Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).
The Jews of Renaissance Italy enjoyed intermittent tolerance by various rulers of the autonomous city-states that dotted the northern province. Many achieved prominence as court instrumentalists, singers, dancers, and actors. Salamone Rossi (ca.157O-ca.1628) was the last and most distinguished example. In 1587, he began his long association with the Gonzagan Court, initially as a singer and violist. He soon became the leader of Duke Vicenzo I’s court musicians and directed an instrumental ensemble probably composed of Jewish musicians. He also became a leading composer, pioneering the musical form known as the trio sonata.
Rossi’s great claim to Jewish musical fame came with his publication in 1623 of Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo, a collection of 33 Psalms, hymns, and other liturgical poems set for combinations of from three to eight voices and intended for use on festive synagogue occasions. In publishing these works, Rossi relied heavily on the endorsement of his friend Rabbi Leon (Judah Aryeh) Modena. Modena (1571-1648) had issued a responsum [a rabbinic ruling] in 1605 that, after years of prohibition, provided halakhically [legally] derived approval for the performance of choral works in the synagogue. Modena’s own choir at his synagogue in Ferrara seems to have established a precedent. But how did the music sound?
Abandoning Traditional Melodies
There are at least six musical traditions among the various Jewish communities of Italy, including variations of Ashkenazic [East European-descended] and Sephardic [Spanish-descended] practices. While there are substantial differences among them, all share an Eastern cast. In Rossi’s day, this Eastern orientation precluded harmonization according to the prevailing Western styles. Rossi was faced with two choices: Give up his goal of creating art music for the synagogue or abandon the traditional nusah [musical motifs that distinguish each synagogue service] that limited his musical options. Rossi chose the latter.
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