I Profeti della Quinta sing Italian Secular Music and Jewish Liturgical Music by Salamone Rossi

I Profeti della Quinta: Doron Schleifer, David Feldman, Dino Lüthy, Dan Dunkelblum, Elam Rotem. Photo © Susanna Drescher 2012.

I Profeti della Quinta: Doron Schleifer, David Feldman, Dino Lüthy, Dan Dunkelblum, Elam Rotem. Photo © Susanna Drescher 2012.

From Ghetto to Palazzo: The Worlds of Salamone Rossi

Museum of Jewish Heritage
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Salon/Sanctuary Concerts

I Profeti della Quinta
Doron Schleifer, David Feldman – Canto
Dino Lüthy, Lior Leibovici, Dan Dunkelblum – Tenor
Elam Rotem – Bass, Harpsichord & musical direction
Ori Harmelin – Chitarrone

Salamone Rossi (prob. 1570 – prob. 1630) was one of several court musicians who enjoyed the patronage of Vincenzo Gonzaga (1562 – 1612), Duke of Mantua from 1587 to 1612. If Rossi and his gifted colleagues, like Wert, Baccusi, Gastoldi, Pallavicino, Striggio, Marenzio, have received their due among scholars, they are less familiar to concert audiences, even the enthusiasts who follow early music. Part of the reason for this comes from the limitations of this still fairly specialized field and part from the eminence of one surpassingly great composer, who has fallen into the role of the Beethoven of that era, Claudio Monteverdi (1567 -1643). He came to Mantua sometime between 1589 and 1591, already a fully mature musician at a young age, as was Rossi. This is, as we all know, the typical pattern of concert life, whereby the Cherubinis, Wranitzkys, Hummels, and even to some degree the Rossinis become relegated to an area, which is, if not quite shadowy, decidedly out of the limelight. Recordings have helped somewhat to rectify the balance in the more familiar post-Bachian era, but less so in the period that spans the late Renaissance and the Baroque.

As in the case of most of his contemporaries, there is not a great deal of documentary evidence about Rossi’s life, but it is clear that he held an honored place in Vincenzo’s court. One piece of evidence was an official document of 1606 relieving Rossi of the obligation to wear the yellow arm band like the other Jews in Mantua. This was quickly renewed by Vincenzo’s successor, Francesco II, upon his succession, after his death. Rossi supposedly descended from an ancient Jewish family first brought to Rome by the emperor Titus. Whether this is true or not, there had been Jews in Mantua for centuries, and a ghetto as well. Nor was Rossi the first Jewish court musician. They had been present at court at least since the days of Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga. Vincenzo followed his father Guglielmo’s policy of particular tolerance towards Jews, who were allowed to come and go from the ghetto as they pleased. Even the yellow armband was  dispensed with, until in 1577 pressures from the Counter-Reformation compelled Guglielmo, Vincenzo’s father, to enforce the rule. After Pope Pius V expelled Jews from the Papal States in 1569 and when the Inquisition forced the Jews out of Milan in 1596, they came to Mantua for protection. In any case, Rossi became loosely attached to Vincenzo’s court around 1590, the same time when Monteverdi appeared on the scene, and shortly following the publication of his three-voiced canzonette (1589). These are light, gracious, witty pieces, and it seems these qualities earned him Vincenzo’s steady patronage over many years.

Modern experts find the most originality in these canzonette, but Rossi, who was a string player, wrote instrumental music, closely related to his madrigals, but published separately. It is thought that the indications of basso continuo in the madrigals are not so much an innovation as an early example of the notation of an established practice. His instrumental pieces show many characteristics of the trio sonata, and have even been called the first true examples of the genre. While in this respect he appears to have been in the forefront of musical developments in centers like Venice, his madrigals are essentially conservative works. Rossi also wrote vocal works for the Jewish liturgy in the polyphonic style of the music he had been writing for the the Christian court. Thirty-three of these settings were published in 1622 as Hashirim asher lish’lomo. He met with strong resistance from conservative elements in his synagogue, who considered the music too joyful for a Jewish religious context. Here too, it seems he was not alone. The practice has been found in Venice before him.

Whether Salamone Rossi was an innovator or a follower—a Mozart or a Czerny—may not matter quite so much to the music-loving public as to musicologists, if the music is truly enjoyable or powerful. And this brings us to the ambitious event co-sponsored by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, the Centro Primo Levi, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in the museum’s auditorium at Battery Park. I was truly amazed by the enormous audience that congregated at Battery Park, in spite of truly horrendous ice, snow, and wind. I can attest to the afternoon part of the program, which revolved around a concert by the Swiss-based group, I Profeti della Quinta, which originated in Israel, with the mission of promoting Rossi’s work. Their concert was preceded by a film by Joseph Rochlitz, which documented their visit to Mantua, when they visited archives and Rossi locations, and finally performed Rossi’s music in a room in the Palazzo del Te, where Rossi may well have played himself.

The film, of course, informs us about Rossi’s life and work, but also gives us a taste of the archives which house records of them, as well as a congenial account of I Profeti della Quinta’s visit to Mantua, when they performed at the Palazzo de Te, where Rossi himself played. The interviews with scholars and archivists are fascinating, and the film presents the stories of Rossi and the Jews of Mantua fluently, recounting events events which affected the relation of the Dukedom to its Jews, which may or may not be relevant to Rossi, whose dispensation from the armband was granted and renewed some years after an unfortunate event that apparently changed the position of Jews at Mantua. On August 7th, 1602, a friar preached against the Jews in Mantua, urging Vincenzo to enforce the ghetto and to sequester the Jews entirely apart from the Christian community. That night a group of mostly young Jews performed a satirical skit ridiculing the friar. They were reported to the authorities. Some of them were arrested, tortured and hanged in public, upside-down, so that their souls would get to hell all the faster. The film made it seem that Vincenzo’s enforcement of the ghetto was a direct result of this incident, but in fact he did not move on this until 1610, a sign of his regard for the Jews and his desire to maintain good relations with them. The film implies that Rossi’s Jewish liturgical music was a result of a division between the Jewish community and the court. On the contrary, his exemption from the armband took place in 1606 and was promptly renewed by Vincenzo’s successor in 1612, signs of his ongoing good relations with the Gonzaga long after the incident of the friar. His religious part-music was itself a gesture of the acceptance of Christian culture—an extremely unpopular one among conservatives in the synagogue—and its publication in 1622 shows that this hybrid art form continued after the establishment of the ghetto. Rossi and his supporters thought that Jewish liturgical music should be up-to-date and Italian in character. The best thing about the film was that it introduced us to Rossi and I Profeti, building anticipation for their appearance on stage.

I Profeti’s program interwove Rossi’s music for the Gonzaga court with the music for the synagogue. His instrumental music was not neglected either, so that we got a comprehensive view of Rossi’s output in performances of astonishing quality, both technical and expressive—along with a good measure of showmanship and humor, which can’t have been out of place in the Gonzaga court. The perfection of I Profeti’s intonation and ensemble was a joy to listen to in itself, not to mention the most persuasive vehicle this relatively little-known music could have. In addition to their virtues as an ensemble, each member has a vocal and musical character of his own, and their solo work was fully engaging. And they seem to be able to charm any audience.

Rossi’s music seems best enjoyed in performance, both the music for court and synagogue, and, in performances of this quality. I dearly hope that I Profeti della Quinta will return soon, performing Rossi’s music in the context of the composers Vincenzo gathered in his court, including the towering Monteverdi.

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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