Francesca Caccini, also nicknamed “La Cecchina,” was a Florentine composer and music teacher who distinguished herself as an important figure of the early Baroque era in Italy.
Though Caccini is credited with many compositions throughout her career, only one opera—a comedy called “La liberazione di Ruggerio,” or “The Liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina”—survived to the present day. It is recognized by historians as the first opera composed by a woman. The opera premiered in 1625—making it just a few years younger than Peri’s “Dafne” of 1598, which is considered the first opera.
Caccini was born to a musical family in September of 1587. Her father, Giulio Caccini, is seen as one of founders of opera as well as a developer of the Baroque sound in Italy. Her sister, Settimia Caccini, was a famous soprano, who sang alongside Francesca at the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France.
Francesca and her sister were raised in Florence, where their father was employed as a musician by the Medici family. Caccini closely studied with her father and became a colleague of Jacopo Peri (composer of “Dafne”).
Following the premiere of “La liberazione di Ruggerio” in 1625, Caccini’s first husband died, leading her to marry the aristocrat Tommaso Raffaelli, a music-lover based in the city of Lucca. There, she raised her family, which included a daughter from her first marriage and a son from her second.
Following the death of her second husband, Caccini longed to reignite her career as a musician and returned to Florence and the Medici Court by 1634. There, she served as a music teacher for female students, including her daughter, Margherita. Caccini left the Medici Court in 1641 for reasons unknown, and her life afterward is lost to the historical record.
Caccini wrote sixteen stage works including “La Tancia (1613),” “Il passatempo (1614),” “La fiera (1619),” and “La liberazione di Ruggerio,” her most famous work and only surviving opera. In addition, Caccini was a prolific composer of soprano and bass duets. Much of her music was comedic in nature, and she often wrote her own poetry to accompany songs.
“La liberazione di Ruggerio” is known as the first opera written by a woman, but was also one of the first Italian operas to be performed outside of Italy in the seventeenth century. The opera was commissioned by the wife of Cosimo de’ Medici to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Poland during the Carnival season of 1625.
The opera tells the story of “Orlando Furioso,” by the Renaissance poet and early humanist thinker Ludovico Ariosto. It is based on the legends of Charlemagne, Roland, and the Franks. Caccini composed the work in the style of Monteverdi and Peri.
The Prince of Poland brought the work back to Warsaw in 1628 and has been recorded most recently by the Boston Early Music Festival in 2018.
Watch & Listen
Here is “Chi desia di saper che cosa è amore,” sung by Elena Cecchi Fedi
“Lasciatemi Qui Solo,” sung by Maria Cristina Kiehr
“La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina,” sung by Caterina Tonini