JHOM - Rossi and the Italian Renaissance

Zamir symbol

Zamir Chorale of Boston singing Adon Olam — Lord of the World by Salamone Rossi.

Italian Renaissance and the Jews

In the relatively small area between Rome and Milan, and between Genoa and Venice, there was, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, an efflorescence of genius, of vitality and of versatility, coupled with a universality of aesthetic expression such as the world has perhaps never known at any other time. This dazzling process was the Italian Renaissance.

The Songs of Solomon

Cover page of Rossi's liturgical sheet music

As the winds of humanism swept over Italy, many Jewish communities experienced a profound change of orientation as they abandoned their centuries-old state of isolation and began to intermingle with their Christian neighbors with a freedom hitherto unknown. Caught up in this fervor of a new age, Jews for the first time studied Western music, as well as painting, dancing, theater, philosophy and literature. By the mid-sixteenth century, many Jews were employed in the various Italian ducal courts as instrumentalists, composers, actors and dancing masters.

In Renaissance Mantua, Jews achieved a remarkably successful synthesis between their ancestral Hebraic culture and that of their secular environment. It was one of the rare periods when absorption into the civilization had no corrosive effect on Jewish intellectual life. Those who achieved distinction in the general society as physicians, astronomers, playwrights, dancers, musicians, and so on, were, in almost every case, loyal Jews, conversant with Hebrew, and devoted to traditional scholarship. The Hebrew language was revived, and used in poetry, literature, and even in spoken conversation.

In this context it is not surprising to find many Jews involved in all areas of Renaissance humanism, including music. But standing head and shoulders above all other Jewish musicians of the Renaissance period, and a considerable musical figure in any context, was Salamone Rossi — singer, violinist and composer at the court of Mantua from 1587 until 1628.

Salamone Rossi Hebreo

The composer was a descendant of the illustrious Italian-Jewish family "de Rossi", which is the Italian translation of the Hebrew family name "Me-Ha-Adumim." This proud family, which included the famous and controversial Bible scholar Azariah de Rossi and a number of fine musicians, traced its ancestry back to the exiles from Jerusalem, carried away to Rome by Titus in the year 70 of the Christian era .

As a young man, Salamone Rossi (1570 - about 1630) made his reputation as a violinist. He left the confines of the Jewish community to work at the court of the Gonzagas as a resident musician — and as a colleague of Monteverdi, Gastoldi and Viadana. As a composer, he was well-known for his work in the popular vocal and instrumental forms of the day. His employers thought so highly of him that they even exempted him from wearing the yellow badge of shame that was required to mark the attire of all Jews at that time.

Italian synagogue

Replica of Italian Renaissance synagogue, Beth Hatefutsoth model

At the same time, however, he was never totally assimilated into the Christian community. On the title pages of his published compositions his name appears as "Salamon(e) Rossi Hebreo." Despite his participation in the artistic life of the Mantuan court, he remained involved in a Jewish theater troupe and a Jewish instrumental ensemble. Furthermore, unlike his Christian colleagues, he composed no liturgical music for the church. Rossi published both canzonets (short compositions for three voices with dance-like rhythms and amorous texts), and, like his colleague Monteverdi, serious madrigals; it is undoubtedly in the field of synagogue music, however, that we find Rossi's most daring innovations.

Rossi's Sacred Music

Salamone Rossi speaks of the spiritual inspiration his synagogue choral music:

"From the time that the Lord God first opened my ears and granted me the power to understand and to teach the science of music, I have used this wisdom to compose many songs... (more)

In 1623 the publishing house of Bragadini in Venice issued a collection that was the first of its kind, and it was destined to remain unique for over two hundred years. Hashirim Asher Lish'lomo (The Songs of Solomon)*, as this collection was called, included three to eight-voice part settings of of thirty-three psalms, hymns and prayers for the Sabbath and holiday. This work did not differ greatly from the conventions of early Baroque music; what made this collection so unique and innovative was the fact it was composed not of Latin motets for the church, but of Hebrew motets for the synagogue.

In order to understand better the significance of this publication, we must recall that the use of musical instruments in the synagogue had been prohibited for centuries — as a sign of mourning for the lost musical traditions of the great Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Furthermore, lest the ancient chanting modes become diluted, the Rabbis had zealously guarded against the introduction of any Gentile elements into the sacred music of the synagogue. Thus, while polyphonic music had been evolving in the western church for more than four centuries, Jewish worship music had remained basically monophonic, modal, improvised from a set of basic melodic formulas, and closely bound to the natural rhythms of the texts. Cantors were most often laymen drawn from a congregation that was generally well-acquainted with the Hebrew liturgy and its music.

Renaissance scoreHaving virtually no precedent in the polyphonic setting of the synagogue liturgy, Rossi was free to borrow, alter or reject a wide variety of styles, Mideastern and Western. His composition drew on both his knowledge of the current styles of sacred and secular music and his command of the Hebrew language. While Rossi did not attempt to employ any of the musical characteristics of the ancient Jewish chants, he did feel himself bound to certain traditions such as the rabbinic prohibition against instrumental music in the synagogue; he therefore set the entire collection for unaccompanied chorus.

footnotes * The title is a play on words referring to both the title of the biblical book of love songs and the first name of the composer. [back]
excerpted Parts of this article are excerpted and adapted from "The Choral Music of Salamone Rossi," in the American Choral Review XXX (4 1988), and republished here by permission of Chorus America. The American Choral Review is now published as an insert in The Voice of Chorus America. For more information or to subscribe, please call 202-331-7577 or send e-mail to service@chorusamerica.org
excerpted Choral synagogue music in Renaissance Italy

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