Francesca Caccini: Opera’s First Female Composer | History Hit

Francesca Caccini: Opera’s First Female Composer

Orazio Gentileschi: The Lute Player, 1612. Often thought to be a representation of Caccini.
Image Credit: National Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Italian composer, singer, lutenist, poet and music teacher Francesca Caccini was one of the most successful composers of the Baroque era. Known by the nickname ‘La Cecchina’ which was given to her by the Florentines, for years she was the highest-paid musician in the Medici court.

Caccini was one of very few women in 17th-century Europe whose compositions were published. Her only surviving stage work, La liberazione di Ruggiero, is generally accepted to be the oldest surviving opera by a female composer.

Though Caccini was so successful in her lifetime, she has been somewhat lost in history books which instead largely record the accomplishments of her early Baroque male counterparts such as Monteverdi.

Her father was one of the founders of the genre of opera

Francesca Caccini was born on 18 September 1587 in Florence, Italy. Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a lauded composer, teacher, singer and writer who helped found the genre of opera and develop the new Baroque style. Along with her sister Settimia, who went on to become a famous singer, Caccini received an education along with musical training from her father.

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While growing up, the Caccini sisters sang their father’s compositions for the Medici court at St. Nicholas church in Pisa as part of an ensemble referred to as le donne di Giulio Romano. Though Caccini was unsuccessful between 1604 and 1606 in securing steady work outside Florence as a singer and composer, she eventually joined her father in employment at the Medici court in November 1607.

She quickly rose to fame

After Caccini was hired by the Medici court, she continued performing with le donne di Giulio Romano until her sister’s marriage and move to Mantua caused it to dissolve. She then served the Medici court as a chamber singer, rehearsal coach, teacher and composer of stage and chamber music until 1627.

Palma Vecchio: Portrait of a young woman known as “La Bella”, between 1518-20. This is thought to be a representation of Italian composer, Francesca Caccini.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By 1614, she was the court’s most highly-paid musician, which was largely a reflection of her supreme talent, exemplifying an idea of female excellence projected by Tuscany’s de facto Regent, Grand-Duchess Christina of Lorraine.

Her only surviving opera features singing plants

One of Caccini’s key works, Primo libro, contains music from a wide variety of musical genres as well as teaching notes and essays on music. However, this work probably only represents a small portion of the songs she composed: she also created music for many courtly entertainments which were intended for performance during the Carnival season or to mark significant occasions for her patrons.

In 1625, Caccini composed the music for a 75 minute comedy-ballet titled La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. It was performed for the visiting prince of Poland, Ladislaus Sigismondo.

It features singing plants, a chorus of monsters, sorceresses arriving on dolphins and boats that can grow wings and fly, as well as a ballet that should be performed on horseback. The opera so pleased the prince that he had it performed in Warsaw in 1628.

Imperial Villa of the Most Serene Archducess of Tuscany “with a horse ballet in the courtyard, which is believed to be from Francesca Caccini’s” The liberation of Ruggiero, c. 1625.

She was married twice

Caccini married Giovanni Battista just after her appointment to the Medici court. The couple had a daughter, Margherita, in 1622. After her husband died in 1626, she married Tomaso Raffaelli and moved with him to his hometown of Lucca, where she took up with Vicenzo Buonvisi who was from a local banking family.

She and Raffaelli had a son in 1628 who was also called Tomaso. Raffaelli died in 1630, and by 1634, Caccini had returned to the Medici court with her two children and worked as a music teacher, composer and performer for the women’s court. She left Medici service in 1641 and then disappeared from the public record. In 1645, Tomaso became a ward of his uncle, though it is unclear whether this is because Caccini died, remarried or experienced some other circumstance.

Her work is praised by contemporary critics

Anton Domenico Gabbiani: Portrait of Three Musicians of the Medici Court, c. 1687.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The role of women was a controversial topic amongst Florentine intellectuals of Caccini’s era, and in the centuries since she died, little was done to widen the knowledge of her work. As a result, the vast majority of Caccini’s compositions have been overlooked, forgotten or lost.

However, the scale of her cultural impact is finally being understood, and from scores that survive, critics have dubbed her as a ‘master of dramatic harmonic surprise’. Whether we will ever be able to fully register Caccini’s intended legacy is doubtful. However, her name deserves to be celebrated just as much as the male counterparts of her era.

Lucy Davidson

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