Her voice has been described as luminous, dazzling and shining and her acting witty, delightful, and feisty, Shannon Mercer is an artist of uncommon musical artistry, whose passion for her art form [...]
Francesca Caccini: O Viva Rosa
They spoke about it
Francesca Caccini, or « La Cecchina », Florence-born composer. Soprano Shannon Mercer reveals herself has the perfect performer of her vocal oeuvre, heartfelt baroque music with a foot in the Renaissance era. Sylvain Bergeron (theorbo, baroque guitar), Luc Beauséjour (harpsichord, organ) and Amanda Keesmaat (cello) are the ideal musical companions on this path to baroque music discovery. One of the first album entirely devoted to Francesca Caccini.
For musicians, whose individual career paths are constantly overlapping, it is not an uncommon experience for affinities to develop during joint projects. But occasionally, the synchronicity of such affinities can be completely unexpected. After having explored the liturgical repertoire of Vivaldi and Bach, as well as music from France, England and Wales, soprano Shannon Mercer wanted to tackle a program of 17th-century Italian music that would include works by the female composers Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini. At about the same time, harpsichordist and organist Luc Beauséjour came across the latter composer’s name in a work that mentioned she was known to Monteverdi. “He had spoken of the exceptional quality of her music, which piqued my curiosity,” explains Beauséjour. Over the summer, his research turned up facsimiles, and he suggested a reading session to get a better sense of Caccini’s musical personality. Given the variety and quality of these forgotten works, the idea of a recording project dedicated entirely to Caccini was a natural outcome.
A full life
Born in Florence in 1587 and often nicknamed “La Cecchina” (the singing bird), Francesca Caccini first studied music under the watchful eye of her mother, a soprano, and her father, Giulio Caccini, a prolific and respected composer and member of the Florentine Camerata, a circle of artists dedicated to the representation of the human soul through music. Along with her brother Pompeo and sister Settimia, she was a member of the Concerto Caccini, an ensemble whose notable performances included singing at the marriage of Henri IV of France and Maria de Medici in 1600. Four years later, when the king heard her in Paris, he was profoundly moved. “You are the best singer in France,” he unequivocally stated and immediately offered her a position at court, but the Florentine officials refused to release her from her engagement. In 1607, Francesca’s reputation was solid enough to win her a position with the Medici as a teacher, singer, vocal coach and composer of lyric and chamber music. The same year, she married another court musician, Giovanni Battista Signorini, whom she bore a daughter. In 1617, while the couple toured Milan, Parma, Lucca, Savona, and Genova, the poet Gabriello Chiabrera wrote: “Unquestionably, she was seen as a marvel and, in just a few days, her reputation had spread far and wide.”
Soon after the death of her first husband in December 1626, Francesca married a music-loving nobleman from Lucca, Tommaso Raffaelli, the father of her son. But Raffaelli died three years after their marriage, prompting her to return to the Medici court. In 1634, she took on the position as music teacher to the Medici princesses and to her own daughter, Margherita, with whom she also performed. She left the service of the Medici in 1641 and subsequently disappeared from the public record. She is buried in San Michele Visdomini cemetery in Florence, alongside her father and sister.
A unique style
A singer, lutenist, guitarist, and harpsichordist, by 1614, she had become the best paid court musician anywhere. Over the years, she composed an impressive number of works, including at least 16 stage works, of which unfortunately remain only the manuscripts of La liberazione di Ruggiero—the first Italian opera performed outside of Italy—and excerpts from La Tancia and Il passatempo. An examination of the few remaining scores of her works indicates the high degree of attention she paid to musical notation, in the rhythmical placement of syllables and words, especially beneath ornaments, in explicit phrasing indications, and in the meticulous notation of her frequently long and fluid melismas.
Francesca Caccini made use of surprising harmonies, which powerfully convey the various affects of the music. Instead of merely assuming their musical function, chords become colours. “She employed uniquely personal turns of phrase, especially in her cadential figures, and her bold dissonances do not always resolve where one would expect,” notes Beauséjour. “Cadences often end on a minor chord, when in Italy at the time, the major resolution was almost always preferred,” remarks Sylvain Bergeron, who also observes that “certain recurring melodic formulae are quite unusual.”
A seminal work
In 1618 she published Il primo libro delle musiche, dedicated to Cardinal Charles de Medici, a striking portrait of the artist in 36 tableaux. The varied collection includes euphoric religious songs, emotionally troubling laments, madrigals and canzonettas expressing the joys and perils of love, inspired by her own poems. While most of the pieces were probably accompanied by theorbo at the time, the musicians on this recording decided to use a fuller continuo, as implied by the inclusion of a bass line in the score. “We felt we would do better service to the music by having a more varied and lively instrumentation, giving us a wider palette of sounds to choose from,” states Beauséjour. It was Bergeron who proposed the choice of musical colours. “Above all, I tried to match instrumentation to style. Hence, the secular songs (canzonettas, arias, romanescas, etc.) employ Baroque guitar, cello and harpsichord, while the sacred songs use organ, cello and occasionally theorbo. The lighter, more rhythmical pieces were better suited to Baroque guitar, while for the more serious pieces, theorbo was the appropriate choice. And for songs with several verses, I used the text itself as a guide.”
In order to give the program some variety, the recording includes several instrumental tracks. Some songs were adapted for organ or cello, though strictly observing the written bass and melodic lines. The only works not by Francesca Caccini are Bergeron’s arrangement for Baroque guitar of four short songs by her father, Giulio, which Bergeron entitled Quattro Canzoni di mio padre, “as if Francesca had arranged a few of her father’s songs as a tribute.”
In tackling the interpretive challenges of this little-known repertoire, Mercer had to take a new approach to the trills, while also working on the control and breathing required to sustain Caccini’s long phrases and on clearly conveying the text, which includes many sonorous images. “It’s almost as if we were creating something completely new, or solving an equation. We had to be spontaneous and creative, and use our improvisational skills, and that’s what I love most about this repertoire. But we were all driven by the importance of bringing the work to light and recognizing the talent of this remarkable composer.”
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen