My 10 favorite lesser-known Christmas pieces

I have been enjoying my Christmas records for the past couple of weeks. I have also seen plenty of online articles and blogposts with titles like, “The Ten Best Christmas Pieces of All Times,” or more modestly, “My Ten Favorite Christmas Songs.” A lot of them list the music we hear in church, concerts, on the radio, and in stores and shopping malls year after year.

I thought I’d do something a little different and list some of my favorite pieces that are less well known. Most are older than the what we usually hear many times over the course of the season. Readers of this blog have probably heard at least some of these pieces, just not as often as the popular favorites.

10. Hacia Belén / Spanish composer (unknown time)

Probably until the invention and commercialization of Santa Claus, even secular carols focused on Jesus and his birth. In this silly little villancico, some gypsies, a man in a sombrero, and a donkey laden with chocolate arrive at the stable in Bethlehem. The refrain calls to Mary to hurry up, but she doesn’t. The gypsies steal the swaddling clothes, somehow the chocolate disappears, and the donkey eats the sombrero.

9. Riu, riu chiu / anonymous Spanish villancico (published in 1556)

The nobility of Vallencia prided themselves on the subtlety of their erudition and ability of their conversation and their poetry. The text of this piece explains the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, portraying the devil as a wolf, Mary as a precious ewe, and God the Father as a shepherd who builds an impregnable wall around her. I especially enjoy this piece for the exuberant rhythm of its refrain.

8. Allon, gay, gay bergères / Guillaume Costeley (late 16th century)

Another secular piece. Here the shepherds go to Bethlehem to visit the new-born king and, among other things, comment on how well he drinks from his mother’s breast. This chanson exhibits Costeley’s skill in counterpoint. It’s very fun to sing.

7. Quem pastores laudavere / German (late 16th century)

When Luther broke from the Roman church, he did not abandon the use of Latin or the liturgical structure of worship services. This piece, used for Christmas night services, has been so popular in Germany that “Quempas” became slang for the more proper “Weihnachtslied” (Christmas carol). I suppose if Christmas in Germany is as commercialized as it has become in the US, German shoppers probably get their fill of this tune every year. It’s a beautiful change of pace here.

6. A virgin unspotted / William Billings (late 18th century)

Throughout the eighteenth century, a number of composers whose names are now known only to musicologists composed unsophisticated music for use in rural English churches. Since English styles were the source of nearly all American music, it is no surprise that William Billings and other largely self-taught American composers used fuging tunes and other rural English practices as their model. “A virgin unspotted” does not include a fuging tune, but it does have a jig-like refrain and a vigor typical of his other works.

5. Quelle est cette odeur agréable? / French (17th century)

An anonymous seventeenth-century cleric, likely from  Lorraine, wrote a fairly sophisticated dialog between the shepherds and the angel that announced Jesus’ birth to them. It was fitted to a tune already well known in both France and England, where, with other words and doubtless a different singing style, appeared in comic operas and as a drinking song. As a Christmas song, it exudes a beautifully serene mood.

4. Still, still, still / Austrian (18th century?)

Neither of my recordings of this piece have liner notes. Searching the Web does not turn up much either, except that it was published in a collection called “Salzburger Volkslieder” (Folksongs from Salzburg) in 1819. Who knows how much older  it actually is? it. It is another very simple, very serene piece asking for stillness so the Christ child can sleep and commenting on the depth of love God exhibited in leaving his throne to become this child.

3. Gesu bambino / Pietro Yon (1917)

The Italian-born Yon moved to New York in 1907 to serve as organist and choirmaster of the church of St. Francis Xavier. He remained in New York for the rest of his life, eventually taking a similar position at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Gesu bambino,” his most famous piece, has a flowing Italianate melody that borrows its refrain from the traditional “Adeste fidelis” (“O come let us adore him”).

2. O magnum mysterium / Tomas Luis de Victoria (1572)

I can justify inclusion of this often-recorded masterpiece on a list lesser-known pieces mostly because has not suffered the kind of overexposure as much of the standard Christmas music on other top ten lists. I cannot recall when I first heard it or remember a time before it was one of my favorite pieces.

1. In principio erat verbum / Josquin des Prez (early 16th century)

I had the opportunity to sing this with a Renaissance choir more than 30 years ago. It was as difficult to learn as anything I ever remember singing, but well worth it. I fell in love with the piece and began to look for a recording, to no avail. Apparently no one ever recorded it until maybe a couple of years ago. Someone called a 99¢ download to my attention, and last year I decided to look for it. This time, I even found the piece on a recent CD. It’s not a Christmas CD, but the text, from the first chapter of John’s gospel, is the text appointed for Christmas morning in every lectionary I ever heard of. Maybe now that this beautiful motet  has been recorded once, someone will put it on a Christmas CD. Meanwhile, printed music has been easily available for years. I strongly recommend it to any choir that does Renaissance music.

Popular song in America, part 4: the influence of German songs

German-speaking people began to emigrate to America in modest numbers as early as the late seventeenth century. Generally, they got on well with the Anglophone majority and willingly adopted American habits and viewpoints. Settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina by the Moravian Church featured musical practices inherited from Germany, but had little influence on the surrounding culture.

Things began to change by about the 1830s. The rate of immigration from Germany increased rapidly. This new influx brought German culture not to isolated settlements, but to major cities. Simply examining census records over the course of several decades of the nineteenth century to see which cities had the largest German population gives a pretty accurate indication of which cities first had their own resident orchestras, oratorio societies, and other features of German music.

Even the musical institutions that existed before this wave of German immigrants began to branch out from performing only such music as was commonly done in London to include more German music.

Thus far, I could be describing the tremendous German influence on classical music in this country. Quite independent of trying to appeal to a new class of consumers, a Boston publisher issued a set of Gems of German Songs, including songs of Schubert and Weber, all fitted with English texts. In fact, the set first appeared before the scope of the coming wave of immigration became apparent. That set was the first of many the same publisher issued over the next decade or so. Other publishers soon followed.

By this time, a distinction between “classical” and “popular” music was already evident, both in Europe and in America. Here, however, as far as vocal music was concerned, the distinction depended largely on language. In Europe, a Mozart opera was “classical” and a Rossini opera was “popular.” Here, either one was part of what H. Wiley Hitchcock called the “cultivated tradition” if performed or published in Italian, but accepted on equal footing with any other popular song if presented in English.

Therefore, an edition of songs by Schubert, Beethoven, or any other “heavyweight” with English texts did not represent “classical” music. It offered only another style of song that customers could buy for their own entertainment, or enjoy when they went to hear performances of their favorite professional singers. Home piano benches and public programs alike contained a mixture of English, Italian, American, and German songs without any particular consciousness of artistic distinctions.

The piano plays a much different role in German songs than in those from any other country of the time. It is an equal partner with the singer. Very often, it has its own melodic material, while the singer has something entirely different. Harmonies tend to be  more daring and chromatic in than any other song tradition. German songs also demonstrated a melding of song with dance rhythms, something other nationalities had kept separate.

German songs had a lesser impact on American song writers than the waves of influences described in earlier installments of this series, primarily because plantation songs and other truly American song styles had developed before German songs became readily available in large numbers. And yet many very successful American songs could never have been written if their composers had not known a variety of German songs.

Popular song in America, part 3: minstrel shows and plantation songs

As was the case with many things popular in America, black characters played by whites on stage originated in England. As early as 1768, black characters offered comic relief in English operas. Some of these same operas were equally popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Poets attempted to develop a dialect that could sound suitably like how a black person might speak, although they didn’t use it consistently even within a single song.

Composers had no idea what kinds of melodies blacks may have sung. Some made no attempt, writing the same kinds of melodies they would have used for any other text. Some attempted to portray their supposed backwardness by simplifying the melody and harmony. Some attempted to portray their supposed uncouth primitiveness with Scottish rhythms and pentatonic melodies.

In 1822, a successful English actor, Charles Matthews visited New York, where he expected to make more money than he could in London. Matthews had a great ear for dialect, and his most successful acts had been one-person entertainments made up of monologues, jokes, and songs impersonating various characters. America offered not only financial rewards, but a chance to learn new accents and dialects. Fascinated with the speech of blacks, Matthews was the first to pay careful enough attention to reproduce them accurately.

At about the same time, American entertainers darkened their faces with burnt cork. Several achieved great success as blackface entertainers in the 1820s and 30s. Thomas Dartmouth Rice developed the character “Jim Crow,” who not only sang but danced. According to one story, which might actually be true, Rice first performed his act wearing the clothes of a negro beggar in Pittsburgh, who interrupted the act to get his clothes back to catch a steamboat, much to the amusement of the audience.

The music of Rice and others bore no resemblance to authentic slave songs. Blacks had much more musical talent than anyone of the time gave them credit for. Many, such as band leader Francis Johnson, became proficient in performing the music popular among the white population. If Rice heard lower-class blacks singing in the Northern towns he visited, he may have thought his tunes were as authentic as he thought his dialect and dances were.

Up until the end of the 1830s, concerts and evenings at the theater often offered a variety of entertainments. Blackface routines, among other things, often appeared between the acts of a play or opera.

By the 1840s, so-called minstrel shows were widely regarded as a characteristically American form of entertainment. Different from the earlier variety shows, minstrel shows consisted of a group of white musicians in blackface performing for an entire evening. An “ethiopian band” called the Virginia Minstrels presented perhaps the first of these in 1843.

A year later, nearly every city had its own minstrel groups. Many others toured around the country, visiting smaller towns. Christy’s Minstrels dominated the field for decades. Banjoist Dan Emmett, a founding member of the short-lived Virginia Minstrels, also maintained his eminence.

Musically, the earliest minstrel songs typically greatly resembled other American popular songs in the English/Irish/Scottish vein, with occasional elements of Italian opera. In the late 1840s and 50s, their harmonies and structure took on greater sophistication and irregularity. Gone was any attempt to use childishly simple tunes to portray backwardness. Since composers intended these new “plantation songs” for performance on stage, many of them required a soloist on the verses,  joined by a chorus on the refrain.

The emotional content of the words likewise underwent an evolution from demeaning stereotypes played for cheap laughs to plantation songs, still in dialect, but expressing the same emotional range from tenderness to love to grief  as any other song of the time. In fact, in humanizing the experiences of slaves, some of these songs may have given some emotional support to the abolitionist movement. Others maintained a strongly pro-slavery viewpoint. As the country became more divided over the issue, the song texts became more strident.

This post describes minstrel songs only about up to the American Civil War. They did not peak in popularity until the 1880s. Blackface entertainers lasted into the twentieth century. Even before the Civil War, the innovations (both musical and textual) that led to the plantation song began to effect other popular songs that had nothing to do with dialect or plantation life.

By the 1840s American song had evolved from styles indistinguishable from what was popular in England to something distinctive. One more element, German song, deserves attention before this series turns to surveying individual American composers and their songs.

Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera

At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as Irish music had some time earlier.

Italian opera had been in and out of style in England for about a hundred years by that time. George Frideric Handel made his initial reputation there composing operas in Italian, but saw the audience for them disappear and began writing oratorios in English instead.

A second wave of interest began in the late 1760s, but waned again before the end of the century. Then, in 1806, English audiences heard their first Mozart opera and clamored for more. Performances in England of Rossini’s works began in 1818. Although many professional critics loved Mozart and bitterly disdained Rossini, the operas of both had great audience appeal.

Performances of opera in a foreign language met with opposition as well, though. When Henry Rowley Bishop became musical director at Covent Garden, he decided to adapt these foreign operas to English words, get rid of recitatives, and turn the arias to song-forms more familiar to English taste.

Bishop presented his version of The Barber of Seville in 1818. The Park Theatre in New York first performed it in 1819 and then each of the next five years. Therefore, the 1825 performances in Italian meant only that New York audiences could hear familiar music in an unfamiliar language. Every attempt to establish a permanent Italian opera theater failed sooner or later until well after the Civil War. Meanwhile, “English opera,” Italian operas adapted by Bishop and like-minded composers, enjoyed unbroken success.

American publication of arias from operas by Mozart and others with English words began as early as 1815. In the first installment of this series, I mentioned how Irish songs appealed to the American imagination because their origin as folk melodies gave them an exotic flavor and their words introduced texts in first person and a certain attractive sense of nostalgia.

Italian arias were exotic in a different way. Having been composed for virtuoso singers, they had very florid tunes, which the adapters pretty much left alone. Their original orchestral accompaniments transferred to the piano much better as arpeggiated figures than the traditional block chords.

In part because of the influence of Irish and Italian songs, Americans began to lose interest in the English pleasure garden songs that had dominated public performances and sheet music sales since colonial times.

Popular song in America, part 1: from colonial times to ca. 1825

It never ceases to amaze me how many books on American popular song begin their coverage somewhere in the twentieth century, as if nothing of interest came before. Popular music is essentially a business that requires constantly updated products. It is an older business than perhaps many people imagine.

The first ballad operas heard in Britain’s American colonies were performed as early as the 1730s. American cities began to establish pleasure gardens, likely as not named for one of the major gardens in London, as early as the 1760. For most of the rest of the eighteenth century, the colonies basically imported all of their popular songs from England, although several American publishers brought out their own editions. Significantly, Americans especially admired the more serious song texts to the humorous, even somewhat bawdy songs that outnumbered them in England. Needless to say, when American composers first began to write songs, they did not differ significantly from the English songs most popular in this country.

Since popular song by definition requires a constant stream of new songs that are similar enough to already well known songs to be familiar and comfortable yet at the same time present some novelty, a quick survey can only point out some of the important new novelties that occasionally captured the popular imagination. I suggest Yesterdays: Popular Song in America by Charles Hamm to anyone interested in a more detailed study.

The first songwriters active in America were British by birth and training. Their American songs differed in subject matter and expression from those they wrote in England, which shows that their sensitivity to a different audience, but not in style.

Although the Irish had a poor reputation both in England and America, Irish tunes occasionally appeared in anthologies. Between 1808 and 1834, publishers James and William Power of Dublin and London issued ten volumes of  Irish Melodies, compiled by Thomas Moore, who supplied new words.

Many of these songs, including “‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” remain among the most popular and recognizable English-language songs of the  entire nineteenth century. American publishers issued their own editions, which exerted a powerful influence on American songwriting.

Since these melodies ultimately came from an oral folk tradition and not from the carefully structured works of professional composers, they seemed somehow wild and untamed in their irregularity and pentatonic simplicity. Because publishers had issued some Irish tunes for decades, they were familiar enough to be comfortable, but very novel compared to the well-established style dating back to London’s pleasure gardens and songs by Thomas Arne and Joseph Hook. It also opened audiences to the beauties of the folk music of common people in contrast to the aristocratic origins of more learned music.

Moore’s poetry likewise differed from traditional English song texts. Much of it was in first person and deal with personal emotions and experiences rather than third-person narratives of observed events. It also overlooks the present low estate of the Irish to focus on their glorious past. This element of nostalgia became dominant in nineteenth-century literature, and it was Moore’s anthologies above all else that transmitted it to America.

To a lesser extent, the music of Scotland and the poetry of Robert Burns had a similar influence. Burns’ texts varied more in themes and content and so emphasized nostalgia less, but he, like Moore, wrote them to folk tunes that seemed very novel and very democratic compared to the works of English composers.

The coming decades saw numerous other foreign influences on American popular song, but the Irish and Scots influence remained strong throughout the nineteenth century.

Beloved Christmas carols: The Christmas Song

In a web environment, someone can write an article or record a song and put it online immediately. Conventional publishers must work months in advance of publication. Whatever new magazine articles on Christmas, Christmas record albums, etc. appear this month were probably written some time last summer. Once upon a time, selling sheet music made at least as much money as recordings. Publishers often had song-writing teams under contract to provide new music.

On a hot July day in 1946, lyricist Bob Wells was not thinking of songs for Christmas or otherwise. He only cared about cooling off. Swimming didn’t help. Neither did taking a cold shower or anything else he could think of. So he decided to think about a wintry scene and conjure up something cold in his imagination to see if that would help.

After he had written a few lines, beginning “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” his partner Mel Tormé dropped by and asked about them. Hearing the explanation, he suggested they write a song. Over the forty-five minutes it took them to complete the words and the music, a winter song had become “The Christmas Song.”

The publishers turned it down. To their way of thinking, the way the song introduced Santa Claus meant that the song could only make sense on Christmas Eve. No one would buy a one-day-a-year song.

Rather than reworking the words, Wells and Tormé sang the song for Nat King Cole, who loved it and asked for exclusive rights to record and perform it. The publishers reluctantly decided that if Cole wanted to record the song, they might as well take a chance. The rest, as they say, is history.

Did Sax invent the saxhorn?

(Saxhorns are the top row of instruments in this 1872 advertisement)

In1845, French military music reached the bottom of a long decline. The war ministry, desiring to reorganize it completely, arranged for a contest among bands with various instrumentation. The band led by Adolphe Sax won.

The Belgian-born Sax had only moved to Paris and set up shop three years earlier. His quick success (largely due to the superior craftsmanship of his instruments but also to notable supporters such as Hector Berlioz) annoyed established French makers.

That this upstart should win the right to reorganized French military music added insult to injury. That his instrumentation was built around a family of instruments he had named for himself and patented enraged several of them so much that they banded together and brought suit to nullify Sax’s patents. That suit eventually ruined both Sax and his rivals  financially.

The instruments in question, saxhorns, are valved bugles, that is, brass instruments with a conical bore. Sax was hardly the first instrument maker to add valves to bugles. He copied his valves from the German maker Johann Gottfried Moritz. Two things set saxhorns apart from anyone else’s valved bugles.

First, Sax found a superior proportion for designing the exact taper of the conical sections of his instruments. (They were necessarily cylindrical through the valves.) Second, he built a complete family of instruments from soprano to bass, alternating in pitch between B-flat and E-flat instruments.

A collection of valved bugles by other makers, which lacked similarity of proportion and compatibility of basic pitch cannot sound as good, when played together, as an ensemble of saxhorns. But did these two innovations constitute an entirely new instruments for the purpose of obtaining a patent?

Sax and his adversaries did not have enough money among them to produce a clear legal answer. Even today, differences of opinion exist.  If legal courts have no definitive opinion, the court of history does. Instruments of that kind are musically less important now than in the nineteenth century,  but where they are used at all, they are invariably saxhorns, not instruments of the same design of any of his professional and legal rivals.

Franz Liszt at an artistic crossroads

Franz Liszt / painting by Henri Lehmann, 1839

Franz Liszt / painting by Henri Lehmann, 1839

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a social division arose between two kinds of music.

Some loved what they called classical music. They quarreled with people who preferred what William Weber has called high-status popular music.

Classical music specifically meant the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and a few others.

High-status popular music included popular operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, and others. It also included traveling virtuosos who performed largely in salons.

That is, they performed before invited guests in the homes of aristocratic or upper-middle-class hosts.

Robert Schumann began his career as a critic specifically to protest against the emptiness of most of the piano virtuosos. They specialized in dazzling arrangements of operatic tunes or variations on popular melodies.

These pieces had little musical substance. They did not reward repeated hearing. But the audience for them preferred novelty. They had no interest in hearing the same pieces over and over.

Schumann recognized greater musical substance in some of them, including Franz Liszt. In his early career, then, Liszt represented high-status popular music. But without the musical emptiness and technical gimmicks that Schumann so despised.

Weber points out that the old aristocracy and upper middle class essentially merged around mid-century and that classical music and high-status popular music likewise grew together.

Previously popular operas, including most of Rossini’s, eventually disappeared from the repertoire, but their overtures became acceptable fare on symphonic concerts.

The virtuosos who did not make some move towards classical music likewise lost public favor.

The new  Liszt

buy classical music

Franz Liszt conducting / unknown artist, ca. 1918

In 1846 one of Liszt’s admirers, who also loved classical music, challenged him to play Beethoven’s music on his programs. So he did.

As a composer, he had always concentrated on solo piano music, occasionally with orchestral accompaniment. Like other virtuosos, he wrote a lot of variations on popular tunes. He did not compose sonatas or other classical forms.

Beginning about the time he started playing classical music in concert, he began to compose differently. He produced purely orchestral music, choral music (both sacred and secular), and songs. His piano music became more serious.

He still didn’t use classical forms. He based his music on literary programs. As a result, he devised his own formal procedures.

Liszt also experimented with new harmonic structures.At least one of his late piano pieces is almost atonal.

They had a profound influence on composers all over Europe who wanted to come out from under the domination of German musical culture.

Liszt made the transition from high-status popular music to the newly defined classical music world so easily and naturally that only in retrospect can scholars discern a transition at all.

Not all remained unified in classical music, however. Some composers (Brahms, for example) continued to write in classical forms, using harmonies, techniques of orchestration, and so on, that built on Beethoven’s legacy gradually and incrementally.

The group represented by Brahms and the group represented by Liszt argued as intensely as formerly groups that preferred “classical” music or “popular” music had argued.

By this time the idea of classical music becomes problematic. Once it meant music with standard forms high artistic ideals. It was mostly old music, or modeled on old music. It required repeated hearings to understand it.

Liszt and allies wrote new music not based on standard forms. It was less listener-friendly and demanded even more of the audience. They still aspired to high artistic ideals. But the world of classical music could no longer agree on what that meant.

Revised September 7, 2016

Source: Music and the middle class: the social structure of concert life in London, Paris, and Vienna / William Weber (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975)

Photo credits:
Public domain.

Guillaume de Machaut: the gaps in his biography

Our knowledge of history is limited by the accident of what kind of documentation exists. Even for recent people and events, historians cannot always find information about what they most want to learn. Given roughly equivalent fame and importance, the earlier a person lived, the sparser the documentation. The great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) provides a good illustration.

No other fourteenth-century composer left behind as much music as Machaut, and possibly none other provided so much detail about his life and times. While many prolific composers over the course of history have produced vast quantities of music of mediocre quality or worse, Machaut’s reputation, both in his lifetime and in the estimation of scholars, places him in the top rank not only of composers of his time, but also poets. He also had a very sophisticated understanding of mathematics.

Machaut the poet wrote about current events and about himself. From him we know that he was short, blind in one eye, had gout, and, as an old man, became involved in a platonic relationship with a teenaged poetry lover. He preserved her letters to him, too.

History records a great deal of information about his patrons. He came to the attention of King John of Luxembourg as a young priest in the 1320s and remained as his secretary until the King was killed in the Battle of Crécy in 1346. After that, he worked for the Duke of Normandy (later King John II of France), King Charles V of France, and the Dukes of Berry, Savoy, and Navarre. He devoted  his later years to preparing a catalog of his works and presentation manuscripts of them for his patrons.

Of his early life, almost nothing is known. We know he was born somewhere in the province of Champagne, possibly in Rheims. An older man with a similar name may have been his father, but no records survive. We know nothing of his family, his education, when he was ordained, how he came to the attention of his first patron, when he started to compose and write poetry, or how he developed his reputation. But we do know that he sold a horse in 1340.

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.