The first woman to compose operas: Francesca Caccini

buy classical music Until very recently, music was a man’s career. Women could be singers, but rarely anything more. Francesca Caccini became well known as an operatic composer early in the history of opera. That fact testifies not only to her talent, but also the fame of her father and the untimely death of a Grand Duke of Tuscany, leaving his wife and his mother as co-regents.

Francesca’s father Giulio practically invented opera. At least, that was his version. He and some like-minded friends in Florence (seat of the Medici family ruling as Grand Dukes of Tuscany) invented a new, declamatory style of singing suitable for courtly entertainments. It depended more on the power of the solo voice than on traditional polyphony and sought more to move the audience with dramatic emotion than awe them with fancy stagecraft. His Euridice (1600), along with works by Jacopo Peri and Emilio de’ Cavalieri at about the same time, represents the very birth of opera.

When French King Henry IV married Maria de’ Medici in 1600, the entire Florentine court participated in the festivities. Francesca Caccini sang in public for the first time. She was 13. In 1604, the Caccini’s visited Paris, where the king declared that Francesca was the best singer in his kingdom. He sought permission to hire her for his own court, but Tuscan officials refused the request. She officially entered service at the Florentine court in 1607. The court doubled her salary in 1614, making her among its highest paid musicians.

buy classical music Grand Duke Cosimo II died in 1621, leaving a 10-year old boy, Ferdinando II, as heir. Cosimo’s wife and mother acted jointly as regents for eight years. Naturally, it became politically important for them to assert the right of women to rule. They turned to the same means by which the Medici court had flexed its power for a century: elaborate musical/dramatic entertainments heavy with symbolism.

With such a highly regarded and well educated woman musician as Francesca Caccini at court, the symbolism of a woman composing these entertainments became as powerful as anything contained within the dramas themselves. She had already composed music for court dramas as early as 1613. (And by this time, they were all operas, not the earlier entertainments that opera supplanted, although opera as a public entertainment available to anyone who bought a ticket was still more than two decades in the future.)

Francesca Caccini’s most important work is generally to be a collection of solo songs and duets titled Il primo libro dell musiche She also collaborated on at least sixteen operas. Most of them are lost now, but one of the operas she composed during the regency, La liberazione di Ruggiero, (1625) survives. Although intended as a prelude to a horse ballet, it is a full-length entertainment that requires more than an hour to perform. Traditionally, most such entertainments had been the work of at least two composers, but Caccini composed every note of La liberazione di Ruggiero.

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The horse ballet that followed the performance of La liberazione di Ruggiero

The opera, or as she called it, “ballet composed in music,” displays her command of ornate melodies and dramatically charged harmonies, as well as mastery of all of the standard theatrical devices that characterized operas of the time. The regents commissioned it for a visit from the future King Wladislaw IV of Poland.

Typically, the librettos of dramas written for such an occasion would be published in elaborate commemorative editions and given to invited guests. The music would have been of no further interest. La liberazione di Ruggiero, on the other hand, was published in full score, with great care taken to print it accurately and precisely. The crown prince enjoyed it so much that he arranged for a performance in Warsaw in 1628–the first time any Italian opera had been performed outside Italy.

Images are in the public domain.

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