Usually when one hears the name Caccini, the first composer you think of is Giulio Caccini, author of a famous musical treaty and member of the esteemed Florentine Camerata, a group of scholars and philosophers that included the likes of Vincenzo Galilei, father of the excommunicated astronomer Galileo Galilei. In fact, Giulio’s daughter Francesca was also a likely member of this secretive club, though the fact of her gender precluded her from the official guest list.
Caccini’s history was shrouded in misinformation and mystery for almost 100 years, stemming from a music journal written in 1888 by a historian named Alessandro Ademollo, whose primary goal of the journal was to use Caccini as a foil to her rival, Adriana Basile, who was considered quiet, meek, and above all, more “womanly” than Francesca. This historian reported that Caccini died of mouth cancer as a fitting end to her brash and confident personality — though there are exactly zero sources that would even suggest this.
Ademollo reported that Caccini remarried after her first husband died in 1626, and promptly retired from a musical life. He suggested that she died the inferior musician to Adriana Basile and made vague suggestions that women should know their place in society.
But in reality, none of that was true. In 1980, Tim Carter discovered a number of letters between Caccini and poet Michael Buonarotti the Younger discussing an event in Florence in 1635. The letters were unusually well preserved and readily accessible, and so Carter questioned why such a glaring inaccuracy would stand for such an extended period of time. Historian Suzanne G. Cusick expanded upon this research, discovering that Caccini married a wealthy legislator from Lucca, and moved into his large estate immediately following their nuptials. He was a great deal older than her, and his previous marriage did not produce a male heir, which was unfortunately of great importance during this time period. Caccini gave birth to their son, though the paternity of the child was contested due to her continued work with his business partner, with whom she became quite close.
Three years after this marriage, her husband died unexpectedly. He unusually willed all of his property and finances to Francesca, even though the usual practice in this time was to name a male heir as the sole benefactor. These properties ensured her continued comfort and financial stability, allowing her to continue her work as a musician. Shortly thereafter, the plague broke out in Lucca, which led to a two-year isolation period in which no music was made and research of Caccini’s life is impossible.
Cusick discovered that Caccini had returned to the Medici court where she had previously been employed through a series of letters and payment receipts. It is unclear whether she had returned in 1634 or a year prior, but it is certain that she was one of the highest paid and most highly regarded musicians at court — an honor for any musician, but positively unheard of for a woman! At court, she continued to compose and teach voice and music theory. In 1640, Caccini died at age 53 of unknown causes; she did not die of mouth cancer as retribution for her gender.
Some of Caccini’s music has been lost to time, but much of it remains in the standard repertoire. Her 1618 book of solos, “Il Primo Libro delle Musiche a une a due Voci,” was the most extensive book of vocal solos published to date. Another of her major works, an opera entitled “La Liberazione di Ruggiero da l’Isola d’Alcina,” written in the early 1620s, was the first opera to be written and published by a woman, as well as the first Italian opera to be performed internationally (it was performed in Warsaw). The opera conveys strong feminist and possible sapphic themes, much to the dismay of many men at court and my music history professor.
For your listening and educational pleasure, this is your truly singing a high voice solo by Francesca Caccini in spring of 2012. Apologies for the odd clicking, the recording is obviously not the best quality.
**Note: this was originally posted on my blog, Musically Notable, where I write about new music, old music, and everything in between.