18 September 2017

Francesca Caccini – singer and composer

Court musician composed oldest surviving opera by a woman

Francesca Caccini pictured in a  cameo discovered in Pistoia
Francesca Caccini pictured in a
cameo discovered in Pistoia
Prolific composer and talented singer Francesca Caccini was born on this day in 1587 in Florence.

Sometimes referred to by the nickname La Cecchina, she composed what is widely considered to be the oldest surviving opera by a woman composer, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which was adapted from the epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.

Caccini was the daughter of the composer and musician, Giulio Caccini, and she received her early musical training from him. Like her father, she regularly sang at the Medici court.

She was part of an ensemble of singers referred to as le donne di Giulio Romano, which included her sister, Settimia, and other unnamed pupils.

After her sister married and moved to Mantua, the ensemble broke up, but Caccini continued to serve the court as a teacher, singer and composer, where she was popular because of her musical virtuosity.

She is believed to have been a quick and prolific composer but sadly very little of her music has survived. She was considered equal at the time to Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano, who were also working for the court.

Caccini was considered a rival to Jacopo Peri
Caccini was considered a rival to Jacopo Peri
Caccini married a fellow singer, Giovanni Battista Signorina, in 1607 and they had a daughter, Margherita.

She wrote music for comedies written by Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger, a great nephew of the artist of the same name, and in 1618 she published her own collection of 36 songs and duets.

In 1625 Caccini composed all the music for the opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, which was performed for the visiting crown prince of Poland at the Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence in 1625.

The prince, Ladislaus Sigismondo, later Wladyslaw IV, was so pleased with it he asked for it to be performed again in Warsaw in 1628.

After her first husband died in 1626, Caccini arranged to marry again the following year to Tommaso Raffaelli, a nobleman from Lucca. She bore him a son and as the wife of a nobleman she turned down at least one request to perform as a singer. But once she was widowed again she tried to return to the service of the Medici.

By 1634 she was back in Florence serving as a music teacher and composing and performing music and entertainment for the women’s court.

All her music, apart from La Liberazione di Ruggiero, and a few excerpts from her other works, have been lost. But her surviving scores showed she took care over the notation of her music, focusing attention on the rhythmic placement of syllables and words.

She left the Medici court in 1637 and it is not clear when she died, but the guardianship of her son passed to his uncle, Girolamo Raffaelli, in 1645.

Caccini’s opera, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, has since been performed in Cologne, Ferrara, Stockholm and Minneapolis.

Palazzo Pitti as seen from the palace's gardens
Palazzo Pitti as seen from the palace's gardens
Travel tip:

Francesca Caccini would have spent plenty of time in Palazzo Pitti in Florence teaching or performing music. The palace is on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. Palazzo Pitti was originally the home of Luca Pitti, a Florentine banker. It was bought by the Medici family in 1549, after which it became the chief residence of the ruling family of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The Villa del Poggio Imperiale is about 4.5km (2.8 miles) outside Florence, to the south
The Villa del Poggio Imperiale is about 4.5km (2.8 miles)
outside Florence, to the south
Travel tip:

The first performance of Caccini’s opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, was given at the imposing neoclassical Villa del Poggio Imperiale, just outside Florence. It was once one of the homes of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, having been seized from the Salviati family by the Medici. It was later given to Napoleon’s sister as a residence during French rule, before becoming a girl’s school. Some of the frescoed state rooms are open to the public by appointment.

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