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Salamone Rossi and the preservation of Jewish identity

Grove Music Online presents the final installment in our 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. 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.

Like other Jewish musicians in later times, among them Ernest Bloch, Darius Milhaud, and Leonard Bernstein, Rossi confronted the problems of preserving his Jewish identity in a non-Jewish environment and of communicating with Jews and Christians in such a way as to be understood and appreciated by both. His solutions illustrate the paradoxe juif.

Rossi, the man and musician, had his Jewish and Hebrew sides, as evident from his connections with his family and with Jews and their institutions in Mantua and Venice, to which one should add his commitment to the Hebrew tradition in his Hebrew works. He participated in productions of the Jewish theatrical troupe that performed before the dukes in Mantua and was probably called upon to prepare music for celebrations within the Jewish community. He might have been affiliated with one or more synagogues in and beyond Mantua.

At the same time, Rossi had his Mantuan and Italian sides. He was heavily involved in music-making for the Gonzagas and was occasionally invited to entertain guests at other courts. He came into contact with the greater and lesser non-Jewish musicians—Monteverdi, Giaches de Wert, etc.—who worked in or passed through Mantua. He joined them or even collaborated with them in composing, rehearsing, and often performing vocal and instrumental music for courtly or private entertainments. He met with dukes, princes, and other worthies, sometimes receiving commissions, though more often asking them to commission works from him.

The outward dichotomy between Jewish and non-Jewish influences and motivations cuts through his production. Rossi supplied Hebrew compositions for services in the synagogue and possibly events in the community; he related to these compositions, so he intimated in the dedication to his “Songs by Solomon,” as different from his Italian ones (“the Lord,” he said, “has been a support for me and He put new songs in my mouth”). He knew of an ancient Hebrew musical practice in the Temple, which declined after its destruction; he was perceived by others as playing a major role in its revival. Leon Modena believed that by writing Hebrew music Rossi both linked with the past and perpetuated it into the future. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that from the day this collection is published, those who learn it [the science of music] will multiply in Israel in order to sing to the magnificence of our God by using the ‘Songs’ and others like them.”

But before, during, and after pursuing his Hebrew inclinations, Rossi operated, with no less enthusiasm, within the bounds of an ongoing Italian musical tradition. His canzonette and madrigals are firmly rooted in Italian practice, as are his instrumental canzoni, dances, sinfonie, and sonatas. Here and there Rossi innovated within this practice, especially in his sinfonie and sonatas. Yet, in the main, he shaped the ideas of his non-Jewish works according to an inherently Italian, non-Jewish tradition of vocal and instrumental music.

Rossi was known as a virtuoso violinist and in his instrumental music he emphasized his soloist inclinations. The result was something quite different from his vocal music. Released from words, Rossi was free to impose his own ideas, as determined by his performing capacities. While he drew from words for his vocal works, he drew from himself for many of his instrumental ones: Rossi is the measure of their form and content. In this he is a man of his times, for the seventeenth century saw the gradual rise of the soloist in vocal and instrumental music.

In daily life Rossi moved between two cultures, combining, if not fusing them in his activities. Though there was increasing segregation of Jews from Christians in later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mantua, Rossi illustrates the possibility of breaking down civic and religious barriers. After all, the Lord God who ruled his people was the same God who ruled mankind. In writing to Duke Vincenzo on his brother’s behalf in 1606, Rossi finishes with the words “I pray our Lord for your every happiness and content”; and in the dedication of his four-voice madrigals to Alfonso d’Este he addresses him as “Your Highness to whom I pay my humblest respects by entreating the Lord God that, in His benignity, He rain all favors upon you and Your Most Serene Household.” One wonders whether Rossi was not saying, as an innuendo, that, after all, it was the Jewish God who formed the world and the nations and that it was for the Jewish God, who had chosen the Jews for His people, to dispense His benevolence to Gentiles. Whatever the case, the result is unification, through continuities within the Judeo-Christian tradition or through notions of Hebrew culture as the fons et origo (source and origin) of later developments.

These and other interpretations depend on the way one reads Rossi’s biography and his works. They form the chapters of a still “open book,” whose contents can be variously organized according to the particular point of view selected for their narration. Vivat S. R. (Long live Salamone Rossi), to quote the acrostic in the table of contents to his first collection: in “living on,” Rossi’s story can be told and retold as a narrative for the shifting associations of Jews and their music within European culture.

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.

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