Salamone Rossi & Synagogue Choral Music

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

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The congregation's response, on the other hand, is normally a perfunctory, syllabic chant, reflecting the obedient acceptance of the charge to praise God (as well as the more limited musical ability of the typical congregant).

Rossi's composition is in two very different sections. The precentor's "call to prayer" is melismatic and polyphonic. Melismatic phrases (interestingly, a frequent attribute of Eastern music) were part of the normal order of performance during the Renaissance; individual words were exaggerated through elongated articulations of several notes for each syllable of text. The polyphonic (literally, "many sounds") style allowed each vocal line its own integrity; each part is musically interesting to the singer and listener, and no one part predominates over the others. The result is a layering of musically equal, semi-autonomous lines.

The one moment of this opening section in which Rossi abandons both melisma and polyphony is in his setting of the word Adonai. There is only one God, and that Name must be clearly enunciated to all; even Renaissance convention allowed for clear articulation of certain texts. Notwithstanding his desire to create beautiful music, the purpose of Rossi's composition was to set a prayer text, and like all good liturgical composition, his music is always subservient to the meaning of the text.

The musical alternative to polyphony that Rossi uses in his setting of God's name is "homophony" (literally, "same sound"). This style distinguished the Baroque era in the same way that polyphony characterized the Renaissance. Homophony also distinguishes the second section of Rossi's Barekhu from the first. The worshipers respond to the precentor's call to prayer in a clipped, syllabic chant. The congregation is as unschooled and unrehearsed in musical chant as the precentor is expert.

Rossi exploits the emerging new style to distinguish the choral "congregation" from the preceding "precentor" and utilizes the homophonic style throughout the second section of the composition-that is, until he reaches the text le-olam va'ed, "for all eternity" (or as some translate this text, "forever and ever"). Child of the Renaissance that he is, Rossi cannot resist the urge to paint these words literally, and so he not only reverts to a more polyphonic style but repeats these words, not "forever" but three times--more than enough to make his point.

Rossi's selection of this particular text for choral performance might be considered as inappropriate inasmuch as it seems to remove the traditional roles from both precentor and congregation; in fact, it appears to render both parties mute as the chorus takes over. Unfortunately, there is little information extant regarding the manner in which this piece--or any of the other Ha-Shirim--wasperformed. It is likely, though, that the hazzan [cantor]participated as a member of the choral ensemble, thus fulfilling his accustomed role.

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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.