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Francesco Cavalli

17th-century singer, organist and composer

Francesco Cavalli, from an old encyclopedia

Born in Crema, then part of Venice's terra firma, Pier Francesco Cavalli (1602-76) began his career at age 14 as a choir boy at St Mark's Basilica under the direction of Monteverdi, then maestro di capella. Cavalli, whose exceptional musical talent soon attracted attention. He would spend the rest of his life at St Mark's—as a singer, organist, then himself as maestro di capella. His services were in great demand across music-mad Venice, both in churches and private palazzi.

After generally misbehaving like a modern rock star, racking up gambling debts (which his wealthy admirers paid) Cavalli married a wealthy widow in 1630 and became wealthy himself. He composed both church music and music for the theatre, and was one of the first to invest in public opera in Venice (his first opera, Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo was performed in 1639 at the Teatro San Cassiano). His fame was such that in 1659, Cardinal Mazarin commissioned an opera for the marriage of Louis XIV to Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain.

Cavalli composed some 41 operas (27 are preserved in the Bibilioteca Marciana). As the most important composer of opera in the third quarter of the 17th century, he contributed much to the new medium's popularity in his dramatic plots (often based on ancient Greek or Roman myth or history) and his melodic arias. Several of his operas, such as Elena, based on the story of Helen of Troy, have recently enjoyed revivals (see one here).

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art