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”; “Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Jews”; and “Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Gentiles”.
Near to Salamone Rossi’s time, and working at the Mantuan court, is the harpist Abramino dall’Arpa. His story illustrates the unrelenting pressure brought on Jews to convert and, at the same time, Abramino’s refusal to do so. One reads, for example, that in 1582 Abramino and his son were convened to meet with a “master of theology,” but they didn’t show up, escaping to Ferrara. The authorities intensified their efforts. In June 1587 the singer Giovanni Andrea Robbiato, on the way back to Mantua with Abramino as his travel companion, is said to have explained to him that the “Christian religion … was the best and the only one to be practiced, superseding what Jews profess,” but Abramino “did not agree, even though he appeared to listen.” After arriving in Mantua, Robbiato took Abramino to the church of Santa Barbara to see the baptism of the duke’s grandson, and “Abramino appeared to be pleased with the ceremonies.” A monk clarified to him “the substance of the said sacrament of the Holy Baptism, explaining it by comparison with circumcision,” yet Abramino remained silent. Rumors of the incident immediately spread to the Jewish community, and in the evening Abramino’s uncle together with the rabbi Judah Moscato came to talk sense into him (Robbiato “approached to hear what they were saying, but they spoke Hebrew to keep him from understanding them”).
The Christians kept up their coercive endeavor, while at the same time the Jews urged Abramino to “continue in the Hebrew faith and not give ear to words spoken to him about becoming a Christian.” Infuriated, Duke Guglielmo ordered Abramino and the interfering Jews to be arrested and separately examined to determine once and for all what the musician’s intentions were. Did Abramino yield to the pressure? Apparently not, for five years later (1593, the last date we have for him) he is addressed as ebreo.
Similar pressure was probably brought on Rossi. He too resisted. But he didn’t resist the secularization of his music; his Italian vocal and his instrumental works follow the conventions of late Renaissance composition as practiced by Christians. Or do they? Is there anything about his works that, despite their otherwise Renaissance appearance, might be described as “Jewish”? Indeed, what is musically “Jewish”?
If anything “Jewish” can be detected in his vocal music, it is in the way Rossi fits his music to the words. For Rossi, music was subservient to the structural and affective demands of the text. But Rossi’s way of having the text dominate the music is by highlighting words through a plain, unobtrusive setting, as familiar perhaps from music in the synagogue, in particular the cantillation of Scriptures in which melodies don’t compete with the text. So what is Italian? What is Jewish? Only once, toward the end of his career, did Rossi allow the music to “compete” with the text in importance, in his Madrigaletti for two voices and basso continuo from 1628.
As a parallel question, one might ask: is there anything particularly Jewish about his instrumental works? Instrumental music didn’t win the approval of the rabbis, for it escaped the control of words and was often used in banqueting. The rabbis maintained that with the destruction of the Temple it was wrong to play instruments until the Messiah reinstated them by returning the Jews to Zion. Even so, instrumental music was recognized by the Jews as an expedient for spiritual elevation. Elisha, the prophet, is said to have requested a minstrel to come and awaken his powers of prophecy (in 2 Kings 3:15 one reads that when the minstrel played the power of the Lord came upon him).
For Rossi instrumental music was a natural vehicle of expression. In his instrumental works he wasn’t hampered by the semantic restrictions of words, rather he could forge his works as he desired. Not only that, but through his instrumental music he established his reputation at the court. Rossi was the only composer of instrumental music in Mantua, publishing four collections of instrumental works.
It was in his third collection of instrumental music, from 1613, that Rossi developed a more demanding, indeed virtuoso mode of expression. Rossi opened his third book of instrumental works with a sonata in a “modern” style (“Sonata prima detta la moderna”) and continues in this style with the remaining items in the collection, as in “Sonata terza sopra l’Aria della Romanesca”.
Rossi’s new approach to instrumental writing in this book directed him to try a new approach to vocal writing, as is clear from his last collection, the madrigaletti, which, in their style of writing, are truly “modern”. Whether these novel instrumental and vocal works improved Rossi’s situation in the court cannot be said. Perhaps they did, though as evidence to the contrary it might be recalled that in the years after 1613 Rossi turned his attention to composing Hebrew works. There he was under no pressure to be “modern”. The very notion of writing music to Hebrew according to the conventions of art music was, for a Jewish audience, itself “modern”. Here is another work from the “Songs by Solomon,” no. 29, “Adon ‘olam” (for eight voices).
Headline image credit: Opening of Salomone de Rossi’s Madrigaletti, Venice, 1628. Photo of Exhibit at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.