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Volume 16, no. 1:

Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power. By Suzanne G. Cusick. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. (xxxvi, 445 pp., accompanying CD, ISBN 978-0-226-13212-9. $60.)

Reviewed by Andrew Dell’Antonio*

1. Waiting for Francesca

2. Famiglie Femminili

3. Virtù and Virtuosity

4. Hearing Caccini in Private and in Public

5. Learning a Romanesca of One’s Own

6. Staging the Power of Women’s Voices

7. Performing Francesca

References

1. Waiting for Francesca

1.1 I have been waiting for Chapter 10 of Suzanne Cusick’s Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power for twenty years.

1.2 In her introductory notes, Cusick tells her reader of a significant moment in her historiographical trajectory, when she decided to “go public” with her gender-grounded approach to Francesca Caccini’s life and work. The resulting presentation at the 1989 AMS meeting in Baltimore—a preliminary version of the complex and compelling analytical argument that forms the core of Cusick’s Chapter 10, “Performance, Musical Design, and Politics in La liberazione di Ruggiero”—was absolutely riveting to a young graduate student, whose scholarly imagination was arguably more shaped by the nuanced flow of Cusick’s talk than by the more provocative and renowned paper on gendered musical rhetoric in Monteverdi’s Orfeo that was also featured at that meeting and was later published in what has to be acknowledged as the most influential volume on gender and musicology.1 That former graduate student is now privileged to review a book that many of us have been eagerly anticipating for a very long time, and there is no question that it was truly worth the wait.

2. Famiglie Femminili

2.1 Some of the perspectives presented in Cusick’s book are not foreign to those of us who have been following her groundbreaking scholarship on music and gender in early modern Italy.2 However, the level of detail and historiographical “thickness” afforded by the book-length format provides a perspective on the biographical and creative trajectory of Caccini and her famiglia—both in the early-modern-courtly sense and the more modern biological one—that is simultaneously well synchronized with Cusick’s other work (she has resisted a temptation that is all too common in our field, in that the reader will find surprisingly little in the way of factual duplication of her earlier essays on Caccini) and remarkable for its ability to open new models of historical narrative.

2.2 As Cusick tells us in her introduction, she has chosen to “sandwich” four chapters that provide close readings of Caccini’s music between two narrative arcs that trace her biography, but the story neither begins with Caccini nor ends with her. Rather, Cusick gives us insights into the lives of several women, and a few men, whose personal trajectories help us trace a cultural-political history of Florence that provides a narrative that is not only separate from but complementary to—and in some ways more clearly tied to political reality than—the “standard” narrative of Medici-sponsored monody and dramma per musica. Readers who are familiar with Cusick’s scholarship will not be surprised to discover that the alternative narrative (and indeed, the alternative historiographical paradigm) that she offers is both feminist and gynocentric—and quite reasonably so.  The regency of Christine of Lorraine and Maria Magdalena of Austria was both problematic and fertile for the Florentine body politic in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, though as Cusick also observes, modern scholars have unnecessarily tarred them with narrative metaphors of decay. Cusick traces the “women’s court” through what she could easily have characterized as a “rise and fall” of political influence but instead more subtly describes as a fluid relationship of exchange between female agents of various social strata, a dynamic made all the more subtle by the necessity for behavioral “inwardness” as a mark of female gentility in early modern Italy.

2.3 Cusick’s work thus dovetails with Kelley Harness’s systematic study of public spectacle during the female regency in Echoes of Women’s Voices, and Cusick acknowledges her debt to and connection with Harness’s groundbreaking work.3 While Harness focuses on the outward “political face” constructed by the regents through drama and music, Cusick turns her attention to the more subtle private relationships among the members of the female court, especially as they unfolded around the career and ambitions of “The Daughter of Giulio Romano.”

3. Virtù and Virtuosity

3.1 Cusick describes the complex negotiations undertaken by Francesca Caccini to fulfill—not for herself, but for her homonymous granddaughter, whom we meet at the end of the book and whom she probably never knew—the life-long aim for which she, and her father Giulio before her, had desperately struggled: recognition as a member of the “gentle-class,” individuals considered nominally equal to the prince in caste, if distinguished from that role by hierarchical separation. We discover that Caccini’s resource in this endeavor was her careful balance of castità, onestà, and continenza—the three necessary traits of the well-bred early modern Italian female—with virtù, the noble masculine trait of self-mastery and self-display that had recently become available through musical performance not only to lower-caste males (with Giulio Caccini as an early self-styled non-noble virtuoso) but to extraordinary females as well.

3.2 Cusick elegantly shows us the process whereby the canny female rulers-in-all-but-name of Florence (and foremost Christine of Lorraine, who in some ways is as much at the center of the book as Francesca) first recruited and then groomed Francesca to be the official “voice” of female-regent power, defined as sustaining, approximating, but not usurping the official male virtù of the Grand Duke. The web of history that emerges is far too rich to be given its due in a short review; suffice it to say that it is both grounded in extensive, scrupulous archival research and honed into a gripping narrative that may tempt the reader (certainly induced this one) to skip over the middle chapters to accompany Francesca, her benefactors, and her family into the sunset of their powers and lives (and “afterlives”).

4. Hearing Caccini in Private and in Public

4.1 Yet this would be a mistake (or, perhaps, would then require the multiple readings that this book so richly deserves), for the analytical chapters are where some of Cusick’s most novel and extraordinary insights are to be found. To be sure, she has offered crucial analytical perspectives on some of Caccini’s music in the past as well.4 Here, however, in the middle four chapters of the book, she provides two separate analytical-interpretative “arcs” that lead us through the two major surviving examples of Caccini’s compositional output: her Primo libro delle musiche and La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. As Cusick observes in her introduction, this is a very limited repertory: thirty-six songs and a seventy-five-minute stage work. Yet these two very different musical assemblages—one designed for chamber song, the other for the very public re-dedication of the Medici Villa of Poggio Imperiale above Palazzo Pitti—allow Cusick to present readings that both draw upon and push beyond established paradigms. In the process, she sets both clear models and high bars for those of us who continue to struggle with creating analytical language that does justice to the complexity of early seventeenth-century Italian music.

5. Learning a Romanesca of One’s Own

5.1 Cusick considers the Libro delle musiche not merely as an extraordinary sample of the second generation of “new music” pioneered—at least according to his own account—by Caccini’s father Giulio, but as a work that (just like her father’s collection) demonstrates/embodies (or perhaps, “envoices”) a pedagogical approach. Unlike that of her teacher-father, however, Francesca’s book,  Cusick argues, is specifically meant to train and envoice the female professional singer for the musico-rhetorical work required by the gynocentric court. Like her husband Grand Duke Ferdinando, Christine of Lorraine chose professional singers to serve as sonic representations of authority; Cusick leads us through Francesca’s book and shows us how, through mastery of its resources, the young singer could gain the requisite skills to do so in the complex “publically private” spaces governed by the female regents.

5.2 In the process, Cusick dwells at length on the nuanced ways Caccini deployed various aspects of the Romanesca (as she herself observes, the working title of the book was for some time A Romanesca of Her Own, and while the current title is certainly more transparent to the wide audience that this book deserves, there are some of us who would have enjoyed the resonance). Other scholars have both acknowledged and drawn from Tim Carter’s groundbreaking discussion of the early-modern parameters of aria in his 1993 Music Analysis essay;5 however, Cusick here takes the complexity of the concept to a new level, providing extensive examples of how Caccini demonstrated the ways of being/performing that were made possible by the aria di romanesca in her Libro delle musiche.

5.3 Cusick’s analyses are explicitly keyed not only to detailed and clearly explicated visual musical examples (within the flow of the prose, rather than at the end of the chapter, which greatly facilitates understanding; Cusick and her editors at Chicago are to be commended for this choice) but also to tracks on the accompanying CD, which contains selections from Caccini’s music performed by soprano Emily Van Evera and an accompanying continuo group. These are marvelously expressive performances, which appear deeply informed by Cusick’s readings of Caccini’s music, just as Cusick’s own interpretations are explicitly informed by discussions with Van Evera about the physical realities of singing. The changing instrumentation in the continuo group from song to song is not only tailored to the expressive requirements of the individual texts but also demonstrative of the variety of ripieno textures available to Caccini. While one might regret that more of the Libro delle musiche is not included on the disc, one can also hope for a complete recording (a double-CD, perhaps, with commentary by Cusick?) under separate cover at some point.

6. Staging the Power of Women’s Voices

6.1 While the first two analytical chapters concern Caccini’s contributions as a teacher-composer in a private frame, the second two consider Caccini’s sole surviving complete work for the stage, a demonstration of her more “public” musical activity. Cusick not only describes the complex multi-stage event (performed partly by professionals, partly by noblemen) of which La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina was a part, but she also unpacks at some length the political circumstances that Florence’s female regents were both responding to and shaping through the sonic and dramatic power of the event. Here Cusick’s readings are in dialogue with those of Harness, who also provides an analysis of selected passages from La liberazione and an assessment of its political significance; a reader would be well served by familiarity with both interpretations of this work, which is not just “the first opera” by a female composer, but a rare example of a surviving early modern balletto.6

6.2 Cusick’s analysis of the complex musical-expressive resources created by Caccini to support the dramatic trajectory of the balletto indeed fulfilled this eager reader’s twenty-year-old recollection of a mollis-durus “contrasting soundscape,” and—not surprisingly—the hermeneutic approach has gained even further nuance with the passage of time. Several scenes from the work are examined in detail from a melodic/harmonic perspective, drawing on an expanded version of the analytical framework developed by Eric Chafe.7 As in the chapters on the Libro delle musiche, these analyses are keyed to excerpts on the accompanying CD, giving the reader a concrete opportunity to follow Cusick’s argument about dramatic-sonic power. Even with this, readers should be aware that Cusick clearly expects a focused commitment on their part: the analytical arguments are dense and complex, requiring a solid familiarity (or the desire to gain it) with early seventeenth-century musical syntax.

6.3 Cusick’s hermeneutic approach to La liberazione is purposefully experimental and provocative, drawing strongly on her own response to a modern performance of the balletto for insights on its potential for gender-political work that would have served the rhetorical needs of Florence’s female regents. While admitting that I found this last strategy the least convincing interpretative approach in the book, I would not claim that its insights are inherently less valuable —Cusick’s work pushes interpretative boundaries throughout, and readers are likely to find some aspects of her project more consonant with their own intellectual priorities than others, and to be fruitfully challenged to consider the value of unaccustomed paradigms.

7. Performing Francesca

7.1 It is a long-acknowledged truism, though perhaps one not frequently voiced in print, that scholars gravitate to topics that speak to their own sensibilities. Cannily deploying a multitude of rhetorical devices, interrupting the Romanesca of Caccini’s life-narrative to let Caccini’s expressive sound-manipulations tell their own tale and then resuming it to bring the book to a close, all the while showing the repetitions and variations that define both her subject’s life and the aria that she took on as her own expressive medium, Cusick also performs as a virtuosa—but in the sense that the term inhabited before the connotations of theatricality (and perhaps excess) acquired in the generations after Caccini. Like her subjects (not only Francesca Caccini, but her daughter and students and the patrons who opened up the gynocentric space within which she operated), Cusick has wrested the performative control of historiographical virtù away from its default connotations of masculinity, articulating a vision of history and musical hermeneutics that amply fulfills the promise of “writing from women’s lives” presented in the Musical Quarterly article with which she pioneered her discipline-defining approach. Francesca would have liked singing for her.

References

* Andrew Dell’Antonio (dellantonio@austin.utexas.edu) is Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division of the Butler School of Music and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. His foremost research interest is the process of listening—how it has been characterized and fostered from the 1600s to the present and how different modes of listening influence the social uses and cultural meanings of music. His edited collection Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing (2004) and his monograph Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy (2011) are both available through The University of California Press.

1 Susan McClary, “Constructions of Gender in Monteverdi’s Dramatic Music,” in Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 35–52.

2 See for instance Suzanne G. Cusick, “‘Thinking from Women’s Lives’: Francesca Caccini after 1627,” The Musical Quarterly 77, no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 484–507; “Of Women, Music, and Power: A Model from Seicento Florence,” in Musicology and Difference, ed. Ruth A. Solie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 281–304; “Gendering Modern Music: Thoughts on the Monteverdi-Artusi Controversy,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 46, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 1–25; “‘There Was Not One Lady Who Failed to Shed a Tear’: Arianna’s Lament and the Construction of Modern Womanhood,” Early Music 22, no. 1 (Feb. 1994): 21–43; and “A Soprano Subjectivity: Vocality, Power, and the Compositional Voice of Francesca Caccini,” in Crossing Boundaries: Attending to Early Modern Women, ed. Jane Donawerth and Adele Seeff (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2000), 80–128.

3 Kelley Harness, Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

4 See for instance her “‘Who is this woman… ?’: Self-Presentation, Imitatio virginis, and Compositional Voice in Francesca Caccini’s Primo Libro of 1618,” Il saggiatore musicale 5, no. 1 (1998): 5–41.

5 Tim Carter, “‘An Air New and Grateful to the Ear’: The Concept of ‘Aria’ in Late Renaissance and Early Baroque Italy,” Music Analysis 12, no. 2 (July 1993): 127–45.

6 Harness addresses La liberazione in Echoes of Women’s Voices, 152–62.

7 Eric T. Chafe, Monteverdi’s Tonal Language (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992).

 


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