Salamone Rossi & Synagogue Choral Music

A Renaissance composer who applied the conventions of choral music to Jewish liturgy

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Adon Olam

Links courtesy the Zamir Chorale of Boston.

An initial hearing of Rossi's music confirms the impression that Rossi "sold out" to the conventions of his day. Worse, most lay listeners would assert that his music sounds like "church music." Since much of the extant music of the period was, in fact, composed for the church (and since many contemporary churches--as well as secular choral societies--continue to perform this repertoire), this impression is not without foundation. However, bearing in mind not only the restrictions under which Rossi worked, but also the assumption that music of the Jews has always borrowed from the surrounding culture, it is only fair to take a second look at the claim that Rossi has indeed written "Jewish music."

Rossi's Texts

First, let's examine Rossi's texts. If we are willing to accept songs of warrior maidens as Jewish simply because they are sung in Ladino, then we must certainly give Rossi credit for setting traditional Jewish texts. One could argue that anything intended for use in the synagogue or Jewish ritual life must be Jewish, no matter what it sounds like. All 33 of the selections in Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo pass this test.

There are [many] examples of Rossi's special settings of his Jewish texts. Taking just one, we can look at the opening bars of his Psalm146. Halleluyah, the first word of the text, is actually a combination of two words: hallelu ("Praise" in the tzivu'i, or commanding tense) and "Yah" (one of many names for the Divine). Rossi's psalm is set in the key of A minor. If we accept the stereotypical notion that the minor mode is a "sad" one, then we should certainly switch to the "happy" major mode for the enunciation of God's name--and that is exactly what Rossi does.

Barekhu: Call to Prayer

There is one more of Rossi's compositions that merits discussion here: his setting of Barekhu. This selection consists of a one-line "call to prayer" that announces the official start of the service proper, followed by the congregation's response to the leader's call:

Leader: Barekhu et Adonai hamevorakh

Bless the LORD, the blessed One.

Cong.: Barukh Adonai hamevorakh leolam va'ed

Blessed is the LORD, the blessed One for all eternity.

Although the traditional nusah for this passage varies from one occasion to the next, the precentor's line is always extended, literally calling the faithful to prayer with a drawn-out invitation (lest the call be so brief that one might miss it). The Ashkenazic custom for Sabbath evening is to chant an especially melismatic rendition.

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Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.