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Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Jews

Grove Music Online presents this multi-part series by Don Harrán, Artur Rubinstein Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the life of Jewish musician Salamone Rossi on the anniversary of his birth in 1570. Professor Harrán considers three major questions: Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Jews; Rossi as a Jew among Christians; and the conclusions to be drawn from both. The following is the second installment, continued from part one.

By introducing “art music” into the synagogue Rossi was asking for trouble. He is said by Leon Modena (d. 1648), the person who encouraged him to write his Hebrew songs, to have “worked and labored to add from his secular to his sacred works” (“secular” meaning Gentile compositions). As happened when Modena tried to introduce art music into the synagogue in 1605, he and Rossi feared the composer’s works would awaken hostility. To answer prospective objections, Modena added to Rossi’s collection of “songs” the same responsum he wrote, many years before, on the legitimacy of performing art music in the synagogue. He said:

It could be that among the exiled there are sanctimonious persons who try to eliminate anything new in the synagogue or would prohibit a collection of Hebrew “songs.” To avoid this, I decided to reproduce here in print what I wrote in my responsum eighteen years ago with the intention of closing the mouth of anyone speaking nonsense about art music.

To quiet these same “sanctimonious persons” Rossi was in need of a patron. He found him in Moses Sullam, whom he described as a “courageous, versatile man, in whom all learning and greatness are contained.” Sullam encouraged Rossi to overcome the obstacles in the way of composing Hebrew songs, as it was not easy to write to Hebrew words with their accentual and syntactic demands so different from those in Italian. “How many times did I toil, at your command,” so Rossi declares, “until I was satisfied, ordering my songs with joyful lips.” Sullam had his own private synagogue, and it was there that Rossi probably first tried out the songs to gauge the reaction of singers and listeners. His efforts were favorably received. “When people sang them,” Modena reports, “they were delighted with their many good qualities. The listeners too were radiant, each of them finding it pleasant to hear them and wishing to hear more.” Rossi must have taken heart from these and other “friends”—thus they are called in the preface to the collection.

But it was not enough to have the influential Sullam, “highly successful and well known in Mantua,” behind him. Rossi needed rabbinical support, and here Modena, who followed the progress of the collection from its inception, rushed to his defense. For Modena the collection marked the resuscitation of Hebrew art music after its being forgotten with the destruction of the Second Temple. Modena exalted the composer, noting his importance in what he described as a Jewish musical renascence. He wrote that “the events of our foreign dwellings and of our restless running are dispersed over the lands, and the vicissitudes of life abroad were enough to make them [the Jews] forget all knowledge and lose all intellect.” Yet what was lost has now been recovered. “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for Solomon [= Salamone, in reference to King Solomon] alone is exalted nowadays in this wisdom. Not only is he wiser in music than any man of our nation” but he restored the once glorious music heard in the Temple.

Rossi, who was scared to death over how his Hebrew works would be received, asked Modena to prepare them for the printer; in Rossi’s words, “I asked him to prevent any mishap from coming to the composition, to prepare it [for typesetting], embellish it, proofread it, and look out for typographical errors and defects.” Modena composed a foreword to the collection and three dedicatory poems; he included, as already said, the early responsum from 1605 together with its approval by five Venetian rabbis. The collection went out into the world with as much rabbinical support as any composer could hope to receive.

Leon of Modena, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Leon of Modena, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The major problem for Rossi and Modena was how to narrow the gap between contemporary art music practiced by the Christians and Hebrew music practiced in the synagogue. To do this, Modena resorted to a clever remark of Immanuel Haromi, who wrote around 1335: “What will the science of music [niggun] say to others? ‘I was stolen, yes stolen from the land of the Hebrews’ [Genesis 40:15: gunnov gunnavti mi-eretz ha-‘ivrim].” If the Christians “stole” their music from the Hebrews, who, in their wanderings, forgot their former musical knowledge, then by cultivating art music in the early seventeenth century the Jews in a sense recuperated what was theirs to start with. In short, the only thing that separates the art music of the Jews from that of the Christians is its language: Hebrew.

When he composed his Hebrew works Rossi seems to have had one thing in mind: he was interested in their beautiful performance. Christians, who were familiar with Jewish sacred music from their visits to the synagogues, were usually shocked by what they heard. Here is how Gregorio Leti described Jewish prayer services in Rome in 1675:

No sooner do they [the Jews] enter their sanctuary than they begin to shout with angry voices, shaking their heads back and forth, making certain terribly ridiculous gestures, only to continue, sitting down, with these same shouts, which “beautiful” music lasts until their rabbi begins his sermon.

Even Leon Modena, who was a cantor at the Italian synagogue in Venice, was disappointed with the way music was performed in the synagogue. He rebuked the cantors for being so negligent as “to bray like asses” or “shout to the God of our fathers as a dog and a crow.” Oh, how the Jews are fallen, for “we were once masters of music in our prayers and our praises now become a laughingstock to the nations, for them to say that no longer is science in our midst.”

Both Modena and Rossi were concerned over how Christians would respond to Jewish music. They wanted to prove that whatever the Christians do, the Jews can do equally well. They may not be physically strong, Modena explains, but, in the “sciences,” they are outstanding:

No more will bitter words about the Hebrew people
be uttered, in a voice of scorn, by the haughty.

They will see that full understanding is as much a portion
of theirs [the people’s] as of others who flaunt it.

Though weak in [dealing] blows, in sciences
they [the people] are a hero, as strong as oaks.

[Third dedicatory poem by Leon Modena to Rossi’s “Songs by Solomon.”]

Headline image credit: Esther Scroll by Salom Italia, circa 1641. The Jewish Museum (New York City). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] Grove Music Online presents this multi-part series by Don Harrán, Artur Rubinstein Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the life of Jewish musician Salamone Rossi on the anniversary of his birth in 1570. Professor Harrán considers three major questions: Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Jews; Rossi as a Jew among Christians; and the conclusions to be drawn from both. Previous installments include “Salamone Rossi, Jewish musician in Renaissance Mantua” and “Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Jews”. […]

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