Salamone Rossi: A Jew among Jews and a Jew Among Christians
There I stood on the millennium stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. as one of the forty members of Zemer Chai, the Jewish chorale of the nation’s capital. We had practiced for months to share highlights of Jewish music with the community in celebration of Channukah. Some of our selections were familiar standards like Maoz Tzur and I Have a Little Dreydel. Others were less familiar, but the piece that I looked forward to the most was Eftach Na S’fataifrom Hashirim asher Lish’lomo (The Songs of Solomon), a thirty-three-piece collection of Hebrew works composed by seventeenth century Jewish-Italian composer, Salamone Rossi. Rossi’s music resembles that of other baroque composers like his contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi, but it is unique in its masterful setting and use of Hebrew text.
Eftach Na S’fatai was the opening piece of our concert. Rossi wrote it to be sung either in a small setting by seven individual voices, or as we performed it, in a large setting for three soloists and a choir. The three soloists begin with a declaratory statement. Then, the choir responds to them. An excerpt from the text appears below:
eftach na sefatai, ve’e’ene b’ron Let me open my lips in song
L’eil chai ashir binsoa aharon I will sing to the living God
The effect of the two groups declaring these words to each other is triumphant. As we sang these words set to music almost four hundred years ago, I looked out to see the glowing faces of friends, family, supporters, and visitors.
Some knew Rossi’s music quite well while others had never previously experienced a performance of Jewish music. Everyone, regardless of familiarity, was inspired by this early music brought to life with delicate interplay between voices and the majestic sound of the full chorus together in unison. The audience of our concert that day was not unique in their appreciation for Rossi’s music.
Zemer Chai is just one of the many ensembles dedicated to the performance of Rossi’s works. Rossi’s work was also the subject of a documentary by Joseph Rochlitz called Hebreo: The Search for Salamone Rossi that featured the ensemble, Profeti de la Quinta who frequently perform Rossi’s works.
One might ask why Rossi’s music is still alive and relevant today, while other composers have faded into obscurity. Rossi’s music is still relevant because his work marked the beginning of choral synagogue music and is enduring evidence of Jewish participation in the Italian renaissance. This paper will focus on Rossi’s role as a cultural intermediary, incorporating the Jewish community and the larger Italian community into his work. First, this paper will explore the lived experience of Italian Jewry in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Second, it will examine Rossi’s life as a Jewish musician in Mantua and his relationship with his closest supporters, the Sulam family, and Rabbi Leon Modena. Third, it will explore Jewish participation in the wider Italian renaissance. Finally, the paper will explore Hashirim asher Lish’lomo, Rossi’s Hebrew works for the synagogue.
Rossi is unique in his achievements although he lived during a time of instability when some Jews experienced great privilege, while others were victims of hatred and discrimination. Rossi relied not only on his musical talent, but also on financial and social support from Rabbi Leon Modena, and the Sulam family to publish Hashirim asher Lish’lomo . The three undertook this project with the hopes of elevating the quality of synagogue music and the perception of Jews by their gentile neighbors.
I. The Jews of Italy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
The Jewish community of Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of paradox. On the one hand, some Jews lived lives of privilege. Rossi was just one of the many Jewish musicians able to reach great levels of success in early modern Italy, including Judah Moscato, and Abraham Porteleone. Duke Vincenzo Gongaza, the duke of Mantua during Rossi’s lifetime, was a supporter of the arts and very tolerant toward the Jews ruling with a velvet rather than an iron glove. Although the Mantua ghetto was in existence many years prior, its gates remained largely unlocked, and rules unenforced until 1610. When Jews were expelled from neighboring papal territories in 1569, they ran to Mantua where they contributed to its rich artistic life. Mantua was home to Jewish theatre and Jewish ensembles many of which were financed by a wealthy class of Jewish merchants and moneylenders. There were powerful community leaders like the Sulam family and Rabbi Leon Modena who hoped to elevate Jewish culture in the eyes of Jews and non-Jews alike.
On the other hand, the Jewish community faced waves of violence and discrimination. Jews in Mantua were required to wear an identifying badge on their clothing indicating their Jewish status. Although Rossi was exempt from wearing this badge, he was always identified in print as Salamone Rossi, hebreo or Salamone Rossi, the Jew. This identification by censors indicated that, in their eyes, the work was of inferior status. Jews were forbidden from competing with non-Jews for work and could not hold official posts, compose music for the church or even set the words of the Christian liturgy to music. This prohibition is likely one reason why Rossi composed so many secular instrumental works rather than religious choral music. Jews were forbidden from teaching music, singing, or even dancing in Christian homes. As a Jew, Rossi never received permanent employment from the ducal court and instead was forced to rely on individual commissions for his livelihood. He had little chance of receiving the kind of support received by Christians and instead relied on patrons who were “small fish in a large pond….”
The lives of the Jews of Mantua changed dramatically in 1602. In early August, a Franciscan preacher named Brother Bartelomeo held a rally against the Jews. He demanded that they be properly confined to the Jewish ghetto. Later that evening, a group of Jewish teens was overheard in a synagogue courtyard mocking the preacher’s speech. They were reported the next day to the duke and sentenced to public execution for their denigration of the Christian faith. The Mantua state archives detail the event with an illustration of seven Jewish men executed and hung by their feet like pigs in the town square. This event led to further violence against Jews and poor relations between the Jewish and Christian communities ultimately leading to enforcement of the Jewish ghetto in 1612.
II. Salamone Rossi
Salamone Rossi was born around 1570 in Mantua, Italy. Mantua is a city in northern Italy. It became a thriving cultural center under the rule of the Gonzaga family, and it remains so to this day. The city is home to several priceless works of art and in 2008 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Little is known about Rossi’s life, but some information can be gleaned from the Jewish archives of Mantua. Rossi’s sister was a famous singer known as Madame Europa and he published thirteen volumes of music during his lifetime, including Hashirim asher Lish’lomo. Rossi benefited from the unique intellectual and cultural interests of the Gonzaga family, specifically duke Vincenzo. Vincenzo, unlike his father Guglielmo, was very energetic, charismatic, and generous. He reinvigorated the family’s interest in development of the arts and “soon after his coronation Vincenzo began to expand his father’s capella”, the court’s hired musicians. Vincenzo who, “possessed none of his father’s financial reservations and who had a flair for the grandiose” eagerly hired additional instrumentalists and singers. Rossi’s first work, published in 1589, was a commission by Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. Rossi was so happy to receive this commission of his work, Voi due Terrestri Numi from the Gongaza court, that he was sure to include the names of the duke and duchess, Vincenzo and Lorena, in its performance. Although Rossi was not a permanent member of the capella, he was frequently commissioned by the court. Rossi quickly became a favorite of the Gonzaga court and as such he was treated with special care. A decree signed by Vincenzo Gonzaga in 1606 grants Rossi, “unrestricted freedom to move about town” without a badge on his clothing identifying him as a Jew as an expression of “gratitude for services in music and performing….” The Jewish community of Mantua also gave Rossi special status exempting him from laws that applied to the rest of the Jewish community regarding humility of dress. Although Rossi was Jewish, his compositions were similar in style and theme to that of his non-Jewish contemporaries. Despite his special status, Rossi never received permanent employment and was never considered for the prestigious position of maestro di cappella, music director of the ducal palace orchestra, a position that would later be held by his contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi.
Rossi, like other Jewish intellectuals of the time was “a Jew among Jews and a Jew among Christians….” The duality he experienced in his personal and professional life was ultimately never reconciled. Instead, his movement between two cultures “combines but never fuses the poles of his activities and life.” Rossi’s life as a man caught between two worlds parallels that of other Jewish intellectuals of that time. While the duke commissioned many of Rossi’s secular pieces, Hashirim asher Lish’lomo was published with the financial support of the Sulam family and the social support of Rabbi Leon Modena.
A. Sulam Family
Hashirim asher Lish’lomo contains a dedication by Rossi to his lifelong patron and friend, Moses Sulam whom he calls, “a man of valor”. Although Hashirim asher Lish’lomo was the work of Rossi’s hand, it never would have been published without the financial support of the Sulam family. Moses Sulam and his son, Jacob were wealthy moneylenders who financed not only the publication of Hashirim asher Lish’lomo, but also many of Rossi’s secular works as well.
Jacob’s wife, Sarra Sulam, was herself a poet, musician and patron of the arts. Sarra frequently hosted a literary salon in her home where she supported aspiring writers and artists including Giovanni Basadonna, Baldassare Bonifacio, Numidio Paluzzi and Salamone Rossi. During his travels to Venice, Rossi would often stay with Jacob and Sarra and would workshop his music at Sarra’s salon. Many of Rossi’s works, particularly those written for only three voices were likely first performed in the Sulam home.
Sarra was an accomplished musician who accompanied herself on several instruments. There were many female poets who sang and played in the Renaissance tradition, but Sarra is the only known Jewish poet to have done so. Both Sarra Sulam and Rabbi Modena also provided much needed moral support to Rossi who had many doubts about how his work would be received by both the Jewish and gentile communities.
B. Rabbi Leon Modena
Rabbi Leon Modena was “one of the most colorful figures in the Jewish
renaissance” and one of Rossi’s strongest supporters. Modena was an accomplished musician in his own right, and began paving the way for music like Hashirim asher Lish’lomo in the Jewish community in his 1605 responsa on the permissibility of polyphonic music in the synagogue. In fact, some believe that Modena was the primary architect behind Hashirim asher Lish’lomo, and Rossi was merely it’s engineer. In the preface to Hashirim asher Lish’lomo, Modena includes his 1605 responsa defending the use of music in the synagogue. Here, he cites the liturgical exception to the ban on music, namely singing in connection with the observance of ritual commandments performed by the cantor on special Sabbaths and festivals.
Modena also defended Rossi’s music outside the Jewish community, writing in 1622 that
art music was in fact Jewish music but was “stolen out of the land of the Hebrews” by their Christian neighbors when the Jews were forced into exile. Rossi’s work was merely Jews reclaiming their lost musical heritage. Rossi marked a Jewish awakening for Modena, a chance for the Jews to participate in the wider renaissance taking place throughout Italy. Modena describes Rossi as “the splendor of the people” able to restore them as in the “days of the Levites” in the temple. “No longer will arrogant opponents utter bitter words about the Hebrew folk. They will see that it too possesses talent, the equal of the best endowed.”
III. Jewish participation in the Italian Renaissance
Rossi was one of many Jewish intellectuals who rose to prominence during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This era was one of spectacular change for European Jewry and many factors contributed to the rise of Jewish intellectuals at this time. First, Jewish mobility, primarily through the Spanish expulsion, allowed Jewish scholars the ability to interact with varied communities and new ideas. These scholars entered new fields of study outside of traditional Jewish subjects.
Jewish intellectuals were also shaped by their Christian patrons. This was especially true in the case of Salamone Rossi and playwright, Leone Sommi who catered to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. The Gonzaga family of Mantua, particularly Vincenzo Gongaza, was uniquely generous and supportive of music and the arts. Rabbis also played a central role in shaping culture and Rabbi Leon Modena played a particularly significant role in the success of Rossi’s Hebrew works.
A new Jewish cultural class also began to emerge in Italy with the acceptance of many Jews, particularly rabbis, to medical school in Padua. The number of Jewish doctors was “not insignificant” and continued to grow throughout this period. They created an intellectual, cultural Jewish elite in Italy who could appreciate and support the work of intellectuals and artists like Rossi.
IV. Hashirim asher Lish’lomo
Hashirim asher Lish’lomo, or in English, The Songs of Solomon is a three-volume collection of Hebrew works written for three to eight male voices composed by Rossi over the course of many years. Although the music itself was not dated, the most likely date of publication, based on dates of the foreward written by Rabbi Modena was 1622 or 1623. The work was printed by the Bragadini Publishing House, the foremost Hebrew press in Venice. The title might be a reference to the biblical songs of Solomon but could also be a pun on Rossi’s own first name, Salamone. The collection includes liturgical prayers that are a regular part of synagogue worship as well as lesser-known psalms. It also contains Rossi’s dedication, Modena’s foreward, and his responsa permitting music in the synagogue.
A. Musical Considerations
I . Printing the Hebrew Text
This work was the first of its kind and, as such there were many unique editorial considerations, including how to print the Hebrew lyrics underneath the musical notation. Music is generally notated both vertically and horizontally on a staff. Pitch is indicated vertically, such that notes that are higher on the staff are higher in pitch and those lower on the staff are lower in pitch. Rhythm is indicated horizontally so that notes further to the right on the page occur later in time than those closer to the left side of the page. This notation system easily accommodates any language that is written from left to right, as demonstrated below:
Hebrew is written from right to left posing a unique problem for musical transcription.
The composer has a few choices when notating the score for lyrics in Hebrew. One choice is to flip the notes to accommodate the Hebrew syllables as shown below:
A second option is to print the Hebrew lyrics in transliteration from left to right as shown below:
The modern convention for printing sheet music is in transliteration from left to right as shown above, but in Rossi’s time there was no convention. He agonized over how to notate the music, and ultimately “found it preferable to have the reader follow the words of the psalms, which are in any case familiar to all, as if backwards rather than to reverse the customary order of notes and have his eyes turn from right to begin for this would confuse him.” In other words, Rossi decided to print each word from right to left, to accommodate the Hebrew language, but each musical phrase from left to right as shown below:
Hashirim asher Lish’lomo shares many musical qualities with other works of this period. Its writing was informed by the rules of counterpoint, the “science of music”, and by Rossi’s many years of personal experience as a composer and performer in the ducal court. While Hashirim asher Lish’lomo sounds like the “late renaissance style of the church, it was a marked departure from synagogue music during Rossi’s time, and the first of its kind, synagogue liturgy set to polyphonic choral music.
II. Absence of Nusah, traditional synagogue modes
One thing that is notably absent from Rossi’s work is any reference to nusah (structure), the traditionally proscribed musical modes of chanting for the synagogue. Nusah refers to a series of notes that can be combined into musical phrases to be used in chanting prayer texts in the synagogue. Three of the most common patterns still used today are the Adonai Malach (God the king), Magein Avot (shield of [our] fathers) and Ahavah Rabbah ([God’s] great love) modes, notated below:
Each of the three modes draw their name from the Hebrew prayer text when that mode is traditionally used. The first two, Adonai Malach and Magein Avot, bear some resemblance to western church modes. The third, Ahavah Rabbah, also commonly known as the Hava Nagilah mode, is quite distinctive. Rossi’s choice not to include any of the traditional synagogue modes in Hashirim asher Lish’lomo indicates a complete break from the traditional music of the synagogue.
B. Rossi’s Dedication
On the opening pages of Hashirim asher Li’shlomo, Rossi dedicated his work to Moses
Sulam, “a man of valor...” who has “done valiantly and won a great name in Mantua.” Rossi continued by thanking God who first opened his ears and “ granted me the power to understand and to teach the science of music.” He explained that God “put new songs” into his mouth and his soul was “ delighted to take the choicest of all as an offering of the voice…so that he may honor the Lord…” with blessing. The songs were designated for “times of rejoicing and the goodly seasons”. Rossi continued that he did not restrain himself, but rather strove “ to enhance the psalms of David, King of Israel…and shaped them into proper musical form so that they would have greater stature for discriminating ears.” Rossi humbly reminds the reader that he composed these songs not for his own glory, but “ for the glory of my Father in heaven, who created this work within me….”
C. Foreword by Rabbi Leone da Modena
The foreward to Hashirim asher Li’shlomo by rabbi Modena begins with a quote from
proverbs, “the lip of truth shall be established forever….” That truth, according to Modena, is that the science of music that has been claimed by Christians was in fact “stolen out of the land of the Hebrews….” In former times, wise men flourished in Israel. They possessed all manners of science, including the science of music. Musical composition reached its pinnacle during temple times under the reign of King David. However, when Jews were forced to live in exile, they forgot their musical heritage and “the wisdom of their sages was lost….” Later, they picked up a trace of this wisdom in music written by “others who had retained what they originally learned from the Jews….”
Modena continues by praising Rossi, who has “ reached great heights in this science.” He is wiser than any other and was “chosen to serve the splendid and exalted Duke of Mantua….” Modena mentions that both he and Moses Sulam encouraged Rossi to publish the works in order to leave behind him “ a name better than children for he has made a beginning which will not cease, the likes of which has never been known in Israel.” According to Modena, Rossi tasked him with keeping a “watchful eye to prevent any printer’s errors” in publication of the text.
Modena then cautions the “over pious soul” against prematurely rejecting Rossi’s work without understanding, simply because it is new. Modena included a responsa written several years earlier as well as written approval by the “great scholars of Venice” allowing and encouraging performance of choral music in the synagogue on festivals and other special occasions.
D. Rabbi Modena’s Responsa
Rossi’s work was the first widely successful publication of Hebrew polyphonic choral music, but it was not the first attempt of this kind. Rabbi Modena was himself a poet and musician who served many years earlier as a cantor in Ferrara. He trained a small group of singers to accompany him in the synagogue in hopes of elevating synagogue music from “undecent roaring” to a level that would be respected by Jews and Christians alike. On the day of the choir’s first appearance in the synagogue, a man arose to “ drive them out with the utterance of his lips, saying that it is not proper to do this for joyous song and such praises…have been forbidden since the Temple was destroyed….” Modena wrote this responsa which was accepted by his fellow rabbis which addresses whether there is in fact a complete ban on choral music and art music in the synagogue.
His answer begins with several quotes from the Talmud prohibiting vocal music including these words from tractate Sota 48a:
Rav said, “the ear that listens to music should be torn off.”
Rava said, “singing in the house, destruction for its doorpost.”
And these words from tractate Sanhedrin 101a:
“He who chants a verse from Song of Songs making a (secular) musical composition out of it…brings evil upon this world.”
Although these verses make it appear that music is forbidden, Modena clarifies that some types of music are permitted on some occasions. He quotes Maimonides who concludes that while one “should not play musical instruments”, he specifies that vocal music is forbidden specifically over wine but might be permissible under other circumstances. Modena continues to cite other sources, drawing the conclusion that vocal music is only prohibited in places of “secular merry-making” but is permitted in the synagogue for a sacred purpose.
He goes on to cite examples when music is not only permitted but encouraged, for example at a wedding to increase the joy of the bride and groom. He quotes from the Sefer Mitzvot HaGadol that the “music which rejoices a bridegroom and bride is a pious act and is therefore allowed.” He also cites Rabbi Joseph Karo taking things one step further writing, “for religious purposes, as in the house of bridegroom and bride, all music is permitted.” Modena continues stating that if music is permitted at a wedding, surely it is also permitted on Shabbat, who is herself, “a bride whom it is our duty to adorn and gladden with all manner of rejoicing.” He reminds the reader that the cantor is “…enjoined to intone his prayers in a pleasant voice. If he were to make his one voice sound like ten singers, would this not be desirable? Or if assistants who have been graced by the Lord with sweet voices stand beside him …should this be considered a sin?”
Modena concludes that music is indeed permitted in the synagogue on the proper occasion. Indeed, “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.”
E. Musical Examples from Hashirim asher Lish’lomo
Hashirim asher Lish’lomo contains both music and writings that give the reader a glimpse into possible motivations for publication of the work. One setting from the work, Elohim Hashivenu, from psalm 80, demonstrates Rossi’s mastery of composition, while the setting of Al Naharot Bavel, one of the most poignant psalms in the collection, speaks specifically to the Jewish musical experience in exile and perhaps, Rossi’s own personal experience as a Jewish musician in Italy.
1. Elohim Hashivenu
Rossi, who was a master of his craft, frequently employed a technique called word painting to evoke the meaning and emotion of text through music. Word painting is when the composer makes musical choices to embody the meaning of the text, for example instructing the singer to sing the word, whisper very softly in the musical score or to elongate the singing of a word like forever.
Even today, there is some debate over whether word painting in prayer is appropriate, particularly when it involves the name of God. One who elaborately ornaments the name of God with vocal flourishes might be perceived as showing off and lacking the appropriate level of piety to pray on behalf of the community. Although Rossi was fearful of how his music would be received, he did not refrain from ornamentation of the word Elohim, one of the many names for God that appear in the liturgy and in this excerpt from Elohim Hashivenu:
Rossi did not tell the listener exactly why he made this musical choice. Perhaps he wanted to recall the fanfare that usually accompanies the coronation of a king. Perhaps he wanted to stress the importance of this word by elongating its duration. Perhaps he just wanted to demonstrate his technical writing skill. Although the listener may not know his exact motivations, one must acknowledge both Rossi’s grasp of the text and his musical skill in setting these words to music.
2. Al Naharot Bavel
Psalm 137, Al Naharot Bavel, is a mournful text recalling life in Babylonian exile
following destruction of the first temple. The author describes Jewish musicians in exile weeping by the waters of Babylon and dreaming of their home, Jerusalem. The musicians were so distraught that they hung their lyres on the trees. Their captors tormented them, demanding they sing for the captor’s amusement.
The vocal group, Profeti de la Quinta, experts in performance of Rossi’s music, performed this work for the documentary, Hebreo: The Search for Salamone Rossi. Elam Rotem, the group’s director, gave several reasons in the documentary for why this piece held particular significance for Rossi. First, Rossi deliberately selected these words from the collection of 150 psalms to set to music, likely because the meaning of the text, included below, was significant to him.
Al naharot bavel, sham yashavnu by the rivers of Babylon
Gam bachinu bezochrenu et tzion we sat and wept, remembering Zion
Al aravim betocha talinu kinoroteinu On the willows, we hung our harps
Ki sham she’elunu shoveny divrei shir our captors asked us for songs
V’tolelei simcha, And joyfully tormented us saying,
“Shiru lanu meshir tzion”. “Sing us songs of Zion!”
Ech nashir et shir Adonai How can we sing the songs of Zion
al admat nechar ? on foreign soil?
According to Elam, these words certainly would have spoken to Rossi, a Jewish musician who made his living primarily performing and composing for a non-Jewish audience. Rossi, like other Jews in Italy, also faced discrimination, never receiving permanent employment like his non-Jewish contemporaries, and having the derogatory distinction of hebreo on all his printed works.
Second, Rossi employs the technique of word painting here as well, to emphasize the meaning of this psalm. Rossi opens the piece with a series of flowing notes on the words al naharot bavel, or in English, by the waters of Babylon, in the bottom two voices evoking the sound of flowing water. Then for the word bachinu, in English, we wept, Rossi uses unique harsh intervals to evoke the sound of weeping, a musical device that does not appear anywhere else in the collection.
Third, unlike other composers who set only the opening verses to music, Rossi chooses to include these final, verses of the psalm in his composition:
Remember, Adonai against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall;
how they cried “Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!”
Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind,
what you have inflicted on us;
A blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks! (137:7-9)
The final verses of psalm 137 are a curse against Israel’s Babylonian captors. It is a warning to Israel’s enemies that they will be violently punished for the pain they inflicted upon the Jews. Although there is no written explanation by Rossi himself, one can speculate that he chose to set these words to music as a hidden message to his Jewish listeners. Despite the suffering the Jewish community faced during Rossi’s lifetime, he was confident that just as the Edomites were punished, those who had mistreated Italy’s Jewish community would also be punished.
Every year, choral singers from around the country gather for the North American Jewish
Choral Festival. Hundreds of singers, many Jewish, some not, gather to perform and hear the finest in Jewish choral music. The festival often features cantors, teachers, song leaders and contemporary composers, but always features at least one piece from Rossi’s, Hashirim asher Lish’lomo sung by the most elite of the ensembles. Even when performed next to new, contemporary pieces, Rossi’s music still stands out.
Rossi’s endeavor to set traditional prayers to polyphonic choral music was a landmark moment for Jewish music and his collection, Hashirim asher Lish’lomo, is still the only work of its kind. Rossi, like his Jewish intellectual contemporaries, lived between two worlds. His very existence is evidence of Jewish participation in the Italian renaissance. He enjoyed a level of privilege among Jews and gentiles that few could ever hope to attain. He was a particular favorite of the Gonzaga family and enjoyed much success from his relationship with the duke, Vincenzo Gongaza. Rossi also benefited from the support of Rabbi Leon Modena, the Sulam family and the Jewish community of Mantua.
However, Rossi, like the rest of the Mantua Jewish community, suffered under discriminatory practices and intolerance that permeated the wider Italian community. Unlike his Christian contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi, Rossi never received a permanent position in the duke’s court. He was forced to work from one commission to the next, never certain of who would finance his work. All of Rossi’s printed works bore his name and the word hebreo, indicating his inferior status as a Jew. Although Rossi was permitted to walk about town without the identifying badge of a Jew, he almost certainly lived inside the Mantua ghetto with the rest of the Jewish community. Rossi’s success came not from his ability to transcend his Jewish status, but rather from his role as a cultural intermediary.
There are many examples of modern Jewish-American composers who wrote solely for non-Jewish audiences including George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Aaron Copland. Gershwin and Berlin were both well-known for their contributions to musical theatre. Copland was well-known for his orchestral works and film scores. These composers were successful because American society welcomed their music as American, without the additional distinction of being written by a Jew. Gershwin, Berlin, and Copland never felt the need, emotionally or financially, to write for a strictly Jewish audience because they were accepted as American without the label of Jewish.
Rossi, however, was never accepted as Italian without the label of Jewish despite his success writing secular music for non-Jewish audiences. Like other Jewish intellectuals of this time, Rossi was forced to write for two worlds, the non-Jewish Italian community, and the Jewish community. The blending of these two worlds within one person resulted in an entirely new type of music. Hashirim asher Lish’lomo was the first of its kind, a fusion of Italian choral music and Hebrew text intended for the synagogue. Although there is little written about his personal life, one need only listen closely to this music to imagine how he felt, caught between these two worlds. Rossi’s music not only marks Jewish participation in the Italian renaissance and the beginning of synagogue choral music. It is also a testament to the difficulty of “singing songs of Zion” in a foreign land.
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