Francesco Cavalli Biography

(Italian Composer, Organist and Singer Known for His Operas: ‘Ormindo’, ‘Giasone’ and ‘la Calisto’)

Birthday: February 14, 1602 (Aquarius)

Born In: Crema, Italy

Francesco Cavalli was an Italian composer, organist and singer known as one of the best opera composers of the 17th century. Born to a musician father, Francesco was interested in doing music from an early age. He caught the attention of a patron named Federico Cavalli, who funded Francesco’s musical education and helped him find a job in Venice, where Francesco lived and worked almost all his life. He joined St. Mark’s church as a second organist and later, the first organist. But his true interest lay in composing operas, the love for which he had inherited from his music teacher in Venice, Monteverdi. In 1639, Francesco composed his first opera in Venice and in the next few decades, he composed about 42 operas in total. However, only 27 of those have survived to this day. Some of his most popular operatic works are Didone, Egisto and Giasone. In many aspects of composing operas, Francesco outperformed his teacher Monteverdi, who is still known as the pioneer who established opera as the genre. Hence, Francesco is also known as one of the earliest opera composers that played a big role in the popularity of the genre.

Quick Facts

Italian Celebrities Born In February

Also Known As: Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni

Died At Age: 73


father: Gian Battista Caletti-Bruni

Born Country: Italy

Composers Opera Singers

Died on: January 14, 1676

place of death: Venice, Italy

Childhood & Early Life

Francesco Cavalli was born Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni, on February 14, 1602, in Crema, Lombardy. He was the son of a musician named Goivanni Battista Caletti. His father worked as the director of a local cathedral choir. Pietro grew up amidst difficult circumstances but thanks to his father, he became hugely interested in playing music. His father was most probably his first-ever teacher.

Francesco’s natural talents for music were visible ever since he was a kid. He caught the attention of the Venetian governor of Crema, named Federico Cavalli. Federico liked his voice and decided to support a young Francesco in his musical endeavours. Later, in honour of his patron, Francesco changed his name.

When Federico’s term ended as the governor, he had to move back to Venice. He took a teenager Francesco with him. In 1616, Francesco earned a job as the Capella of St. Mark’s in Venice and became a boy soprano there. However, as Francesco grew up, his voice changed and he later became a tenor in the choir.

His first formal music teacher was Claudio Monteverdi, who himself was an esteemed opera composer. Francesco sang under the direction of Monteverdi and for about 25 years of his life, he studied under him. Monteverdi was one of the highly revered opera composers in Italy. It was believed that it was Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo which confirmed opera’s place as a separate genre of its own. It was there that Francesco become deeply attracted to the prospect of becoming an opera composer himself.

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One of his earliest known publications was in a motet anthology by Ghirlanda sacra. In the publication, Francesco was featured as one of 26 composers in total.

Despite holding a good position at the St. Mark’s, the income was not enough to go by in an expensive city such as Venice. Hence, Francesco had to do other gigs as well. He took the position as an organist at a different church and also sang at many church festivals.

In 1639, he composed his first opera titled Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, which was performed in January that year at the Teatro San Cassiano. It was a newly opened opera house which was inaugurated just two years prior. Francesco’s first opera was set to a libretto by Orazio Persiani and was the first work by Francesco that survived to this day. In addition, it also happens to be the first Venetian opera for which the score was properly recorded and maintained. It is also performed to this day.

Francesco earned quite a lot from this venture, way more than he made at the church. Hence, he began composing operas primarily and made his church job a secondary one. After his marriage, he left the church.

After the success of his first opera, Francesco composed at least 40 operas during his lifetime. Egisto and Ormindo were two operas that followed his first one and were largely successful productions as well. These early works of Francesco were revived in the 20th century, however, they were altered quite a bit to suit the modern audiences.

Egisto was performed in Paris and had a French influence. However, Francesco being an Italian primarily, had most of his musical training according to the Italian norms. Hence, Egisto’s success in Paris sparked a battle between the French and Italian styles. Didone, composed in 1641, was another one of his most interesting works that played with different theme

One of the most successful among his operas that survived to this day was Giasone. It had some comic elements and when it was performed in Venice in 1649, it went on to become the single most popular opera in entire Italy. The three-act opera touched new grounds in terms of techniques used.

For a decade or so, Francesco composed operas that premiered at the Teatro San largely. For his 1651 opera titled La’ Armidoro and a few that followed, Francesco changed the venue to the newly opened Teatro Sant’ Apollinaire. Most of his librettos in the early 1650s were written by Giovanni Faustini.

In the mid 17th century, Opera was only a rising genre and Francesco excelled at it. His teacher Monteverdi was himself a pioneer of the genre and Francesco successfully carried on his teacher’s legacy. However, there was a key difference between the styles of teacher-student. While Monteverdi’s operas were huge and extravagant, Francesco’s were relatively minimal, using a smaller orchestra in accordance with the limitation presented by the local public opera houses.

Additionally, Francesco’s operas also were less intensive on the recitatives and are way less probing into the minds and psyche of the lead characters. They also lacked variety when it comes to comparisons with his teacher’s works. But where Francesco overtook his teacher was his complex use of arias. Francesco’s operas also relied heavily on grotesque humour, a quality Monteverdi’s operas used only sparsely.

That said, talking about the religious works, it is difficult to differentiate Francesco’s works from his master, such as one of the earliest religious pieces by Francesco, titled Cantate Domino. One can easily confuse this piece with that of his teacher as it sounded strikingly similar to the works of Monteverdi. Thus, while he discovered new areas in secular opera composing, he produced religious music following the set traditions.

While he mostly worked in Venice, Francesco also had a strong professional relationship with Paris. His soaring popularity also caught the attention of King Louis XIV. A modified version of his opera Serse was played during the king’s wedding celebrations in 1660. This was a compromise that Francesco had to make though. He had prepared a new opera titled Ercole Amante for the occasion but he could not complete it in due time. But he was under pressure to perform something and a slightly modified version of Serse was the one he chose.

Ercole amante was finally completed in 1662 and was performed in Paris, with its libretto given by Francesco Buti. Towards the end of his life, his reputation plummeted a little bit. Two of his final operas titled Eliogabalo and Masenzio were never performed.

Throughout his life, Francesco composed 42 operas and only 27 of them stood the test of time. They are preserved at the St. Mark’s library in Venice. A few of his operas are also preserved at different locations.

Personal Life & Death

Francesco Cavalli married a wealthy widow named Maria Sozomeno in January 1630. This marriage significantly improved his financial situation and he no longer needed to work at the church for a meagre income. He focused completely on his operatic career after marriage.

Francesco passed away on January 14, 1676. He was 73 years old at the time of his death.

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