Salamone Rossi Hebreo

Jewish music in the Italian Renaissance

In the relatively small area between Rome and Milan, and between Genoa and Venice, there was, from the 14th through the 16th 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.

It happened that this area was, at this period-as would not have been the case a century or so before-the seat of numerous Jewish communities, and, in the liberal spirit of the times, it was impossible for them not to be affected by, and not to contribute in some measure toward, this intellectual turmoil and artistic efflorescence.

The court of Mantua was, par excellence, the seat of royal luxury and artistic magnificence. At the end of the 15th century the duchess Isabella d’Este Gonzaga brought many of the finest musicians of Italy to Mantua to compose new music and perform it for the entertainment of the royal family. During the reign of Gugliemo Gonzaga, in the second half of the 16th century, there was a permanent cappella, a professional musical ensemble in residence within the castle walls. Gugliemo’s successor, the duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, at the turn of the 17th century, brought music to an even more magnificent scale. The composers Monteverdi, Gastoldi, Rossi, Wert and Viadana provided the most fashionable new music for banquets, wedding feasts, musical-theatre productions and chapel services.

Jews were not only tolerated in the enlightened duchy of Mantua, but they were often allowed to intermingle freely with non-Jews. In this liberal atmosphere, Jews were affected in an exceptional degree by the prevailing literary, artistic and humanistic tendencies.
Some of Mantua’s most famous dancers and choreographers were Jews. Isabella’s dancing instructor was the Jew, Gugliemo Ebreo Pesaro, the author of one of the most important treatises on choreography written in the 15th century.

For a one-hundred-year period, starting in the middle of the 16th century, there was an active Jewish Theatre troupe in Mantua, known as the Università Israelitica. The citizens of Mantua were all aware of the Università’s unusual schedule: on Fridays performances would be held in the afternoon rather than in the evening, so as not to interfere with the festa del sabbato.

While originally devised for the entertainment of Jews by Jews, this troupe received frequent invitations from the Gonzaga dukes to perform for Christian audiences in the palace. In fact, their reputation was so great that they travelled for run-out gigs to some of the neighboring duchies. The success of this troupe at its height can be attributed to three of its leaders: the playwright Leone Sommo, the choreographer Isaaco Massarano, and the Gonzagas’ own theatre composer, Salamone Rossi.

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.

The Mantuan scholar Azaryah de Rossi published in 1573 Meor Eynayyim, a collection of Hebrew essays, most of which are devoted to Biblical scholarship. What made Azaryah’s work so controversial and so representative of this period was the fact that in addition to drawing on Jewish sources, he quoted some 100 non-Jewish authors, including Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Hippocrates, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, Dante, Petrarch, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.

In this context it is not surprising to see Jews involved in all areas of Renaissance humanism, including music. Throughout the 16th century we find a series of Jewish vocalists and instrumentalists in the service of the dukes of Mantua, contributing greatly to the splendor of the court of the House of Gonzaga. There was Abramo dell’ Arpa (Abraham the harp player) and his nephew, Abramino dell’ arpa; Isacchino Massarano-an excellent singer, dancer, lutenist and composer; Madama Europa (the stage name of Salamone Rossi’s sister), one of the most sought-after sopranos of Mantua (sought after for her voice, and also, apparently, for her fair figure); her son, Asher de Rossi, the composer; and Asher’s sons Giuseppe and Bonaiuto the guitar players; Allegro Porto, composer of madrigals; and Benedetto Sessigli, lutenist.

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.
In Rossi we see the apex of the Jewish participation in the Italian Renaissance. On the one hand he was a gifted secular composer who collaborated with the musical giants of the era, including Monteverdi and Gastoldi. During the period of his employment at Mantua, he wrote volumes of songs, dances and concert music for his Christian patrons who, in gratitude, exempted Salamone from wearing the stipulated Jewish badge of shame.

But at the same time, here is the Jewish composer who proudly appended to his name the word “Hebreo”-Salamone Rossi the Jew. He was descendant from 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, Azariyah de Rossi and a number of fine musicians, traced Its ancestry back to the exiles from Jerusalem, carried away to Rome by the Emperor Titus in the year 70.
As a young man, Rossi made his reputation as a violinist. In 1587 he was hired by Duke Vincenzo as a resident musician at the court of Mantua. But, in addition to his performing, Rossi was also composing music for violins and for voices.

His first published work (appearing in 1589) was a collection of 19 canzonets, short compositions for three voices with dance-like rhythms and amorous texts. Like his colleague Monteverdi, Rossi also excelled in the composition of serious madrigals. In these settings of the romantic verses of the greatest poets of the day, Including Guarini, Marino, Rinaldi and Celiano, we hear how successful Rossi was in uniting the arts of poetry and music.

In the field of Instrumental music Rossi was a bold innovator. He was the first composer to apply to instrumental music the principles of monodic song, in which one melody dominates over secondary accompanying parts. His sonatas, among the first in the literature, provided for the development of an idiomatic and virtuoso violin technique.

But it is undoubtedly in the field of synagogue music that we find Rossi’ s most daring innovations. Since the beginning of the last diaspora, some 1900 years ago, Jews have clung to an ancient and exotic musical tradition. Instruments were banned from the synagogue as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Bet HaMikdash. New melodies of gentile origin were considered a deviation from the pure Near-Eastern tradition, and, as such, were forbidden. Change was frowned upon; prayer tunes were kept in their original form; no harmonization was allowed.

But the times were changing. From within-The Jews of Mantua and Venice and Ferrara had developed a taste for le nuove musiche, the new music of the Renaissance. They began to question why the music of their synagogues should continue to sound so old-fashioned. And from without- the counter-Reformation demanded enforcement of the laws that separated the Jew from his neighbor. The first strictly segregated Jewish neighborhood was established in Venice in 1516. Named after the foundry located nearby, it was called the “ghetto.” The enforced segregation in Mantua culminated in Duke Vincenzo’s establishment of a barricaded ghetto in 1612. Now, at the peak of the Renaissance, Italian Jews were forced to turn increasingly inward. Now their appetites for le nuove musiche would 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. Rabbi Leone of Modena wrote about his experiences organizing a choir in Ferrara:

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!

Yet so strong was the Renaissance spirit that a number of enlightened Rabbis defended the new musical practice in published responsa. Among them, Rabbi Leone who wrote:

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. Such music is as much a religious obligation as that which is performed to bring joy to bridegroom and bride whom it is our duty to adorn and gladden with all manner of rejoicing. 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.

Most significantly, Rossi is the first Jew ever to compose, perform and publish polyphonic settings of the synagogue liturgy for mixed choir. In the preface to the publication of this synagogue music, Rossi acknowledged the spiritual inspiration for his art:

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. Out of the many ideas within me, my soul has delighted to take the choicest of all as an offering of the voice wherewith to give thanks to Him who rides upon the Heavens with a sound of gladsome thanksgiving; for we have been given voices so that we may honor the Lord, each with the blessings of talent that we were given to enjoy.

The Lord has been my strength and He has put new songs into my mouth. Inspired, I wove these into an arrangement of sweet sounds, and I designated them for items of rejoicing on the holy festivals. I did not restrain my lips, but ever increased my striving to enhance the Psalms of David, King of Israel, until I set many of them and shaped them into proper harmonic form, so that they would have greater stature for discriminating ears.

Since it was the Lord who granted me the artistic spirit to recognize beauty, it is to Him that I have raised my voice in service. I felt that it would be proper to benefit the congregation by publishing a selection of my motets, which I composed not for my own glory, but for the glory of my Father in Heaven, who created this soul within me. Therefore I will give thanks to Him evermore.

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. Choral music was no longer heard in the synagogue. Salamone Rossi probably died in that year and was all but forgotten.

In was some 200 years later that the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, on a trip to Italy, stumbled on a strange collection of old music books bearing the name Salamone Rossi Hebreo. Intrigued by what he found, Rothschild handed over the manuscripts to Samuel Naumbourg, Cantor of the Great Synagogue of Paris. In 1876 the first modern edition of Rossi’s music was published. Once again the voice of one of the sweetest singers of Israel, Salamone Rossi Hebreo, was heard in the land.

Joshua R. Jacobson

Editor’s note: Last December, the Zamir Chorale of Boston performed a multi-media presentation of Rossi’s music. The program, sponsored by Cantor Charles Osborne and Temple Emmanuel of Newton, Massachusetts, featured the Zamir Chorale, Mark Kroll and the Boston Baroque Ensemble, Ken Pierce and the Boston Baroque dancers, the Rossi Chamber Singers, slides, narrators and a script by Joshua Jacobson. A recording of this program should be available in the Fall. For more information on Rossi and his times, see these articles and books:

Adler, Israel. “The Rise of Art Music in the Italian Ghetto.” In Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. Alexander Altman. 321-64. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Bonfil, Robert. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy (translated by Anthony Oldcorn). Bekeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Birnbaum, Edouard. Jewish Musicians at the Court of the Mantuan Dukes. Translated and edited by Judith Cohen. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1978. (Originally published as “Juedische Musiker am Hofe zu Mantua von 1542-1628.” Kalendar für Israeliten für das Jahr 5654. Vienna, 1893.)
Cohen, Mark (ed.). The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena’s Life of Judah. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Einstein, Alfred. The Italian Madrigal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.
_____. “Salamone Rossi As Madrigal Composer.” Hebrew Union College Annual 23 (1950-51): 383-96.
_____. “An Unknown Jewish Musician at the Court of Mantua.” In “The Madrigals of Salamon de’ Rossi,” pp. 315-25, by Joel Newman. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1962.
Gradenwitz, Peter. “An Early Instance of Copyright — Venice, 1622.” Music and Letters 27 (1946): 185-86.
Harran, Don. “Cultural Fusions in Jewish Musical Thought of the Later Renaissance.” In Cantu et in Sermone: For Nino Pirrotta on His 80th Birthday, ed. Fabrizio Della Seta and Franco Piperno. 141-154. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1989 (?).
Harran, Don. “Salamone Rossi as a Composer of Theatre Music.” Studi Musicali, 16 (1987a): 95-132.
Harran, Don. “Salamone Rossi, Jewish Musician in Renaissance Italy.” Acta Musicologica 59 (January 1987b): 46-64.
Harran, Don. “Tradition and Innovation in Jewish Music of the Later Renaissance.” The Journal of Musicology, VII (1 1989): 107-130.
Jacobson, Joshua. “The Choral Music of Salamone Rossi.” American Choral Review XXX (4 1988):
Jacobson, Joshua. “A Possible Influence of Traditional Chant on a Synagogue Motet of Salamone Rossi.” Musica Judaica X (1 1987-88): 52-58.
Jacobson, Joshua R. “Spazziam: A Balletto by Salamone Rossi.” American Choral Review, 22 (October 1980): 5-10.
Newman, Joel. “The Madrigals of Salamon de’ Rossi.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1962.
Newman, Joel and Rikko, Fritz. A Thematic Index to the Works of Salamon Rossi. Hackensack, N.J.: Joseph Boonin, 1972.
Rikko. Fritz. Hashirim Asher Lish’lomo: The Songs of Solomon (three volumes). New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1967.
Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance. New York: Harper and Row, 1959.
_____. “When We Remembered Zion: The Musical Academy of the Venetian Ghetto.” In Personalities and Events in Jewish History, pp. 283-295. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1953.
_____. The History of the Jews of Italy. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946.
_____. The History of the Jews of Venice. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1930.
Sendrey, Alfred. The Music of the Jews in the Diaspora. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1970.
Simonsohn, Shlomo. History of the Jews in the Duchy of Mantua. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1962. Translation by the author. Jerusalem: Kiryath-Sepher Ltd., 1977.

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