The Many Discoveries of Salomone Rossi

For Ben Steinberg; teacher, musician and Jewish composer, who first introduced me to the music of Salomone Rossi

“Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba.”

This is the first line of the Jewish prayer called Kaddish and which translates from the Aramaic, “May his great name be exalted; sanctified is God’s great name.” It is one of the most common prayers in the Jewish liturgy. I have heard it spoken and sung on a variety of occasions, among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations, among Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Jews from the near east, in Israel and in many places in the diaspora. But tonight is different.

Holy Blossom Sanctuary, Photo by John Moscowitz

I am sitting comfortably in the sanctuary of the Holy Blossom Temple, a congregation that was founded in Toronto by Jews from England in the early 19th century, sometime before Canada became a country, and was still a colony of Britain. I am listening to a version of Kaddish, performed by a group of young visiting Israeli musicians called Profeti della Quinta, and which is the brainchild of Elam Rotem.

Rotem has formed an ensemble that specializes in the historically informed performance of the music of the Renaissance and Early Baroque. One of the musicians is playing the arch lute, or theorbo, a sitar size looking version of the Renaissance lute, one of the key accompanying instruments of European art music that was popular until the death of J.S. Bach.

Elam Rotem and Profeti della Quinta, from Stage and

This Kaddish is being sung in a multi-part harmony typical of the Italian Renaissance, reflecting the choral blend created by pioneers of that style, such as Claudio Monteverdi, that master composer of the Italian Renaissance and early Baroque, once hired to provide the Princes of Mantua with their sacred and secular music, in both the Latin Christian liturgy and the rising secular and artistic use of the Italian language with its madrigals and early opera. This elaborate Kaddish was written by Monteverdi’s colleague at the court of Mantua, a fellow musician and composer from Mantua, Salomone Rossi, one of the most remarkable Jewish talents of the short lived period in Italy we now call the Renaissance.

(Kaddish, by Profeti della Quinta)

The musicians of Profeti della Quinta performed selections of Rossi’s secular and sacred works marvelously, interpreting examples of Rossi’s extensive repertoire after we viewed a documentary film highlighting their trip to Italy. There, they performed Rossi’s secular and sacred music in the last remaining Synagogue of Mantua and, in the surviving palaces of the Renaissance princes of Mantua, in particular the Gonzaga family, who once employed Rossi as an instrumentalist and to whom some of his secular compositions were dedicated.

(Clip from documentary about Profeti della Quinta)

It is remarkable to see and hear a new generation of Israeli musicians, reviving the music of their musical and spiritual forebear, in the exact halls and sanctuaries where he first brought his compositions to his patrons and, to his own Jewish community.

Holy Blossom’s well-known Cantor, Beny Maissner, facilitated the evening’s performance. He and the Holy Blossom should be commended for having highlighted the music of this Jewish Renaissance savant, in a sacred space, where if Rossi were alive today, he would feel right at home. Given the growing desire to culturally boycott Israeli musicians that is now infecting Western Europe, it is appropriate that this Israeli ensemble performed Kaddish to bless and sanctify the memory of Rossi, combining ritual and performance on that evening in a fashion that Rossi first pioneered. And so, it is my hope that for those in the audience who have never heard Rossi’s work before, this was their first discovery of his oeuvre.

The second discovery of Rossi was made by the Dukes of Mantua, in particular the Gonzaga family who eventually hired him as a part time musician at their court and according to musicologists, protected him from destructive envy, perhaps even providing the unspoken protection that allowed him to print and disseminate his published secular works (usually from the publishing capital of that time, Venice).

Despite a growing amount of musical and historical scholarship we know little about Rossi’s personal life. His family lineage was considered to be illustrious. It included the Bible scholar Azariah de Rossi, as well as noted musicians, many of whom believed they were direct descendants of the Judean slaves that Titus brought to Italy from Jerusalem (after his destruction of the Temple), which may very well have been the case.

Rossi was probably born in 1570. He died about 1630, from old age, killed by invaders or, by the plague, which afflicted Mantua at the time. We can assume that he was circumcised and had enough of a Jewish education to know Hebrew and Aramaic reasonably well. At the same time, he was literate in Italian and by implication, the literature and poetry of humanism, which was the guiding spirit of the Renaissance. We can assume that he was familiar with both the Jewish liturgy and the complex music of his colleagues such as Monteverdi, who defined the music of the time.

We do not know where Rossi was buried, but perhaps it is in the old graveyard of the Jewish community of Mantua. For religious reasons, it is a site that will remain unexcavated. But how could a Jew like Rossi be so well trained in the music of the Gentiles? The answer is that in those days Italian Jews were different.

There is much that we can deduce about Rossi from the general and unusual nature of the Jews of Italy during the Renaissance. For the first time since perhaps the Hellenistic era, the Jews of Italy were confronted with a culture that they often believed to be equal to, and in many ways, superior to their own. This was the culture of Humanism that pervaded the Renaissance.

The Humanists were a small but influential group of men (and women) inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans and who were determined to revive the culture of those classical civilizations. By doing so, they created the first “secular space” in Europe since the triumph of Christianity and the destruction of the last pagan library in Alexandria at the Serapeum, by the newly empowered Christian authorities of the time. Although we think of Leonardo da Vinci, as the great man of science of the Renaissance, we often forget that his main job for the ruler of Milan was as one of the most gifted theorbo or arch lute players of his time! Had he been alive today, he could have sat in with the musicians performing at Holy Blossom at the drop of a musical hat.

Woman with lute, by an associate of Leonardo Da Vinci

Italian Humanists searched for ancient manuscripts, in both Greek and in Latin, and as linguists with a growing secular sense of history, began to question the Latin translation of the scriptures then approved by the Catholic Church. They recognized that their Jewish neighbours preserved and maintained the Hebrew originals of the Torah. Many of them subsequently learnt Hebrew. Some humanists studied these scriptures, as well as the Jewish Kabbalistic texts, which many Italian and European scholars at the time believed, would somehow, in the end, provide support for the Christian revelation.

Although the music of the ancient world had long ago disappeared, composers were now free to elaborate new harmonic systems and apply them to what we now understand to be the Renaissance origins of opera. No longer was the Gospel narrative the sole object of musical composition, but the gods and spirits of the ancient Greeks and Romans once again took centre stage, as in Monteverdi’s rendering of the myth of Orpheus in his opera, Orpheo.

(Clip from Monteverdi Opera, Orpheo)

All of this took place because competing merchant and military families who dominated a range of city-states such as Florence, Sienna, Milan and Mantua ran Italy. There was no national authority at the time and no empire dominated the peninsula. At the same time, the Jews and Gentiles of what is now Italy, or its many city-states, not only cooperated economically, but also began to socialize on the basis of a common interest in this growing secular culture.

In order to evoke the extraordinary social and literary interplay between Jew and Gentile during Rossi’s time, consider the following text from one of his madrigals;

Hear the warm sighs

Sent to your desire

From compassion to desire

If I could save you by dying

I would die to give you life

But ah! Please live, more

For he dies unjustly

Who, alive, finds his heart

In another’s bosom

For those familiar with the many meanings of Italian poetry at the time, “dying” has a double meaning. It is often a code word for erotic orgasm. So this lyric was quite “out there” for its time. Not the kind of things that were being read in the Yeshivas of Europe during the same era.

Mantua, Ducal Palace

Anthropological historian Raphael Patai once wrote that among Renaissance courtiers, extramarital erotic adventures were the norm, and no amount of legislation forbidding sex between Jews and Gentiles could stop men and women from either sides of the religious divide, from sharing their private pleasures.

When seen in this light, this gives us an entirely different insight into the motivation behind Jessica, daughter of Shylock who runs off with Lorenzo, her Christian paramour in Shakespeare’s controversial play, “The Merchant of Venice.” Simply put, this was quite common and the Jews of the time also took on Christian paramours.

Literate Italians of the time believed in an often violent fulfillment of desire which could even justify theft and was connected to an interest in sword fights, sports and gambling, which would as we later see, spell the doom of Rossi’s greatest Jewish patron, Cantor and Jewish theologian Leone Modena, as he lost his fortune to gambling and one son to murder by a street gang. (It is interesting to consider this in the light of the fact that Rossi’s greatest financial benefactor the Sullam family included one of Venice’s great Jewish poets and intellectuals, Sara. Far too often Sara adopted a Gentile Humanist and invited one of them to live in her house, where they would either denounce her religion or, rob her house while she slept.)

In his phenomenal book, The Jewish Mind, Patai writes about the centrality of secular music among Italy’s Renaissance Jews:

Music making, dancing and the theater, in which Jews contributed more to Renaissance culture than in any other field, were a part of Jewish everyday life. All Jewish girls and boys received instruction in music and dance. Noble ladies took dancing lessons from Jewish women, and male Jewish dancing masters taught the art to Christian clients. Mixed dancing of men and women together was accepted. These activities led to intercourse between Christians and Jews, which was vehemently opposed by both civic and Church authorities. The frequently repeated orders to close down Jewish schools of music and dancing in places like Venice indicate that these rescripts were only temporarily obeyed, and that the Gentile clients who knocked on the doors soon enabled them to reopen. There were numerous Jewish composers; the names of an even larger number of Jewish performers are known, among them violinists, flutists, and both male and female singers, the most outstanding of whom played to princely and ducal audiences…In disregard of explicit Talmudic injunction. Italian Jews considered it permissible to listen to women singing. This intense interest in music led to the emergence of considerable literature, written by Jewish authors, on music and dancing and including studies on the history of music and musical instruments.

So perhaps we must change the sequence of discoveries. Clearly, the second discovery of Salomone Rossi was his own discovery of the rich and diverse repertoires of Renaissance secular and sacred music, that he had mastered by the age of nineteen, including music for both the Gentile and Jewish theatre which were both growing at the time. This gave him entrance to the orchestra of the Dukes of Mantua, who in their city, expected all Jews to wear a demeaning yellow badge.

According to surviving documents we know that Rossi’s aristocratic patrons allowed him and his children to walk the streets of Mantua without that distinguishing mark, despite the fact that in those days the Jews of Italy did not yet live in ghettos. This may also explain that unlike Monteverdi, who was honored and probably well paid by his patrons, Rossi was never given a full time job and no doubt suffered economically from this religious based discrimination.

It also explains why his dedications were so obsequious. In the hope of gaining some aristocratic patronage, he would dedicate various secular works to these hoped for patrons in the hope that they would perhaps become financial supporters. This never happened, but clearly they loved his music. This third discovery of Rossi then, was that of the Dukes of Mantua, his sometime employers and “patrons.

The fourth discovery of Rossi is a result of his success at publishing his musical works that turn up, during his lifetime, in musical manuscripts as far away as England. Francis Tregan, an English musician and collector of musical manuscripts included nineteen of Rossi’s Italian madrigals. Whereas Thomas Weelkes, an English composer, included two of Rossi’s canzonets in his manuscript dated 1608 called “Weelkes’ Ayeres or Phantasticke Spirites for Three Voices.” This is the same year  William Shakespeare has been formally documented as an actor in a troupe that was patronized by the King of England. Unfortunately, Weelkes neglected to point out that the three Canzonetes were original compositions by Rossi.

Don Harran, the world’s expert on Rossi’s work has written:

In their pastoral tone, and unaffected simplicity, these works must have struck a resonance with English audiences, used to similar ones by their own madrigalists. It is no wonder that the composer Weelkes, reworked six of Rossi’s cannonette in his own versions.

Historical musicologists now understand that Rossi was a musical innovator during his own time. Three years before Monteverdi, in his madrigals, Rossi pioneered the use of the basso continuo part. In 1607 his compositions featured the first trio sonatas to have ever appeared in Europe. He probably invented the form. We must remember then, that Rossi was just one, even if he was the best, of a significant number of Italian Jews who were masters of and contributors to the classical music of the time and, as we will see, were “instrumental” in bringing Italian Renaissance music to the court of the English King, Henry VIII.

During the last few years of Rossi’s life the Jews of Italy and later, almost all Jews of Western Europe, were confined to ghettos. His last pieces were written in Hebrew and correspond to that time when he and his family were moved to the Ghetto of Mantua. This is his famous collection called the Songs of Solomon (the two names are the same in Hebrew), referring in a typical Renaissance play on words to him, the composer, not the ancient Israelite king. They are the first musical rendering of Hebrew Psalms (most come from the Davidic Psalms) known to us in the European polyphonic tradition. They were designed to be interspersed in the Synagogue liturgy of his coreligionists in Mantua and Venice.

Their collection and publication were driven by Leone Modena’s desire to reconstitute the sound of the Levites in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, in profound homage to Rossi’s ancestors, the one-time slaves of conquering Roman Emperors. Their publication in Venice was subsidized by the Sullam family, bankers of Venice, or more bluntly, moneylenders, much like Shylock, who in the Merchant of Venice is uncharacteristically portrayed by Shakespeare as a Venetian Jew without interest in music. Ponder that.

Al Pacino, in the film the Merchant of Venice

For those musical critics who say there was or is nothing Jewish about Rossi’s Hebrew compositions, subtle analyses of his rendering of the Hebrew texts now suggest that the music was adapted to the rhythm of the Hebrew language, not the other way around. By the time of his death Rossi had published over three hundred works of music, vocal and instrumental, in Italian and in Hebrew.

(Profeti della Quinta, Adon Olam by Rossi)

For two hundred years the music of the Renaissance disappeared into European archives while the Jews were forcefully retired to the Ghettos of Europe. The Renaissance had come to an end. The conservative forces of the Papacy, and the Catholic Reformation discontinued the once near free mingling of Jew and Gentile in Italy.

With the conquest of the Italian peninsula, the rise of the Reformation and the eventual emergence of what we now call Baroque music, much of the output of Renaissance composers went out of style. Their work was no longer performed and many of the composers and their output were forgotten, with the exception of a few exceptional and long lasting pieces. Simply put, Renaissance music had died out, as did the oral tradition that supported its performance practice.

The pieces and their composers were revived during Early Music Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (pioneered by Arnold Dolmetsch and his children) which literally brought the music back to life and, to our newly historically informed modern musical soundscape of which Profeti della Quinta are an essential part. Likewise, Rossi’s extensive manuscripts of sacred and secular music were scattered across the libraries and archives of Europe, as was also the case for so many of his Gentile musical contemporaries.

When the Jews of Europe were allowed to leave their Ghettos in the early 19th century, they were confronted by the culture of 19th century Europe with its philosophy, fascination with secular history and natural science. The Jews then began to use these new historical methodologies to understand their own history, including their own musical history. The next discovery of Salomone Rossi was underway. Jewish scholars and musicians of 19th century Europe led it.

In 1861 an employee of the Reformed Synagogue in Vienna published an article about a late Renaissance musical text with Hebrew letters that was kept in the Imperial Library in Vienna. It was by Salomone Rossi. This triggered the interest of Paris based Samuel Nauborg. With the patronage of Baron Edmund De Rothschild Nauborg began to collect and collate the dispersed manuscripts of Rossi’s works. He published the first 19th century version of Rossi’s music in 1877.

From then on Rossi’s works began to be performed in the non-Orthodox Synagogues of Europe and then in America. As once again, the Jews of Europe and America were confronted by a form of European civilization that they thought of as the equal of, or superior to their own, Rossi’s music proved to them that Jewish composers were “up to scratch” with their Gentile counterparts. Albert Einstein, who was a fine musician in his own right, was an admirer of Rossi’s work.

After independence in 1948, and with the establishment of departments of musicology at Israeli universities (which in the early days were prejudiced towards the study of European art music), Rossi was given much attention and his works were performed in Israel.

But perhaps the most significant discovery of Rossi has been carried out by Professor Don Harran, an Ivy League trained American Zionist who, as a Professor of Musicology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has not only written the definitive work on Rossi, but has prepared the best edited versions of his manuscripts. It is a remarkable homecoming for Rossi’s Psalms were first written and performed by King David in this same city centuries earlier. These updated editions of Rossi’s work have allowed younger Israeli musicians like Elam Rotem and his colleagues in Profeti della Quinta, to confidently provide us with interpretations that are as close as possible as we can get to Rossi’s time.

In the spirit of Rossi, and remembering his own interest in Renaissance Jewish musical theatre, Rotem and his colleagues see his oeuvre as open, not closed. In that same spirit they have worked with composers using the musical language of the time of Rossi, to create a new Renaissance Opera on an Old Testament theme, “Joseph and his Brothers.”

(Clip about Joseph and His Brothers, Profeti Della Quinta)

Without the rise of the State of Israel, without Don Harran’s aliya, and without an Israeli fascination with the history and musicology of the Jewish people through space and time, it is unlikely that the concert that I attended at Holy Blossom Tempe in Toronto would have taken place. For despite Harran’s dedicated work, in the text book that I used as an undergraduate on  Western musical history by Donald Grout, the staple text book used by all college music students in North America, Rossi  was conspicuously absent. Hopefully that has changed by now. Earlier, during the 1960s when I was student of classical singing at the Royal Conservatory of Music, had someone told me about Rossi’s work, I would have found it hard to believe.

If you think that the musical and cultural influence of Salomone Rossi died out with the decline of Italian Renaissance Jewry, you may be in for a surprise. As Rossi was just one of a disproportionate number of talented Italian Jewish musicians at the time, when the counter Reformation and its hand maiden, the Inquisition, began persecuting the Jews of Catholic Europe, some of them managed to escape to England, there living as secret Jews, crypto Jews or Marranos, as their Spanish persecutors derogatorily called them.

That did not stop dissident King Henry the VIII from importing his royal court musicians from a group of sophisticated Italian Crypto Jews called the Bassano family, and whose descendants played at court for over one hundred years. The most interesting of them was a woman named Amelia Bassano Lanier, now famous as an experimental poet from Elizabethan times. The family’s direct descendant includes a contemporary English musician, Peter Bassano, who today happens to be a performer of Renaissance music at Oxford University.

(Composition by Henry VIII, probably performed by the Bassano family during his lifetime)

A growing minority of scholars believe that Amelia Bassano Lanier was Shakespeare’s mistress, the object of his sonnets, and perhaps the co-writer of his plays. The English scholar John Hudson has recently argued, in a respectable academic journal, that there is strong evidence that she wrote all, if not many, of Shakespeare’s plays, as there are serious scholars and actors such as Derek Jacobi of I Claudius fame, who believe that Shakespeare was no more than an actor and front man for a more sophisticated men and women of letters (a film called Anonymous released in 2011, dramatizes one version of this theory). If Bassano were indeed Shakespeare’s partner, it would explain how he had such a fantastic knowledge of music, Italy, the Bible and why there are even a few Hebrew phrases in his plays.

Elizabethan portrait of the Crypto Jewish English poetess, Amelia Bassano Lanier

But perhaps the strangest and most uncanny aspect of the legacy of the music from the time of Salomone Rossi, is the story of a musical piece called La Mantovana. It is a melody that came out of Mantua, Rossi’s hometown. The melody is attributed to an Italian tenor called Giuseppe Cenci. It first appeared in a collection of Italian madrigals in 1600.

(Gasparo Zanetti’s version of La Mantovana performed by L’ensemble di pizzichi)

The melody then seemed to wander, like a wandering Jew, turning up in dated manuscripts across Europe, in Scotland, Spain and Poland. In the 19th century the Czech composer Smetana used it as the melodic basis for his now famous piece called the Moldau. In 1888, a Jewish composer by the name of Samuel Cohen, who had heard it as a melody in Rumania, used the same melody as the basis for a Hebrew Poem, called Ha Tikvah. It became the national anthem of Israel. If Salomone Rossi could hear it now, he might think it was his own composition.

“Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba.”

About the Author
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large. Having spent more than twenty years living and working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he offers readers a cross cultural perspective on the pressing issues of our times. He has contributed numerous articles to the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the New York Post, the Brooklyn Rail, the American Thinker, Books in Canada, Minerva Magazine and is a Contributing Editor at the New English Review.
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