buti. The work was finally performed in 1662, though it could not be fully appreciated due to the shortcomings of the theatre. The Venetia ambassador stated that ‘the music was very fine and fitting; because of the vastness of the theatre it could not be enjoyed, but at the rehearsals at Mazarin’s palace it always came off very well and to the complete satisfaction of the king and the court.’

After returning to Venice, Cavalli resumed his organ duties. He vowed also to never again work for the theatre after the fiasco in Paris, though he went on to compose more operas. He composed three operas with librettos by Minato and two operas for Carnival in Venice which were never performed. His final opera, Coriolano (1669) was a celebratory work.

Though he still composed operas after his return from Paris, Cavalli’s focus was on San Marco, where he became maestro di capella in 1668.

Cavalli experienced much fame during his lifetime and his operas were greatly appreciated. His output includes nearly 30 operas and allows insight into several decades of Venetian opera. The style of his operas is quite stagnant and representative of Monteverdi.

The music was very fine and fitting... at the rehearsals it always came off to the complete satisfaction of the king and the court.

Outside of opera, Cavalli composed a large amount of sacred music, though much of it is lost. He composed large works for the church, influenced by Gabrieli and Monteverdi. His earliest work is the solo motet Cantate Domino, which could just as easily have been written by Monteverdi. His sacred works also include antiphons from the Musiche sacre (1656) for a small number of voices. Cavalli composed festive music such as the Messa concertata for two choruses and instruments in addition to three settings of magnificat (1675) for double choir and continuo. Only six instrumental works survive. These works were intended for liturgical use and very much influenced by Gabrieli.

Before his death, Cavalli composed a Requiem which he insisted should be performed twice a year after his death by two choirs of San Marco.

A revival of Cavalli’s music has been prompted by studies on Monteverdi and the reconstructions of his operas under Raymond Leppard from 1967.

Images courtesy of magnificatbaroque.com and public domain

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