Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary: without the opera hype

The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death. By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history. Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. … Continue reading

How the Trombone Cheated Death

At the beginning of the 1600s, courts, towns, churches, and individual members of the nobility all over Western Europe sponsored musical organizations that included trombone. These ensembles participated in music making from dance music to public concerts to participation in Christian worship. By the end of the century, they had practically disappeared, and the trombone along with it. If no one had used it anywhere, the trombone would have become like the krummhorn and other obsolete instruments that early music enthusiasts resurrected in the mid 20th century. No one else would know or care anything about it. Instead, it lay … Continue reading

Women trombonists of the late Renaissance

Professional women musicians in the Renaissance were usually singers, not instrumentalists. Usually. Women who learned to play instruments—especially aristocratic woman—usually didn’t take up trombone. Not usually. Here and there, fascinating exceptions turn up. Including perhaps the Queen of England? The illustration, by the way, is a detail from a 19th-century engraving made from an embroidered tablecloth, which was made in the 1560s. Portraits of a German count and his wife occupy the center of the tablecloth (no longer extant, but a photograph exists). This woman is among 9 very aristocratic-looking men and women depicted with various instruments encircling the count … Continue reading

The first woman to compose operas: Francesca Caccini

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 … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading