The 17th-Century Italian Composer Who Wanted Jews to Reclaim Their “Ancient” Musical Tradition

March 15, 2023 | Rebecca Cypess
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In 1622, the Italian Jewish violinist Salamone Rossi, who worked as a concertmaster in the court of the duke of Mantua, published the first-ever collection of polyphonic Jewish musical compositions. Titled Ha-Shirim asher li-Shlomo (“The Songs That Are of Solomon”), the book contained scores of original choral arrangements for traditional lyrics, written with European musical notation. It also contained a preface by Rabbi Leon Modena, arguing that such singing was appropriate to the synagogue. As Rebecca Cypess explains, not all of Modena’s rabbinic colleagues agreed:

Jews in early modern Italy found professional opportunities and success in the field of music. They performed as instrumentalists and singers; they taught these subjects to both Jews and Christians; they performed in private homes of adherents to both religions; they participated in the busy field of instrument design and creation, also serving as instrument dealers and traders.

Within their own communities, too, Jews cultivated music actively. These “insider” musical activities included the authorship of Hebrew-language treatises on music and the development of traditions of sung poetry and musical theater intended for insider audiences. Nevertheless, in the city of Mantua, Jewish musical theater was so highly prized that the [ruling Gonzaga dynasty] required the Jews to perform musical theater for them annually, and non-Jews sometimes entered the ghetto to experience the art form for themselves. While Rossi’s Shirim clearly display his full integration into the stylistic world of the broader society in which he lived, their Hebrew texts—many of them liturgical, meant to be performed as part of synagogue worship—suggest that they should be understood as an example of such insider-oriented musical innovations.

[However], Rossi’s compositions would seem deeply problematic from a halakhic standpoint. After all, these works adopt not just the musical style of non-Jews, but a whole system of notation and composition that originated in church worship. Yet Modena did not see them in this light. Instead, he went out of his way to frame the entire field of music as a Jewish one. In his understanding, the development of Christian music was a historical anomaly that required correction: music was an ancient Jewish art, one that had been “stolen from the land of the Hebrews.” [Thus] it was time for Jews to reclaim their lost tradition and reassert their primacy in the practice of music.

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