Music Period: Baroque era (1600 ‚Äì 1750)
Location: Florence, Italy
Claim to Fame: the first woman known to have written an opera. She pushed boundaries with her book specifically written for women performers.
Francesca Caccini was born on 18th September 1587 to two musicians. Her mother, Lucia di Filippo Gagnolanti, was a singer and her father, Giulio Caccini, was a renowned composer. At the time, her father was the second most highly paid composer and musician for the Medici family. Giulio was also the celebrated author of the most influential singing manual of the 1600s. Due to her exceptional musical talent, Giulio ensured that Francesca received an education of the highest quality. The little girl would learn Latin, poetics, astrology, philosophy, and contemporary languages. All this was in addition to learning composition ‚Äì an important tool for performers of the Baroque era. By learning how to compose, performers gained the skills to enhance their performances and improvise when needed. Francesca made rapid progress in her studies and started performing when she was just thirteen years old. It would not be long before her voice would be described as ‚Äúa finely focused threat of sound‚Äù and hook audiences with her creative use of voice in performances. This talent came at a time when music itself was becoming more difficult and thus harder to sing. The abilities needed to carry off performances were far higher for singers than before.
It was not long before the great houses of Europe were offering Francesca employment within their courts. The winner would be the Grand-Duke of Tuscany, or more correctly, his wife. Francesca was appointed La Musica for the Medici family in November 1607. This came after displaying magnificent composition skills with La Stiava at the annual carnival earlier that year. Michelangelo Buonarrioti had chosen her to compose music for a dance that was to represent a battle and was to be performed at the carnival. The resulting piece was her breakthrough as a composer and musician. From then onwards, Francesca would sing as a solo virtuosa or in ensembles and play a variety of stringed instruments for the Medici family. She was a woman composer for an emerging female court.
As La Musica, Francesca was required to undertake other duties, as well as perform. Despite being only twenty, Francesca was hired to evaluate the performances of others. Her primary role, however, was to compose music for a wide variety of settings. Francesca proved extremely adept at this and was able to compose works within just a few days or weeks. She collaborated many times with Michelangelo. She would set his poetic words to music and then teach the new material to her singers for a performance. The amazing talent Francesca possessed, along with her ability to understand court politics and manipulate situations to her advantage, saw her become one of the highest paid servants at court. There would be no higher point in her career than on 3rd February 1625. This was the evening her opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall‚Äôisola d‚ÄôAlcina, was performed. The family commissioned the work to celebrate victory against the Ottoman Turk and to honour their guest, the Crown-Prince Wldislaw Sigismund Vasa of Poland. This work most associated with Francesca today.
There is another remarkable survival in the form of Il Primo Libro Delle Musiche. Francesca published the book in 1618. It was a volume of arias filled with an array of wonderful compositions that displayed the basic harmonic structures of music. It was every composer‚Äôs starter manual. Even more notable, it was a book written by a woman for women. Francesca provided examples of every musical genre to provide any female solo singer with an understanding of what she would need to master. The aim was to teach them the tricks of the trade. One of the most important lessons was to teach female musicians how to sing about desire without showing any knowledge of it. This was something almost revolutionary for the time and brings forth the brave, daring nature of this incredible woman.
Francesca would spend her life composing masterful works, singing, and teaching students. From her position as La Musica she gained an income and a dowry. It was not long after her appointment that a marriage was soon arranged for her to fellow musician Giovanni Battista Signorini. Far from ending her career, the marriage marked the mere beginning. It paved the way for incredible career opportunities until December 1926 when Giovanni died. The years ahead saw Francesca remarry, have a second child, and escape more than one outbreak of the plague, before ending life quietly in La Crocetta convent. Francesca continued to compose music and perform her music in private or semi-private settings as before. The private and exclusive nature of her work has had one considerable drawback: traditional histories have missed her achievements.
Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna Beer (2016) is a particularly interesting read and is recommended to find out more about the composer.
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