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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 6

International Women's Day

by Francesca Caccini's / March 16, 2005

Opus to Woman Power

Bess Vasilakopoulos

Three hundred and eighty years ago, the obscure Baroque composition La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina (LLRDA) became the first opera written by a woman, the first opera not to be based on Greek legend, and the first Italian opera to ever be performed outside of Italy. Thanks to exceptional timing, its author, the now forgotten Francesca Caccini (1587--c. 1640) was able to express her incredible talent at a time when virtually every woman was powerless. Both in historical significance and in its musical treatment of the libretto, LLRDA became a symbol of woman power.

The eldest daughter of prominent composer Giulio Caccini (1546–1618), Francesca, nicknamed "La Cecchina" ("the songbird") by the Florentines for her lovely singing, received early training in singing and composition from her father at a time when monody and opera were new and growing genres. She would eventually compose and publish the first collection of sacred monodies, Il Primo libro delle musiche a una e due voci (published in 1618), which was the most extensive collection of solo songs by a composer to be published at the time.

Francesca was admired by the Medici court and famous intellects of the day, including composer Claudio Monteverdi, Italian Renaissance poet Gabriello Chiabrera and opera composer Giacomo Peri. Impressed by Francesca's October 1600 performance at her wedding to King Henry IV of France, Maria de' Medici took notice of this rising star, asking Giulio to consider keeping Francesca at the French court permanently. Giulio's refusal would later benefit his daughter.

On September 15, 1607, Francesca officially entered the service of the Florentine court receiving a small salary, composing smaller works and quickly graduating to large-scale operas as well as her aforementioned Primo libro. She would later become the Medici court's highest paid singer and composer, earning the second highest salary -- only the Duke's secretary made more.

In 1620, the death of Cosimo II resulted in the unusual circumstance that two women came to jointly rule. Since his ten-year-old son was too young to be in power, Cosimo de Medici's mother, Christine of Lorraine (1565–1636), and wife, Maria Maddalena of Austria (1587–1630), were appointed joint regents from 1621-1628. For the first time, women dominated the Medici court, and Francesca had the perfect environment in which to compose her greatest work.

During this period, the Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena commissioned Francesca to compose a work for the carnevale of 1625, in honour of the forthcoming visit of the Polish Prince Wladislaw Sigismund IV, who was returning to Poland after a long exile. He had just defeated the Turks in Wallachia and was headed to Rome where the pope was to bless him. The topic of LLRDA was most appropriate because in the story a Christian defeats the "heathens." It was highly unusual in the 17th century for a woman patron to help another woman artist with her career, and Maria Maddalena not only used her own private funds to realize the work, but became involved in the preparation of it, offering Francesca Florentine courtiers and live horses for the dance scenes.

LLRDA was performed at the Villa Poggio Imperiale on February 3, 1625. The list of dancers who performed in the balletti was composed of Florentine aristocrats, demonstrating the artistic stature of this masterpiece, and the esteem with which Francesca's music was regarded. Prince Sigismund IV was so impressed by the opera that he had it translated into Polish and performed in his own country three years later.

A tale of female power and desire, the plot centers around two women who fight for the possession of the fallen war hero Ruggiero: the evil and seducing sorceress Alcina and the good and pure sorceress Melissa, the true hero of the story. Francesca's music displays marked sophistication in its manipulation of musical structure, harmony, motives, phrase rhythm, text-painting, and broader issues of musical representation. Her use of harsh intervals, namely the diminished fourth and fifth, addresses Alcina's seductive and deceitful words. Unlike Alcina, Melissa's character makes comparatively little use of harsh intervals, proving that she is good and pure.

The harmonic and tonal means used by Francesca to portray the characters and dramatic situations throughout her opera were unique at the time. Examining two significant musical numbers by Alcina shows how she used tonal centers to depict the wicked sorceress's strength and weakness. The first segment is relatively stable tonally; moving through the tonal centers a, F, g and d respectively. Following the first cadence in G major, a sudden shift to a G minor makes it the new key. The same shift occurs in the second cadence in D major, which immediately moves to D minor, hence the new tonal center. Here, the very straightforward harmony reflects Alcina's control.

The second musical segment of two consecutive solo settings, "Ahi, Melissa, Melissa" and "Ferma, ferma crudele," depicts Alcina's anger and confusion. Melissa has just broken Alcina's spell, thereby causing the sorceress to lose her power and self-control, which is depicted in the tonal instability and very chromatic music. Francesca's choice to move through many tonal centers throughout this aria -- a, F, g, A and e implied -- is fitting.

Gender aside, Francesca was a pioneer of early monody and opera. Her music has the artistic stature to be integrated with that of the leading composers of early Baroque music including her father, Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi. It is high time that Francesca's talent and contributions be acknowledged, taught, celebrated and performed.

This essay is dedicated to all the unsung female heroes--real, fictional, past, present and future.

Bess Vasilakopoulos received her MA (University of Connecticut) in 1999 with a thesis dedicated to

Caccini's first opera.

Francesca Caccini:

La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina

Nannerl Recordings
Ars Femina Ensemble/Richard Burchard
Cat. Nº Nanerl NR-ARS 003 (1 CD)
1993/out of print
Pro Musica Camerata/ Wladyslaw Klosiewicz
PMC 012 (1CD)


8 mars : Journée internationale des femmes. La Scena Musicale suivra de près les activités du festival Maestra, le rendez-vous international des créatrices en musique, qui se tiendra à Montréal du 5 au 8 mai 2005

(c) La Scena Musicale