Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power
By Suzanne G. Cusick. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, July 2009. Cloth with CD: ISBN 9780226132129, $60. 488 pages.
Review by Reba Wissner, Brandeis University
Francesca Caccini was one of the most prolific female composers and performers of the seventeenth century, and recently, musicologists and interdisciplinarians have generated an extensive body of literature on the role of women in early modern Europe, mainly in Italy. Suzanne G. Cusick’s study of the composer eloquently situates itself within that realm. This, Cusick’s first book, has been long awaited. A scholar known for her enlightening and engaging articles on subjects such as feminist perspectives on early music and the use of music as torture in terrorist containment camps, it is high time for a book by this talented scholar. Additionally, hers is the first extended and in-depth study of one of the most influential female Italian musicians of the Baroque. Cusick deliberately avoids the technical language that pervades most musicological scholarship while still conveying her ideas and analysis of Caccini, her role as a female in a predominantly male world, and her compositions. The author’s copious research brings to light a new side of Caccini that has been neglected far too long; she is portrayed not just as the daughter of famed composer Giulio Caccini, but as a composer, performer, and teacher in her own right, no longer studied in the shadow of her father. Cusick’s study illuminates the life of Francesca Caccini, placing her life within the context of family dynamics, societal norms, and economic implications.
The reader will immediately respect the clarity of Cusick’s prose, as well as her meticulous attention to detail. The book contains a CD to accompany and complement the study. There is plentiful incorporation of musical examples to demonstrate specific musico-textual instances in the music that are of the utmost value to those who can read music, but do not make understanding the book difficult for those who cannot. The book discusses and places into context the role of the professional musician, and Cusick frames her study with contemporaneous events in Florence during Caccini’s compositional activity. The book is organized into twelve chapters with three appendices including Francesca Caccini’s known performances and compositions. Cusick’s meticulousness has been extended into her careful transcriptions of Caccini’s extant letters, also found in an appendix.
Cusick’s desire to examine music “as a set of actions rather than as a set of works” (xxii) forms the basis of her study, and she succeeds brilliantly. The author confesses that the personal nature of this endeavor was spurred through observing and experiencing the effects of misogyny both in the classroom and in academia as a whole, but she confines this narrative only to the introduction, thus allowing the book to be focused on her research. Chapter 1 chronicles the birth and early life of Francesca, noting the special influence that her father and his music had on her and hers. Chapter 2 discusses Francesca under the employ of Christina de Lorraine, depicting Francesca as a commodity. Chapter 3 gives an in-depth look at the court of Christina de Lorraine and the environment in which Francesca worked. Chapter 4 discusses Francesca’s early service to the Medici Court as both composer and performer of court spectacle. Chapter 5 discusses Francesca’s home and the work ethic to which she subscribed. Chapters 6-8 introduce her first masterpiece of music, her first book of madrigals (Primo libro delle musiche, 1618), its contents, and the circumstances by which the pieces were composed. Cusick also analyzes the secular songs, some of which incorporate Marian tunes, in the first half of the book, in terms of their dialogic relationship to one another and the anxiety of voice that they express. She also outlines the second half of the first book of madrigals, but here instead of a collection of secular songs, we now have songs that while not sacred, are rooted in the sacred and sometimes liturgical tradition, such as psalms. Unlike those songs contained in the first half of the book, those in second half are not gendered. While Cusick proposes that the songs in the first book of madrigals are gendered, I question whether or not Caccini herself intended for such a reading of her music. Chapters 9-10 examine the circumstances surrounding the composition and performance of Francesca’s opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, the only entertainment Francesca wrote to survive nearly whole. Cusick situates La liberazione di Ruggiero in relation to Maria Magdalena d’Austria’s regency and its relation to her political agenda. Chapter 11 discusses Francesca’s life post-Liberazione and the culmination of her public career after becoming widowed. Chapter 12 discusses life in Christina’s court after Francesca, as well as Christina’s interest in the Monastero di Santa Croce. Francesca’s life during the 1630s is also examined in this context, as well as her life after her patron’s death.
The major criticism of this text is the incorporation of sometimes seemingly trivial or supplementary information, for example the first part of Chapter 12. Additionally, Cusick’s book does not contain any particular argument, but rather is more of a contextual biography than a thought-provoking study. While Cusick’s explanation of the history of Christina and the Medici Court is both interesting and necessary, and she deals conscientiously with the dearth of archival materials available to her, there are some instances, mainly in Chapter 3, where I feel such copious detail seems at times both unnecessary and irrelevant and as a result detracts from the book’s purpose.
Suzanne Cusick’s groundbreaking study represents an important addition to recent musicological scholarship on the lives of female composers, particularly those of the seventeenth century; a field that only recently has been burgeoning. This book will be of interest to readers interested in music history, cultural studies, and the role of women in early modern Italy. By examining the historical and cultural elements, the author brings new, exciting, invigorating, and much-needed in-depth analysis, and provides a more accurate portrayal of the composer and her works than has been seen before.