Synagogue Choral Music in Renaissance Italy

During the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Jews of Mantua, Venice and Ferrara had began to developed a taste for le nuove musiche, the new music of the period. At the same time, the counterreformation demanded enforcement of the laws that separated the Jew from his neighbor. Now, at the peak of the Renaissance, Italian Jews were forced to turn increasingly inward; their appetites for le nuove musiche would now have to be satisfied within the confines of their own community. The synagogue would provide the venue for this fine art.

In Padua and Ferrara there were synagogue choirs at the end of the 16th century. In Modena there was an organ; in Venice a complete orchestra. Flaunting the centuries-old tradition, these practices came under heavy criticism from many conservative members of the community.[1]

We have the correspondence of Rabbi Leone da Modena (Judah Aryeh) (1574-1648, Italy) regarding the establishment of a choir in Ferrara in the first decade of the seventeenth century. A true Renaissance man, Da Modena was a scholar in many disciplines, a famous rabbi of the Venetian community, as well as an amateur musician.

Rabbi Leone de ModenaIn 1605, he replied to Venetian Jews who inquired about the admissibility of choral singing in the synagogue. He not only replied in the affirmative, but defended liturgical singing with great vigor.

We have among us some connoisseurs of the science of singing, six or eight knowledgeable persons of our community. We raise our voices on the festivals, and sing songs of praise in the synagogue to honor God with compositions of vocal harmony. A man stood up to chase us away saying that it is not right to do so, because it is forbidden to rejoice, and that the singing of hymns and praises in harmony is forbidden. Although the congregation clearly enjoyed our singing this man rose against us and condemned us publicly, saying that we had sinned before God![2]

Modena was also friend and champion of the Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, whose madrigals and instrumental compositions rank among the finest musical works of the period. In 1623, Rossi published (with Modena's help) the first collection of Jewish choral music for the synagogue — Ha-Shirim asher le-Shelomoh. On Simhat Torah in 1628, a choir performed Rossi's music in the Sephardic synagogue in Venice — a rare event during this period. In reaction to the controversy surrounding this event, the liberal Rabbi published the following responsum:

I do not see how anyone with a brain in his skull could cast any doubt on the propriety of praising God in song in the synagogue on special Sabbaths and on festivals. . . . No intelligent person, no scholar ever thought of forbidding the use of the greatest possible beauty of voice in praising the Lord, blessed be He, nor the use of musical art which awakens the soul to His glory.[3]

graphic Hebrew

Question posed to Leone da Modena, from original manuscript

When Rossi's choral work was first published in 1623, it was preceded by the following open letter of Leone of Modena to "all whose ears are willing to understand truth."

As everybody knows, it is from the Hebrews that the other nations have borrowed music. For who could forget King David, that wonderful poet who taught the sons of Asaph, Henan and Jeduthun music (1 Chronicles 25:1-6), as it is written? It is also well known that he created vocal music, while instrumental music flourished during the long period of the first and second Temples.

But our banishment, our dispersal over the earth, the unbelievable persecutions inflicted upon us, caused inevitably the decline and downfall of the arts. For when the anger of the Lord fell upon us, nothing was left of our spiritual wealth. The rich well was exhausted and dried up. We have been compelled to borrow our music from other nations and adapt it to our religious sings: until this epoch when Solomon made his appearance, who excelled in the musical science not only among the Israelites but also among the Christians. He succeeded by his merits in rising in the ranks of singers who belong to the choir of the Duke of Mantua. His musical works composed for Italian texts were so successful that many of them have been received with admiration everywhere. His music has been so acclaimed that we might say, "God has opened the eyes of the blind and unstopped the ears of the deaf" (Isaiah 35:5). In spite of the indolence of his co-religionists he did not allow himself to become discouraged. He turned faithfully to the Lord, and each day added Psalms, hymns and Synagogal songs to those of the previous day. He has collected them into one volume. Now his followers were eager to sing his compositions. They have studied them, they were delighted and their ears enchanted….

The public should also be informed that the Hebrew words have been written from left to right in order to be adapted to the musical notes. The author preferred to sacrifice the [normal] way of inserting the printed text rather than change the ordinary manner of writing the notes. In doing so, he was entitled to rely upon the choral singers who usually know the text of all Psalms and songs by heart. He also found it unnecessary to add vowels, for the singers do no need a punctuated text in order to read correctly, which is very much indeed to their credit.

Thus be blessed, my brethren, who have begun the publication of the works of this outstanding musician who has composed all these Psalms and hymns. Do homage to the Lord by singing this fine music in your sanctuaries on the festivals. Make them known to your children and devote the latter to music, as was the custom of the Levites… I am convinced that this work will, from the moment of its appearance, further in Israel the taste for good music that is well constructed and worthy to praise the Lord…

My answer, which has been endorsed by all the great Rabbis of Venice, was complete proof that nothing in the Talmud forbids the introduction of choral singing into our temples. This may close the malignant mouths of our opponents. In spite of all that they may say, I invite all our faithful brethren to honor and cultivate song and music in our synagogues, to use and spread them until the anger of the Lord turns away from us, and until He restores His Temple in Zion, where the Levites will again let their harps and their songs of joy resound, in another manner than today, when our hearts, while we sing, are filled with bitterness because of the misfortunes with which we are overloaded in our captivity. May the high happiness of our deliverance be established for all of us soon. Amen.[4]

In the year 1630 the great city of Mantua was stormed by invading Austrian troops. The Jewish ghetto was ravaged and its inhabitants fled the town. The Renaissance was over for the Jewish community, and choral music was no longer heard in the synagogue.[5]

[1] Joshua Jacobson, "An overview of Rossi's environment" published on the Zamir Chorale of Boston website: [back]
[2] (32) Israel Adler, "The Rise of Art Music in the Italian Ghetto," in Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. Alexander Altman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 336-337.[back]
[3] Salamone Rossi, Hashirim Asher Lish'lomo, ed. by Fritz Rikko (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1967-73), vol. 3. [back]
[4] Franz Kobler, Letters of Jews through the Ages (volume two: From the Renaissance to Emancipation) Jewish Publication Society of America, 1952.[back]
[5] Joshua Jacobson, "An overview of Rossi's environment" published on the Zamir Chorale of Boston website:[back]

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