Born Francesco Caletti in 1602, Francesco Cavalli later changed his name as a mark of gratitude to Federico Cavalli, governor of his home-town of Crema, whose support had enabled him to join the choir of the Basilica of St Mark’s as a boy soprano. There he sang under the direction of Monteverdi, with whom he may also have studied. At the age of 18 he was appointed organist to the Venetian church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, a post which he combined with his continuing duties at St Mark’s, as well with other freelance activities in the city as both singer and organist.
In 1630 his marriage to a wealthy widow eased his financial situation sufficiently for him to relinquish his organist job, and to enter the world of opera, then in its precarious infancy as an entertainment for a fee paying public rather than private patrons. His first opera, Le nozze de Teti e di Peleo, appeared in 1639, just predating Monteverdi’s late operas.
The next two decades, which witnessed the spread of opera throughout Italy and beyond, brought further examples at the rate of more than one a year, among which Egisto, Giasone, Xerse and Erismena were to prove widely popular and influential. In 1660 he was invited to France to compose an opera for the lavish celebrations marking the marriage of Louis XIV to Infanta Maria Theresia of Spain; the result, Ercole amante, was not a great success with the French, and soon after its long delayed premiere in 1662, Cavalli was back in Venice, vowing never to write for the theatre again. In fact he composed six more operas, although only four of them made it to the stage.
Throughout these years he had maintained his connection with St Mark’s. Just before his operatic debut he had been appointed second organist, and in 1665 he was promoted to first organist. Finally, in 1668 he succeeded Rovetta as maestro di cappella, a post he held until his death, a wealthy and respected man, eight years later.
Cavalli was the dominant figure in the emerging operatic genre in the quarter-century following Monteverdi’s death, his skills combining sound dramatic instincts with a knack for memorable melody. As a church composer he was also highly active, however; his sacred works – mostly published in two major collections, the Musiche sacre of 1656 and the Vesperi of 1675 – reflect the wide range of styles associated with St Mark’s, from motets for solo voices and instruments to festive music on the grandest scale.
Profile © Lindsay Kemp