Francesca Caccini was not only a Renaissance composer credited with the prestigious title of being the first woman ever to compose an opera and have it performed (not that there have been many since, so that in itself is a great achievement), she was also a talented singer, poet, lutenist, and teacher.
Born in 1587, in Florence, Francesca was the daughter of composer, Giulio Caccini, and appears to have been a very intelligent woman. She was highly educated in literature, mathematics and the classical languages, as well as music of course. As a child, she performed with her parents and siblings until her sister’s marriage resulting in a move away from the locality caused the group to break up. However, this early performing experience led to her being hired by the great court of the Medici’s as a teacher, chamber singer, rehearsal coach and composer of both chamber and stage music until early in 1627. By 1614 she was the court’s most highly paid musician, even earning more than the male composers who she was surrounded by.
She is believed to have been a rapid and prolific composer. Her surviving scores reveal that she took extraordinary care over the notation of her music, focusing special attention on the rhythmic placement of syllables and words. She also used a specific composition scheme whereby female characters were indicated via a flat key, and male through a sharp key, leading modern critics to wonder whether in fact she was making a deliberate statement about gender through her music. But despite evidence of her pieces being well recorded, sadly, barely any of her music survives. Most of her stage music was composed for performance in comedies such as La Tancia (1613), Il Passatempo (1614) and La Fiera (1619).In 1618 she published a collection of thirty-six solo songs and soprano/bass duets (Il primo libro delle musiche), and in the winter of 1625 Francesca composed all the music for a 75-minute “comedy-ballet” entitled La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina which was performed for the visiting crown prince of Poland, the prince was so pleased by this that he had it performed in Warsaw in 1628.
Francesca was married twice (around 1620 and 1627) but was widowed very soon both times, first in 1626 and again in 1630. Out of her marriages she had a son, Tommaso, and a daughter Margherita. Once Francesca was widowed for the second time she immediately tried to return to Medici service (no doubt as a means of financing herself and her children). Her return was delayed by the plagues of 1630-33, but by 1634 she was back in Florence with her two children, serving the court as music teacher to her daughter and to the Medici princesses, plus composing and performing chamber music and minor entertainments for the women’s court. Francesca left Medici service again in 1641, after which point she disappeared from the public record, so it is unknown when or where she died. However, what is certain is that she must have certainly been considered one of the most influential European composers of her time.
Her music seems to come in two broad listening styles, either having gusto or being heavily romantic and all her pieces absolutely scream Italian Renaissance. My recommendations to cover each type are: (for a more vigorous listen), Ciacconeand Il cavalier di Spagna from La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, or for a relaxing operatic tone, Dolce Maria and my personal favourite, which I strongly encourage you listen to, Lasciatemi (Aria).