As Don Harrán points out in his fascinating book Salamone Rossi, Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua, “There were Jewish musicians before Salamone Rossi, but Rossi was the first to leave an indelible imprint on European music history as a composer.”
I first encountered Rossi’s music when I was marketing director for the PGM Recordings record label. Gabe Weiner, the label’s late and lamented founder, produced two recordings of selections from Rossi’s Hashirím ashér lishlomó (The Song of Solomon). The works were sung by the New York Baroque, a pick-up group of mostly New York-based singers under the direction of Eric Milnes. We marketed the records in every conceivable place, from Jewish newspapers to such magazines as Tikkun and Reform Judaism. The recordings were huge successes and were some of the biggest sellers by an indie record label. We also took a fair amount of heat from purists who were outraged that women’s voices were employed on the recording. Can’t please everybody I guess.
Rossi (c.1570-c.1630) was born in Mantua and was employed as a freelance composer and performer at the Gonzaga court. Jewish musicians in Mantua were frequently employed as performers at weddings, feasts and other occasions. Some of Rossi’s contemporaries in Mantua were Giaches de Wert, Ludovico Viadana, and Claudio Monteverdi and Rossi knew their music well. It’s entirely likely that Monteverdi and Rossi knew each other since both were violinists and both were employed at court.
Typical for his day, Rossi wrote Italian-texted madrigals and canzonettas, but it’s his instrumental and sacred music that are the focus of an excellent new recording by the Galilee-based vocal ensemble Profeti della Quinta and the instrumental ensemble Muscadin on the Pan Classics record label.
I wasn’t very familiar with Rossi’s instrumental works and there’s a healthy sampling of his revolutionary trio sonatas (a form which he pretty much invented) on this recording. Rossi’s trio sonatas are scored for two upper voices and continuo and even though he designates the upper voices as violins on the title pages of these works, the ensemble Muscadin adds recorder and cornett to the mix, so the upper voices are combinations of a wind instrument with violin or two wind instruments—it’s a nice effect and really underscores the flash and fire in the music. There are some beautiful moments here. The eloquent violin playing of Leila Schayegh finds an expressive foil in Corina Marti’s recorder in the Sonata seconda from Rossi’s 3rd book of sonatas (1622). I love the sound of the cornett and the ensemble’s Josué Meléndez Peláez shines when paired with Marti in the Sinfonia seconda from that same 3rd book. Intelligent and tasteful continuo work is heard throughout.
Orthodoxy prohibited polyphonic music in the synagogue but there was a liberal movement who yearned to bring music in praise of God to the service, following the example of King Solomon’s First Temple. The movement was led by the dedicatee of the published edition of Rossi’s Hashirím ashér lishlomó, the wealthy and progressive Moses Sullam, and the colorful and influential Rabbi Leon da Modena (who wrote the preface to the edition). The music was in all likelihood intended for use in the home, weddings and the synagogue where it would be sung by a male ensemble.
Here’s Profeti della Quinta singing Rossi’s Al Naharot Bavel:
Since any resemblance to the popular secular styles of the day would be a problem, so Rossi adopts the stile antico for these sacred gems. Rossi takes a Palestrina-like care in setting text, so every word is comprehensible and there is little repetition of material. One interesting bit: Hebrew text is read from right to left, so Rossi had to reverse the word order so that the individual words still read right to left while the words are set under the notes in the usual left to right fashion!
The performances by Profeti della Quinta are revelations. Here’s the precision and tonal beauty that this music deserves and it makes this CD the essential Rossi recording to add to your collection. I only hope Profeti Della Quinta go on to record more Rossi.
The CD is available everywhere or directly from Qualiton Imports. Since you are spending money, you should also pick up Don Harrán’s book:
and while you are book shopping, try to find Leon da Modena’s fascinating The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: