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A First Hand Account of Francesca Caccini’s Performances

“…this young girl began to apply her mind to counterpoint and passagi, in a short time mastering both, [and] created compositions such that they were highly esteemed, requested and prized by the leading me of the profession, and by great princes.”

While Francesca Caccini is most often identified primarily as “the daughter of Giulio Caccini” in modern literature, that is not how Cristoforo Bronzini began his biographical sketch of Francesca in his survey of noted women of Tuscany, Della dignità e nobilità delle donne, published serially between 1622 and 1632. Thanks to the extraordinary work of Suzanne Cusick, we have a rich and multi-faceted portrait of this most remarkable musician.

As Cusick has noted, Francesca was one of the first women to enjoy a fully professional career as a salaried musician, working for more than two decades for the granducato of Tuscany in Florence. I will be writing more about this book in subsequent posts about Cusick’s recent book, Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court, but here I wanted to share another excerpt from Bronzini’s account of Francesca found in Cusick’s book.

The following account of Francesca’s performances was written by Bronzini sometime after Francesca left the Medici Court in 1627 and translated by Prof. Cusick. Observe that Francesca is remembered for her musical erudtion and skill, rather than for her beauty and charm. Referring to her nickname at the time “La Ceccina”, Bronzini describes the miraculous power not only of Francesca’s voice but of her compositions. It is noteworthy that, like many of the great performers of the time, Francesca was prized for her ability to improvise as well as her interpretation of written music. (I also find the passage interesting as well for it’s references to the classical modes in describing the different melodies she performed. More on that later.)

Many times, finding myself where she was, together with many noble persons, we heard the marvelous woman accompany her own Phrygian song with such grace, whether on harpsichord, lute or theorbo, and work such stunning effects in the minds of her listeners that she made them pliant agreeable, or many other things by turn, so that it was a wonder, to tell the truth something almost unbelievable.

This same woman, whenever it suited her (no less than, indeed maybe far more than Amphion) so ignited wonder and daring in the breasts of the people that they would have done anything, no matter how difficult. At other times she changed her listeners with a manniera…such that wanting to sweeten the ferocity and cruelty of hearts, with the gentlest of song she brought forth in them sweet, pleasing and human ways, such that they set their annoyances aside for the sweetness of delights, the merriment of song, and the preciousness of sound, and in this way drew them toward herself…

Other times…making herself heard…in that music called Dorian (which has the intrinsic virtue of elevating the low and earthbound in human minds to the level of sublime contemplation), with such sweetness she made other people’s minds climb to the contemplation of celestial things, such that she transformed (I daresay one could say) human beings into gods.

What will I say of her Lydian music? Which when heard took the mantle of joy away from hearts and faces, so that, wrapped only in the sadness of melancholy and the denseness of dark clouds, there was nothing to do but weep?”

Would that Magnificat could come close to such performances! Even read through the filter of typically exagerrated seicento prose, this is high praise indeed. But there’s more…

Our miraculous Cecchina knew not only these three maniere of songs, but many others that created various effects in human minds. some of them bent the irascible of heart to agreeable meekness and some the lust in the will of others to praiseworthy temperance. With the soft sound of her playing and the sweetness of her song she invited every breast (even if opposed to chaste intentions) to pure continenza and onestà, for which her own modesty and integrity shone equal to those most renowned for these virtues. Some other manniere that she knew could bring the sick and weak of body to longed-for health and recovery of their strength.”

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