By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat down, yea, we wept,

when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon

the willows in the midst thereof.

For there, they that carried us

away captive, required of us a song;

and they that wasted us required

of us mirth, saying, Sing us

one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord's

song in a strange land?

Psalm 137





Surprisingly, the personality of Salomone Rossi (c.1570 - c.1630) has not, until now, been the subject of systematic studies, or of specific recording projects; even less have there been performances, in festivals and concert programmes, of music which must whet the appetite of many by its quality and diversity. All this appears even stranger when one considers that Salomone Rossi occupies a unique position in the history of music. Situated at the crossroads of Christian and Jewish culture, and forming one of the essential routes between Prima and Seconda Prattica, between Renaissance polyphony and accompanied monody, his musical output reveals, beyond any doubt, one of the most original personalities of his time.


If it is true that, on the one hand, the introduction of polyphony, in the attempt to reform synagogal music, is revealed by the innovative appointment of the composer at the heart of ]ewish culture, on the other hand, one cannot deny the presence of this same spirit in the field of Western-Christian music.


If the first works of Salomone Rossi, the Canzonette and Il Primo Libro dei Madrigali, show us a musician steeped in the cultural climate of the Renaissance, the Sonate and La Maddalena reveal that he was already actively engaged in the themes and forms belonging to the baroque.




I. Salomone Rossi - Concert-master at the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga.


The attempt at combining two different cultures, Christian and Jewish, definitely dominates the musical output of Salomone Rossi. If he sought, on the one hand, to transfer the accents of Christian music to the heart of Jewish musical practice, by introducing polyphony to the music of the synagogue in Mantova, on the other hand, he accomplished an analogous - but in a sense contrary - operation with regard to our own music. L’Ebreo, indeed, played a fundamental role in the invention of the bass continuo, and in the transition from the polyphony of the Renaissance to the accompanied monody of the 16th Century.


Through the secular publications of Salomone Rossi, we can detect the bridges between one method of accompaniment

and another, and the subsequent transformation of the sound ideal which carries us progressively towards the baroque.


In the Primo Libro de’ Madrigali (Venezia 1596), Salomone Rossi expresses his personal inspiration in perfect harmony with the principles of composition and customs of the Renaissance. The first edition of the Primo Libro, which did not provide any kind of instrumental accompaniment, shows a Rossi still receptive to the fascination of the pure polyphony of an a capella ensemble. But by the second edition of the same book (Venezia 1600), the following note is to be found inscribed in the title:


some of the said madrigals can be sung with the chitarrone, its tablature to follow the soprano part.


The obvious result is that one is faced here with rather a significant change; the polyphonic vocal ensemble begins gradually to favour the smaller combination of voice and chitarrone, to enlarge the role of the soprano part, thus limiting itself, by way of accompaniment, to a reduced tablature for the other parts.


The feeling for this change of direction was to become even clearer with the appearance of the Secondo Libro de’ Madrigali a cinque voci with the bass continuo accompaniment to be played in Concerto with the soprano part. The oldest edition of the second madrigal collection of Rossi came from the presses of Ricciardo Amadino, in Venezia, in 1602, but it seems to have been preceded, in 1599, by an edition now lost. The introduction of the bass continuo, of a figured bass providing for an accompaniment improvised by the other voices, marks the birth of a practice, which reached its highest point in the baroque era, and which, at the same time, confirmed the triumph of accompanied monody over polyphony.


All the publications of Salomone Rossi after these two collections only serve to confirm the clear choices in the latter. The note, with the bass continuo to be played on the chitarrone or any other strong instrument , appears in the editions of the three other Books of Madrigals, and of the four books of symphonies, galliards and sonatas. It is indisputable that the transformations which we have described, throughout the secular publications of Salomone Rossi, form part of a much bigger and more general phenomenon in respect of the evolution of taste in the Italy of the late Renaissance. But the fact that one Jewish musician played such a definitive part in the evolution of European music is certainly not an accident. Rossi had indeed introduced into Western-Christian music a kind of accompaniment, which, in Jewish musical practice, constituted an old custom. It must not be forgotten that, at the end of the 16th Century, in the whole of northern Italy, and more particularly at the court of the Gonzagas, the Jewish community could integrate into the world of Christian culture without difficulty, contributing inevitably to its transformation.


Salomone Rossi represents , without any doubt, the highest expression of the dream of integration, which existed in the Jewish community of his time. His work radiates the fervent aspiration of a world tired of segregation, and which, proud of its own identity, could at last open the doors of the ghetto.




II. Salomone Rossi — Jewish polyphony at the court of the Gonzagas.


The complex entanglement of Jewish and Christian cultures has always been at the same time intense and problematic even conflicting. From the Hellenistic period until that of emancipation and beyond, Judaism has always seemed to be attracted by the mirage of other cultures, without ever having been absorbed by them. At the same time Jewish culture has never ceased to be a source of fascination for the Christian world.


Synagogal chant, while having its origins in Gregorian chant, had proudly followed its own road, excluding its old tradition, without being affected by the stormy development of Western-Christian music. But after centuries of apparent indifference to the siren songs intoned by the world in which it was submerged, Jewish music seems, without warning, to change course with the Renaissance, and to yield to the temptations and flatteries of the other song.


In the second half of the 16th Century and the first years of the 17th Century, one can indeed observe a movement of profound interest on the part of Judaism for the Christian culture and musical practice - as one can also detect, in return, a Christian interest in Hebraic culture. As far as music is concerned, the exchange was particularly intense, favoured, on the one side, by the interest which the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance showed toward some aspects of ]ewish culture (the Cabbala for instance), and, on the other side, the favourable reception given to many Jewish musicians by the Italian courts. One can mention, among others, the madrigalists David da Civita and Allegro Porto; the Neapolitan Muzio Effrem (in the service, in the first instance, of Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, he is later found close to the courts of Mantova and Ferrara); Abramo  and Abramino dall’Arpa, guests in the court of  Guglielmo da Gonzaga.


From 1587 we find Salomone Rossi ‘Hebreo’ active at the court of his successor Vincenzo I, the patron of Claudio Monteverdi. Descended from an old and noble Jewish family (his Hebraic name was Shlomo me Ha-Adummim), violinist and director of the musical ensemble at court, Salomone Rossi composed a number of important instrumental works, canzonette and madrigals, in which he showed that he was quite aware of the experiments and liberties of the stil moderno. With his four Libri delle simphonie, gagliarde, correnti e sonate (1607 - 1622), he gave a tremendous push to the idiomatic language of the violin, and toward the definition of the modern sonata a tre.


Moreover, Salomone Rossi was one of the protagonists of what could be described as an attempt to reform synagogal chant. During these years, indeed, the desire was born among the Jewish musicians, who worked in the Renaissance courts, to bring into the synagogue the musical accents which were heard outside. The principal proponent of this ideal was the Rabbi Leone da Modena, who, in 1605, introduced into the synagogue of Ferrara a choir of 6 to 8 voices, organised according to the rules of ‘musical science’ and modern harmony. In a direct line from the work of Leon da Modena, Salomone Rossi published in 1622 a collection of 33 pieces (psalms, canticles and hymns) for the liturgy of the synagogue in Mantua. Under the title of Ha-Shirim asher li-Shlomo (the Songs of Solomon), Salomone Rossi presented the work by which he intended to contribute to the ‘modernisation’ of synagogal chant. His anthology contained pieces for three to eight voices, from which emerges clearly the hierarchical superiority of the word - having recourse to syllabic recitation, to homophonic verticality and to a clear and incisive declamation of the text.


The bold experiments of this group of composers gave rise to the perplexity and the polemics at the heart of the Jewish community at this time. Echos of these diatribes can even be heard in the preface to the edition of the songs, written by Rossi himself; but by 1605, Leone da Modena felt constrained to publish his Responsorum, preoccupied with the reactions provoked by his attempts at reform. The objections raised could be summarized as follows:

- Synagogal chant must not be allowed to become the prerogative of professionals, but must remain the living patrimony of the community.

- Polyphonic chant, being by its nature difficult to execute, requires a specific musical experience.

- Polyphonic chant implies a repetition of notes or phrases, in the blend of different voices, and therefore alters the linear recitation of the prayer.


It is easy to guess that the polemic is based on a whole series of problems, which are anything but simple, and which are not necessarily linked to musical specifics. In the Christian world, indeed, music has always been conceived from a particularly hedonistic point of view. In the liturgical chant, it was an ornament, possibly not essential - useful, sometimes, for teaching purposes, but, at other times, reprehensible - if it tended to exceed its limits to become a predominant element; always, however, pleasing to the ear; flattering to the senses; lacking in any sacred quality; at worst, an instrument of the devil; at best, an invitation to prayer. In the Jewish tradition, on the other hand, chant has always been an integral part of prayer. The Midrash of the Talmud said:


if the Tora was not sung, it was not the Tora, and an ancient Midrash recounts that God had spoken thus: If there had not been this song, I would never have created the world; I gave voices to all creatures, that they might ever sing My praises; had the songs been lacking, I would never have created the world.


Such quotations could be multiplied indefinitely, not only from the Talmud , but even from all the later Hebraic literature, in order to show that chant, in Judaism, has always been conceived as an element complementary to the word itself, stamped with the same sacred character — and that is the only truly appropriate method of delivering the sacred text correctly in the Jewish community.


The complexity of the problem must certainly have been present in the mind of Salomone Rossi when he published his Ha-Shirim asher li-Shlomo . The latter, indeed, proved to be much simpler and more transparent, from the point of view of the interweaving polyphony of the voices, than his secular works, which are perfectly in line with the style of late Renaissance madrigals. Trying to simplify the new chants, and to make the texts comprehensible, he sought, as far as possible, to avoid the repetitions of words and phrases. Notwithstanding this compromise, the dream of reforming synagogal chant clashed with ingrained customs of emphasis in the idea of Iudaism itself.


The Ha-Shirim , indeed, simple as they were, remained in the polyphonic style, which removed them from the community, confining their performance to specialists - to professionals at all events. Moreover, the intoned declamation of the prayer was profoundly altered, which resulted in the chant finding itself separated from the course of the phrase, from its significance, which, in the traditional monodic chant, was only performed as one with the musical phrase. Finally, in trying to conserve the traditional melodies, the composer was obliged to adapt them to modal scales and to the rules of modern counterpoint, to realise, in p sum, the modifications which made the old monodic chants in harmony with the rules of the Christian musical liturgy.


The dream of integration, which enthused the Jewish musicians active in the courts of northern Italy, was suddenly interrupted by the invasion of the troops of Ferdinand II of Austria, and by an epidemic of plague, which put the Duchy of Mantova under a great strain in 1628. More than two thousand Jews were banished from the city, and it was no longer permitted to produce the sounds of the ars nova of Salomone Rossi within the walls of the synagogue in Mantova.



Roberto Festa

Translation: Christopher S. Cartwright