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Composer Biography: Francesca Caccini (1587-1638/40)

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Also Francesca Raffaelli, Signorini, Signorini-Malaspina, and La Cecchina

Francesca Caccini was an important Italian composer and singer of the late Italian Renaissance. The first female composer of opera of record, she was possibly the most prolific female composer of her time. She was among the earliest women to travel for her art, which later became common for professional musicians, much as it is today.

During her lifetime, her gifts as a singer, teacher, and composer were universally remembered as remarkable but reviews of her personality are mixed. One account calls her proud and restless, but she was a strong and intelligent woman, so it’s hard to know if that was merely misogyny or sour grapes, or perhaps she really was a bit haughty. Others refer to her as always gracious and generous with the loan of her manuscripts. For a number of years, she was involved in a feud with court poet Andrea Salvadori (1591-1634) over his alleged seduction of female singers, so she was clearly a woman prepared to stand up for others.

Born in Florence to a very musical family, she was the daughter, sister, and wife of singers and composers, and was immersed in a musical world from earliest childhood.

Her father, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), was one of the creators of the “new music” (ars nova), which was dominated by solo singing and marked the beginning of the Baroque era. Both of his wives (Lucia and Margherita—dates for both unavailable, but the former was the mother of all of Giulio’s children) were also musicians, possibly students of Giulio. Both of Giulio’s daughters (Francesca and Settimia, 1591-c1661), a son (Pompeo, 1577-1624), and at least one granddaughter (Francesca’s Margherita, b.1622) were also musicians.

All of Giulio’s children received a literary education in addition to singing and composition. Records show that Francesca wrote poetry and played the harpsichord, lute, and harp. I found some sources that say it was a guitar instead of a lute, but that seems unlikely as that instrument wasn’t popular in Italy at the time (they were a big hit in Spain, but the Italians were more interested in the lute and would stay so until well into the Baroque era).

Francesca was one of “Le donne di Giulio Romano” (The ladies of Roman Giulio) who performed in Jacopo Peri’s (1561-1633) Euridice and in Giulio’s own Il rapimento di Cefalo in 1600. The group consisted of Francesca, her sister Settimia, her step-mother Margherita, some of Giulio’s pupils, Giulio himself, and his son Pompeo. Notice the ratio of women to men—this is going to come up again later when discussing Francesca’s compositions.

Sister Settimia (1591-c1661) made her first public appearance in 1600 or in 1602 in her father’s opera. She sang mostly with Giulio’s family consort until 1609 when she married Alessandro Ghivizzani (d.1632). She and her husband found work as composers and performers at various courts and were on friendly terms with the most famous composer of the time, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

The family travelled to France to sing for English King Henry IV (1553-1610) and Marie de Medici (1575-1642) in 1604 to 1605. Francesca received her first independent job offer from Marie to be a salaried court singer with a dowry of 1000 scudi. Letters from Giulio intimate that Grand Duke Ferdinand I (1549-1609) refused to release her from his service back home in Florence, so Francesca came back with her family in 1605, spending the autumn in Modena, where she was tutor to the Princess Giulia d’Este (1588-1645).

At a time when women were barred from singing in church, Francesca and her sister were soloists in the church of San Nicola in Pisa during Holy Week, directed by their father. Francesca soon gained a reputation for virtuosity and had students from among the nobility whom she trained for court performances. That she was a teacher to the high and mighty is indication of both her skill and her significance in musical circles.

In 1606, Giulio tried to negotiate a position for Francesca with Princess Margherita della Somaglia-Peretti (d.1613), sister-in-law of Cardinal Montalto (1571-1623) and Virginio Orsini (1572-1614) in Rome. The offer included both a salary and a dowry, along with the assumption that a suitable husband would be found. But negotiations dragged on, and in 1607, the deal was off and Francesca took a post at court in Florence, having been promised in marriage to Giovanni Battista Signorini (d.1625), whom she married later that year. Although Francesca signed letters with her married name, she remained Francesca Caccini in the Medici court records. There may have been some truth to the rumor of her being proud, eh? She was certainly independent and strong!

Francesca was more sought after as a performer than either of her siblings, and she had no trouble marrying well. With her dowry of 1000 scudi (about $50, roughly $3200 in today’s money), her husband (more on him in a minute) bought two adjoining houses in the via Valfonda near Sainte Maria Novella in 1610. They lived there until he died. They had one child, Margherita (b 1622), who grew up to become a singer and a nun.

The family dominated the polychoral singing of the Offices during Holy Week. Giulio and the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine (1565-1637) worked to ensure that Francesca didn’t outshine the group, but when Settima left for Mantua with her husband in 1611, the group disbanded. It was replaced by a group described in court diaries as “Francesca and her pupils” and they continued to perform chamber music for women’s voices until the late 1620s.

Court duties included singing the Office for Holy Week and singing at receptions given by the archduchess. She was also music tutor to the princesses, ladies in waiting, and at least one nun. In 1616, she was among those who traveled with Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici (1595-1666) to Rome, and there, she was cast as La Bellezza and Venus opposite her husband, who played Adonis.

In 1617, she and her husband toured Genoa, Savona, and Milan, winning the praise of Italian poet Gabriello Chiaberra (1552-1638, sometimes called Pindar).

By the 1620s, she was the highest-paid musician at court. Clearly a woman who could land on her feet, when Signorini died at the end of 1625, she soldiered on as a single mother on the strength of her well-established reputation. Francesca left the Medici payroll two years later when she married Lucca aristocrat and patron Tomaso Raffaelli (d.1630). Their marriage only lasted three years, when she was widowed again. This second marriage left her a wealthy landowner and mother to a son, Tomaso (b.1628).

After being quarantined in Lucca during the plague for three years, she returned to the Medici payroll in 1633. Between 1633 and 1637, she appeared often at the Grand Duchess’s court. She and her daughter Margherita (b.1522) performed as chamber singers during those years, and she composed and directed entertainments.

In 1637, Francesca forbade young Margherita from singing on stage at the Grand Duke’s command, because she feared that the 15-year-old’s chances of an honorable convent placement or suitable marriage contract might be at risk. She also feared that the social position of her son Tomaso would not only be tarnished, but that it would violate the terms of Raffaelli’s will. So Margherita entered the convent of San Firolamo in Florence instead of rising to shine her own light at court.

Court documents tell us that Francesca was still in Florence in 1638 and that she had probably died by 1645, when guardianship of her son, now a teenager, passed to his uncle, Girolamo Raffaelli (dates unavailable).

Compositions

In 1607, Francesca’s first composition for the stage, a torneo called “La stiava,” was performed at court. This was a setting of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1568-1646, the grandnephew of the artist by the same name) poetry. Buonarroti was a family friend and the Medici court poet. Letters from her papa reveal that Francesca composed the piece by singing to the poetry, writing out what she’d sung, and then her father corrected her notation. The piece was written for castrati to sing, and according to court diarist Cesare Tinghi (fl. 1600-1625), it was pretty darned good. The piece was performed again in 1626, but sadly, none of the music survives. Giulio considered the commission—and likely income—for his entire household rather than specifically for Francesca, which probably accounts for the lack of credit for other pieces that she composed to Buonarroti‘s poetry. If we look closely at Giulio’s works, we may find hers tucked in there, too.

From an early age, Francesca composed incidental and improvisational music for herself and her students, but the next documented work after “La Stiava” was incidental music for the 1611 Carnival entertainment of the masked ball. She also set Buonarroti‘s rustic comedy “La Tancia” that same year and in 1615, she set Ferdinando Saracinelli’s (1587-c1640) balletto “Il ball delle Zingane.”

In 1618, her father published some of Francesca’s compositions in a book called “Il primo libro delle musiche,” which is how they came to be preserved until modern times. The collection is one of the largest and most varied collections of early monody. One of its most striking features is how it’s organized, grouping the music into four different tables of contents: by poetic form, by possible uses, by genres (such as motets, hymns, etc.), and a collection of homophonic ensembles (all one type of voice, like soprano) with a bass. There are 19 works set to sacred texts, seven of which were in Latin, and 17 secular works, four of which are duets for soprano and bass.

Nearly all the songs in the Primo libro are variations of other pieces, even the sonnets and madrigals. In the arias, Francesca sticks closely to the integrity of poetic lines and reserves ornaments for accented words, internal pauses, and penultimate syllables. She uses silence and pauses to break poetic lines into syntactical units.

Francesca carefully documented vocal ornaments, which was unusual for the time. She also unleashed the ornaments in secular music much more than in sacred. Her notation is finicky, especially regarding rhythm and the placement of syllables. She often displaced syllables placed on a short upbeat, which allowed her to document the rhythm of Italian speech with rare precision.

She may have written the poetry herself for 12 of the devotional pieces in Primo libro. The anthology represents the largest collection of early monadic music by a single composer up to that time. Despite this accomplishment, we have only one other piece from her, the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina about which you’ll hear in a moment.

During Carnival in 1619, Francesca’s setting of Buonarroti ‘s La fiera, a satirical comedy, was performed at court. It caused a scandal because it portrayed women in “unseemly” conditions, such as during pregnancy and labor, and it also affirmed capitalist and republican values over those of royalty.

In 1622, she collaborated with Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (1594-1651) in setting Jacopo Cicognini’s (1577-1631) Il martirio di Sante Agata, and it’s thought that the parts of Agatha and Eternita were played by her.

During his time in Rome with the Medici in 1623-1624, the poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and her father Giulio compared the skills of Francesca and the singer-composer Adriana Basile (c1580-c1640). Marino said that Francesca’s musical understanding was deeper but that Basile had the better and more agile voice. Members of Marino’s academy wrote poems in praise of both women.

Francesca sang for Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) in 1624. Later that year, her one surviving opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina was in rehearsal in Florence. It was performed in 1625 at the Villa Poggio Imperiale during Carnival in front of visiting Polish royalty, Prince Wlayislaw IV (1595-1648). The piece was commissioned by Archduchess Maria Maddelena (1589-1631) and allegorically explores women’s roles in the wielding of power via a plot that contrasts a good and androgynous sorceress with an evil and sexually alluring one. Francesca uses different musical textures for the two main characters, and as a whole, the music is rich and varied.

The piece was originally billed as a ballet, but it had all the trappings of an opera, including a prologue, symphonies, recitatives, arias, choruses, instrumental ritornellos, and elaborate staging and sets. There were dances performed to music sung by the chorus or to instrumental music that weren’t included in the published score.

The cast for La liberazione included six sopranos, two altos, seven tenors and one bass, an indication of the 17th century’s fondness for high voices. The number of natural male voices and the absence of castrati used in the performance was unusual for the time as castrati and counter-tenors (men singing in falsetto) were the rage. Accompaniment included continuo, recorders, several short five- and six-part choruses, a brief chorus for six sopranos, and a double chorus madrigal in eight parts. The work was revived in the late 20th century in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Maybe it’s time to revive the other pieces too.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women Making Music, the Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

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