Pietro Francesco Cavalli

The Italian composer Pietro Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), the most outstanding figure in Venetian opera of his day, ushered in the style known as bel canto.

In bel canto, melody is typified by smooth-flowing, sensuous lines, sequential patterns, a slowish tempo, and predominantly triple meter; harmony is unobtrusive, with occasional flashes of chromaticism; and an overall unity prevails, underlined by the character of the bass, which tends to that of the melody, with the former often imitating the latter or arranged in the form of an ostinato. The importance of melody results in few ensembles, choruses, or purely instrumental numbers; even the recitatives are lyrical and arioso-like compared with the rapid patter of seccorecitative favored in later baroque opera. Following in Claudio Monteverdi's footsteps, Pietro Francesco Cavalli fused music and drama, with musical and dramatic climaxes coinciding, whereas in most later baroque operas the emotional peaks were largely determined by the composer, not the librettist.

Cavalli was born in Crema on Feb. 14, 1602, the son of Gian Battista Caletti-Bruni, director of the cathedral choir. In his early teens he enjoyed the patronage of a Venetian nobleman, Federigo Cavalli, who took him to Venice in 1616. Later, in recognition of his patron's kindness and in accordance with a common practice of the time, he adopted the nobleman's name. In 1617 Cavalli joined the choir of St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice, under Monteverdi, whose pupil he became. Cavalli remained at St. Mark's for the rest of his life, becoming second organist in 1640, first organist in 1665, and maestro di cappellain 1668. He died in Venice on Jan. 14, 1676.

No music by Cavalli is known before his first opera, Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo (1639), produced when he was 37 years old. During the next 30 years he wrote 42 operas, of which 28 have survived, the last being Coriolano (1669). All but four of these were first performed in Venice, although many of them were revived elsewhere, notably L'Egisto (1643), Giasone (1649), II Ciro (1654), and L'Erismena (1655).

Cavalli's reputation was not confined to Italy, for as early as 1646 L'Egisto was performed in Paris, and in 1660 he was invited there for the wedding of Louis XIV, where he produced his Serse (first performed in Venice in 1654), with Jean Baptiste Lully providing the ballet music that was an indispensable part of any opera in France. Two years later Cavalli visited Paris again to supervise the performance of his opera Ercole amante, originally written for Louis XIV's wedding but not staged for that event; again Lully wrote the ballet music.

During his last 8 years Cavalli wrote no operas, only a Vespers for eight voices (1675), though it is likely that a Requiem, also for eight voices, and sung at his funeral, was composed about this time.

Further Reading on Pietro Francesco Cavalli

Information about Cavalli is available in Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, from Monteverdi to Bach (1947); Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965); and Simon T. Worsthorne, Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century (1954).