Francesca Caccini’s life as a sixteenth century (female) composer
“What about your girls?” asks Elizabeth, the young pianist in Mr. Bach Comes to Call, “Didn’t you write any music for them?”
The spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach, who has been happily sharing his life story, has to sheepishly explain to his young audience, “Well, Elizabeth, you see in those days, girls were different…” Of course, it would have been much more accurate to say that the way society treated girls was different, especially, in Bach’s case, since his life was actually strikingly similar to one of the Baroque period’s premiere female composers, Francesca Caccini. While Caccini’s music hasn’t been preserved and celebrated as much as Bach’s, she had a long and at times monumental career in her own right.
Born into music
Caccini’s early years aren’t well documented, most likely because most women’s lives weren’t expected to be of historical significance, as the aforementioned spirit of Bach eluded to. Like Bach, Caccini had a musical family, her father being a composer and her mother being a singer. Born in 1587, she appears to have been well educated, and was trained as a singer, keyboardist, guitarist and harpist. Her first performances as a singer were with her younger sister and her stepmother Margherita, who was also a singer.
A composer’s career path in the early 17th century generally revolved around finding a patron to fund ongoing composing, singing and teaching. Caccini started working as part of her father’s ensemble with the Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany, but was eventually recruited to work for the de’ Medici family. That patronage bestowed a salary and, in a deviation from the experiences of her male counterparts, a dowry, allowing her to marry the singer Giovanni Signorini.
A most inspiring opera
Unfortunately, only one major opera by Caccini has survived the last 500 years, but it was an important piece. La Liberazione di Ruggiero was the first published opera written by a woman, and it was thoroughly appreciated in its own time. The comic opera involving magic and dragons was performed for the visiting Prince Władysław of Poland, who reportedly loved it enough to build a new opera house back home, inviting Caccini to write new music for its opening performances.
Arts to aristocracy
Unlike Bach, Caccini’s relationship with music waned slightly over time. Her daughter with her first husband became a singer, but her mother didn’t want her appearing on stage. After her husband died, she remarried, but to an aristocrat rather than another musician. The family relocated to Lucca, where Caccini had a son. She continued to compose music even after her husband died left her with a comfortable inheritance. However, requests for her daughter to perform on stage were repeatedly denied, as Caccini did not want to risk the family’s reputation with such appearances.
In the end, Caccini slipped out of any remaining limelight. While her life was clearly dominated by writing and teaching music, unlike Bach her death wasn’t directly recorded, much less publicly mourned. We are left to fill in the gaps, with her death likely being correlated to her son becoming the ward of her brother-in-law in 1645, four years after retiring from the de Medici court.
Source: Francesca Caccini, Music Academy Online