Francesca Caccini, the first woman operatic composer

Today we find nothing unusual about women becoming professional musicians. Women play every imaginable instrument. They conduct orchestras, choruses, and opera companies. They are well represented on anyone’s list of leading living composers. It can be hard to remember that until recently women were discouraged from playing certain instruments, and certainly from ever thinking about becoming composers. Francesca Caccini’s career is, then, something of an anomaly. She composed songs and operas for court entertainments in the early seventeenth century.

Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a highly regarded singer, composer, and music teacher in Florence. Francesca, his foremost pupil first sang in public at the age of 13 at the wedding of French King Henry IV and Maria de’ Medici (a member of Florence’s ruling family) in 1600.

Four years later, the king declared her the best singer in France and asked permission to hire her for his own household. The Tuscan court refused and the family returned to Florence. Francesca officially entered service there in 1607 at a reasonable salary. Seven years later, her salary had doubled, making her one of the highest paid musicians at the court.

So far, her career had followed a fairly ordinary path for a talented woman serving a ruling family, but soon she began to compose court entertainments. Performances in Rome, Milan, Lucca, Parma, Genoa, and Savona spread her reputation far beyond Florence.

In 1621, Grand Duke Cosimo II died, leaving a child, Ferdinando, as his heir. Until Ferdinando came of age, his mother and grandmother ruled as regents. They had a great interest  in asserting the right of women to rule and used, among other things, symbolism in major court entertainments, as Medici rulers had for more than a century. And who better to supply the music for them than the highly respected Francesca Caccini?

Her best known opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, was commissioned in 1625 to celebrate the visit of future King Wladislaw IV of Poland. Most such occasional pieces were published in handsome commemorative copies for invited guests, and then quickly forgotten after after the ceremony was over. La liberazione di Ruggiero must have made a strong  impression. It was performed again in Warsaw in 1681, making it the first Italian opera presented outside of Italy.


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