Francesca Caccini, born on this day in 1587, was the most famous woman musician in Europe during her lifetime. She composed the first opera written by a woman (incidentally it was also among the first operas, period). played five instruments, and worked at the court of the Medici family. Pretty big deal, but today hardly anyone besides scholars have even heard of her.
She had a huge professional career
“Caccini was a prolific composer who also sang and was proficient at the harp, harpsichord, lute, theorbo and guitar,” writes Meghann Wilhoite for the Oxford University Press blog. By the time she was 20, she was working as a musician at the Medici court, where she would remain throughout her career as one of its most prominent and innovative musicians. By 1626, writes author Catharine R. Stimpson, Caccini was “the most prominent woman musician in Europe.”
Caccini was working at a time of big innovation in the world of music, which her career demonstrates. As well as being a teacher of music, she was a significant composer who authored hundreds of songs, few of which survive. Among them is the music from the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina ("The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina").
“First performed in Florence in 1625, La liberazione is the only one of Caccini’s operas to survive intact,” writes Wilhoite. “The libretto is based on one of the many subplots of the epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.” Involving a complex plot that would have been familiar to listeners of the time–there’s a good sorceress, a bad sorceress, a warrior, disguises and a dragon–“the premiere performance wrapped up with a ballet for 24 horses and riders,” she writes.
Because opera was an emerging musical form, Cusick writes that La liberazione wasn’t technically called an opera or understood as such at the time, but it’s how the work has gone down in history. “It was only with the first public opera in Venice in the late 1630s that the dramatic institution of theater was merged with the aristocratic experiment of sung drama,” writes opera expert Warren Stewart. Still, Caccini’s work, coming at the cusp of that moment, gives her an essential place in the history of opera.
She hung out with Galileo and other cutting-edge figures
The Medici court, which employed a host of musicians, was Ground Zero for the 1500s Italian Renaissance, which included musical, scientific and artistic innovations. These different disciplines frequently mixed and influenced one another, and Caccini, as a popular musician, had access that most women didn’t.
Caccini was acquainted with plenty of scientists and other thinkers. She even hung out with Galileo at private salons called conversacione held at his home. On top of that, she spent time collaborating with other court musicians, regular private performances for members of the court and public performances–and juggling her personal life, as she was married and had a daughter.
She inherited her musical vocation and passed in on to her daughter
Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a prominent and popular musician and songwriter who helped develop opera as a musical form, writes author Suzanne G. Cusick. Being related to him certainly gave Caccini a leg up, but her talents stood alone. She was part of the first “more-or-less publicly performed opera, L’Euridice” when she was 13, writes Cusick, where she sang her father’s music with other family members. However, by 17 she was making a name for herself as a singer at the court of the French King Henri IV.
Caccini retired from public performance later in her life, but she continued to write and teach, Caccini writes. She passed on her profession to her daughter, Margherita, who was the third generation of Caccinis to make a living in music. This much is known about her, but the rest remains a mystery. “In May, 1641, Francesca left Medici service forever, and disappeared from the public record,” Cusick writes.