One of my favorite seldom-performed composers is Solomon Rossi. I first heard about his music from the “inside,” so to speak, with the San Francisco Bach Choir. That group excelled at multiple choir music (notably Michael Praetorius, who I’ll write about another time), where groups of four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) stood in several corners of the performance hall, and the music danced over the heads of the audience like butterflies in a field of wildflowers. We did Bach, Praetorius, Gabrielli, Tallis—all the greats.
But I was particularly struck by Solomon Rossi. You see, unlike the others, Solomon was a Jew.
He was born in Mantua around 1570. He came from a musical family, although I didn’t find any information about his parents. His sister, Madama Europa, was reputably the first Jewish opera singer, and premiered works from Monteverdi for such dignitaries as the Duke of Gonzaga. Solomon played in Monteverdi’s orchestra.
Nearly a hundred years before Solomon was born, Frederick and Isabella (yes THAT Frederick and Isabella) in Spain, in the (also familiar) year 1492, set forth a decree expelling all Jews from Spain. Because much of Italy was either under Spanish rule or Spanish influence at the time, the sour attitude against Jews spread, and slowly, starting in the south, Jews were pushed out of their Italian homelands. Italians often disregarded the edict because Jews formed a significant part of their social and merchant culture and had done so since the 1st century A.D. They were slow to impose the expulsion and often allowed the Jews to return after only a few years of exile.
Such was the case in Mantua. By 1572, there were fewer than 2000 Jews in Rome, Venice, and Mantua combined. Solomon’s family was among the few who remained, while the others fled for Lithuania and Poland, where Jews comprised 20% of the total population.
Mantuan Jews suffered mightily during the 30 years’ war (1618-1648), with a series of German and Austrian troops nearly starving them and isolating them from the towns with whom they traded goods and services. The Jews who defended the city walls were forced to stop for the Sabbath and the marauding Germans took advantage of the depleted forces. Very few Jews survived. It isn’t known whether Solomon and his sister died during the war or as a result of the plague that immediately followed, or whether he escaped to parts unknown. He disappeared around 1630.
Although the war must have colored life in Mantua, Solomon was a big deal as both a composer and a violinist. He served at the Mantuan court from 1587 to 1628, and was much respected by the ruling family, the Gonzagas. They even exempted him from wearing the yellow badge of the Jews on his hat. (No, Hitler did not invent that idea.) He was concertmaster of the orchestra there (second in charge after the conductor) from 1587 until 1628. He was seventeen when first given the honor.
In 1589 (age 19), he published nineteen canzonettes—short, dancelike pieces for three voices, with humorous lyrics about love. In 1600, two of the five books of madrigals he would come to write were published, including continuo madrigals, a style that probably heralded the beginning of the Baroque era. He didn’t invent it, but he certainly excelled at it. It’s interesting to note that his music included tablature for chitaronne, a popular instrument for chamber music accompaniment, so perhaps he encouraged performance in the smaller venues as well as the performance hall.
He was given many honors, including working with such renowned composers as Monteverdi (I’ll write about him sometime soon), Gastoldi, Wert, and Viadana. Together, they entertained the duke and the other noblemen who came to visit.
Although Solomon followed the musical fashions of the day (the multiple choir thing I talked about at the beginning), he was also bound by the traditions of Judaism. There are contemporary letters from rabbis decrying modern innovations and improvisations at the synagogue, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that room was allowed for improvisation (and other effects) in the cantillations performed in the synagogue. (You can read more about cantillations in my blog on Musical Modes: Part 3A, Non-European (Israel).)
There was one fellow, Leon Modena, who was a rabbi, a cantor, and a scholar, and who improvised polyphony in the synagogue at Ferrara in 1604 and in Venice in 1607. The music wasn’t documented, though, so all we have are the letters of protest. Solomon isn’t mentioned in them; he had other outlets for his musical efforts than temple. But his pal Modena wrote the preface to Solomon’s 1622 publication, wittily called “The Songs of Solomon.” The songs have nothing to do with the psalms by the same name; they’re a play on his own name.
The Jewish liturgical music in “The Songs of Solomon” are what he remains most famous for. The music was very much in the Baroque tradition and not at all reflective or involved with Jewish cantor music. It was unprecedented , as polyphonic music was forbidden in Jewish temples following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Sixteen-hundred years passed before they changed the rule.
Solomon set the Hebrew biblical texts to music, much the same as a little later, super-Lutheran J.S. Bach set Latin biblical texts to music (you’re probably familiar with these whether you realize it or not). The songs are an interesting mix, incorporating the influences of Monteverdi and other contemporary Italian composers with elements of Jewish chant. There are 33-35 pieces in this seminal collection, most on common Jewish themes such as prayer for the Sabbath, prayer for the lighting of candles, prayer for the safe return of a loved one, etc. His efforts at Jewish polyphony were liked, but because they broke with tradition and because patrons for non-Christian music were hard to find, few other composers followed suit until the 19th century.
Solomon wrote a lot of secular music, presumably as more comfortable than writing Christian music that would have gone against his faith or Jewish music with a limited audience. In total, there are 150 secular works, including two books of symphonies and two of sonatas.
Instrumentally, he was an innovator, employing the principles of monody (one dominant melodic line with accompaniment, kind of like today’s soloist with accompaniment, only within the context of a group of soloistic singers or instruments), with a focus on virtuosic violin parts.
We’ll never know what happened to him or his sister, nor what he might have gone on to do if he hadn’t died or been forced to flee.
“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981
“The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance,” by John Hale, Atheneum, New York, 1993
“A History of Western Music” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010