Composer of the Week: Francesca Caccini

For this week’s Composer of the Week, we are in early Baroque Italy. Unlike the century of creativity and vigor we visited last week, the 17th century is a period of disintegration. Nevertheless, the music of the Italian Renaissance and Early Baroque is lively, optimistic and frivolous. This is the era in which the idea of art as entertainment takes shape. The music is full of artifice, cunning and play. Francesca Caccini is an exemplar of this new mode of musical production.

Florentine Flair

Francesca Caccini was born on the 18th September, 1587 AD, in the famous Italian city of Florence. If the name “Florence” makes you think of flowers, you are not wrong. The original name of the town was Fluentia because it lay between two rivers. At some point, this changed to Florentia, “flowering.” In the Middle Ages, this small town rose to prominence as a center of commerce and later, art. To this day, it remains one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth.

The time that we are looking at is the era of Shakespeare and of Galileo. Francesca probably knew Galileo personally. She also rubbed shoulders with the grand-nephew of Michelangelo. It is also the era of the ascendancy of the house of Medici, one of the most stunningly corrupt and tyrannical dynasties in European history. The ruling House of Medici was also Francesca’s employer, and it was under their patronage that she composed and performed most of her extensive musical output. She and some of her relatives made up a troupe of musicians who composed, staged and performed works for the nobility of the city and their guests.

New Musical Forms

Francesca wrote music in a number of genres, including songs, operas and incidental music. This is music written for a play or other any other production that is not primarily musical in nature. In a similar way, you can think of a jingle in advertising, or the music in a TV series as incidental. This is different to opera, in which the production is entirely musical in character.

Opera as we know it is a product of the Baroque period in Italy. It developed as a uniquely western attempt to reinterpret Ancient Greek drama. Francesca worked in this new, emerging genre and produced some of the earliest complete works that can be called an opera in the modern sense. The only one that survives is a comedy, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina – The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina. You can hear a short excerpt of it in the video below.

We hear the strings opening the piece with a lush harmonic interlude. The voice then enters, accompanied by a harpsichord and basso continuo. This is a form of accompaniment that was typical of the baroque. Usually, a harpsichord would play chords while a bass instrument such as a cello or violone played longer notes. The harpsichordist would have nothing more than numbers to work with, telling him/her which chords to use. This is why basso continuo is also known as figured (numbered) bass.

The Family Business

The Caccini Family earned a living through music. Her father, Giulio, provided Francesca with an education in the liberal arts and music. This is what enabled her to become one of the most famous musicians in the Florentine court. Her sister Settimia sang, while Francesca was both a singer and virtuoso on the lute. The lute is pictured to the right. Francesca Caccini leaves the Medici service abruptly in 1641 AD and we know very little about her thereafter.

We do know, however, that her daughter, Margherita, continued the family trade and became a musician in her own right. It is Francesca whose music has had the most enduring impact of all her family, and those works that survive give us a unique insight into the texture and color of early baroque music in Italy.

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