The programme encompasses Rossi's many-faceted talents both as a court composer in the service of the Gonzaga family and as a unique innovator of devotional music for the synagogue. The award-winning a-cappella ensemble, comprising five core male singers, is joined for this recording by Katya Polin and Eva Saladin (violin) and Ori Harmelin and Ryosuke Sakamoto (theorbo). The native Hebrew speaking singers specialize in the music of the Italian Baroque and have an immediate connection to Rossi as a Jewish Italian composer.
In naming Profeti della Quinta winners of the 2011 York Early Music Young Artists Competition, producer and judge Philip Hobbs commented: ‘Profeti Della Quinta's stunning authentic performance practice and quality of execution was truly magnificent.'
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From the music included in Salomone Rossi’s (c1570–c1630) publications it seems that he was more Mantovano than Hebreo. While Rossi is well-known for his famous volume of sacred music in Hebrew, Hashirim Asher Li’Shlomo (1622/3), he also published four books of instrumental music and nine books of Italian secular music (within which we find six books of madrigals, and one book each of canzonette, balletti, and madrigaletti). This vast amount of secular music suggests that Rossi played a prominent musical role among the nobility of the city of Mantua, especially at the court of the Gonzagas, where he appears to have worked for most of his musical life.
Rossi’s madrigals although historically overshadowed by those of his colleague and collaborator Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), are beautiful and refined examples of the genre. A closer examination of the madrigals of these two great composers shows two different approaches towards the same style and musical language; Rossi’s madrigals are characterized by contrapuntal transparency and elegant declamation rather than the overwhelming expression found in Monteverdi’s works.
Rossi’s madrigals serve as an important landmark in music history: his Il Primo Libro di Madrigali (1600) includes the first known printed intabulation for the chitarrone (also known as the theorbo). This intabulation appears as a possible accompaniment for six of the madrigals in this collection and offers alternative performance possibilities for these pieces. One option is to treat it as an accompaniment for the five singers—as heard in Udite, lacrimosi spiriti d’Averno (1600)—the result being equivalent to the practice of performing madrigals with basso continuo, which became popular during this period. Another option is to perform these madrigals using solely the canto part accompanied by the chitarrone, as heard in ‘Cor mio, deh non languire’ (1600). Interestingly, the result of the latter choice, while based on five-part polyphony, is surprisingly similar to the emerging genre of the Florentine solo song. The most famous publication of this style was Giulio Caccini’s Nuove Musiche (1602), which was published at the same time as Rossi’s first three madrigal books. Performing Rossi’s intabulated madrigals in the aforementioned manner—with the canto part alongside the chitarrones—created a link between the 16th century polyphonic madrigal and the new monodic style of the early 17th century.
An even clearer connection between Rossi and Caccini can be found in their settings of the same poems: Rossi’s ‘Sfogava con le stelle’ (1602) and ‘Vedrò ‘l mio sol’ (1603) conclude with almost identical melodies to those set by Caccini. Considering the fame that Caccini’s songs had long before they were printed, it is most likely that Rossi was the one inspired by Caccini and not vice versa. This tribute to one of the leading musical figures of the time is demonstrative of the extent to which Rossi was influenced by his contemporaries.
At the time, several sources indicated that the two terms were simply different names for the same instrument. Today, the theorbo is often thought of as a lute instrument with re-entered tuning (where the two upper most strings are tuned one octave lower). According to Rossi’s intabulations however, it is evident that this was not the case and that the intended instrument was a kind of Renaissance lute with additional bass strings. Most interestingly, and quite uncommonly, Rossi indicated instrumentation in all of his instrumental collections: ‘Per sonar due viole & un chitarrone’ (‘to be played with two violins and a chitarrone’). Each composition on this album is performed as originally indicated by the composer.
At the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Rossi’s instrumental pieces would have been performed regularly, in dramatic performances, balls and chamber concerts. These charming pieces were integrated in dramatic performances, balls and chamber concerts. Rossi’s first collections of instrumental music contain several pieces for four- and five-parts (as heard in ‘Sinfonia Prima a 5’). Following this, Rossi concentrated solely on the newly invented trio sonata combination of two upper voices and a bass. These works included sinfonias in various affetti dance movements (gagliarde, correnti and brandi), as well as sonatas which ventured into virtuoso writing for the violin.
Rossi’s last publication of music was his Madrigaletti a due voci (1628), a vocal form parallel to the instrumental trio sonata; both were written for a combination of two equal parts over a bass. The madrigaletti were Rossi’s most modern vocal compositions, ranging from the expressive ‘Messaggier di speranza’ (1628) to the light-hearted ‘Pargoletta, che non sai’ (1628).
In addition to his prolific secular activity as a Mantuan musician, Rossi, being Jewish, aimed to revolutionise the music of the synagogue by introducing polyphonic settings of Hebrew prayers and psalms into the service. a collection of these works was published in Hashirim Asher Li’Shlomo.
The establishment of the Jewish ghetto in Mantua in 1612 was one of the most influential forces behind the creation and publication of Rossi’s new music for the synagogue. The Jews of Mantua, being secluded from Christian society, took the opportunity to look back deep into their own heritage. Thus Rossi—unique in his musical abilities in the Jewish community—created a new genre that was inspired, even if only conceptually, by the music in the ancient temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Leon Modena, Rossi’s supporter and religious authority, wrote in his elaborate preface to the publication:
[For] who could forget or fail to remember the efforts of old King David […] he allowed them to have instruments for use in instrumental music and vocal music. Such was their practice for as long as the House of the lord remained on its site […] and Salomone [Rossi] alone is exalted nowadays in this wisdom [of music].
The publication date of Hashirim Asher Li’Shlomo in 1622/3 is later than most of Rossi’s other works and suggests that Rossi only began composing music for the synagogue towards the end of his career. Furthermore according to Rabbi Leon, the composition of Rossi’s Jewish music followed his earlier success with the Italian forms, and the compilation of this collection was part of an ongoing process. Thus we have a contemporary description of Rossi’s double identity as a ‘Mantovano Hebreo’:
His compositions of music in another language [Italian] that were printed in book form, found favor with those not of Israel. […] Imputing his power to his God, he worked and labored to add from his secular to his sacred works. […] day by day he would enter into his notebook a certain psalm of David or a formula for prayer or praise, reverence and divine song, until he succeeded in gathering some of them into a collection.
Rossi’s new creation could have marked the beginning of a Jewish musical renaissance: for the first time in modern history, a Jewish centre was cultivating its own music in the style of its time, beyond the traditional sounds of the synagogue and everyday life. Unfortunately this social and musical Jewish revolution was not to be. The place which could have become its centre—the Mantuan Ghetto—was severely damaged during the occupation of the city by Austrian imperial troops in 1630. There are no surviving references to Rossi after this point. It may be that the composer died around the same time; the circumstances under which his life ended, like so many other details in his biography, still remain a mystery.
Rossi’s aim, as stated in the preface to Hashirim Asher Li’Shlomo, was to ornament and elevate Hebrew prayer by setting the ancient texts to a new kind of music. Rossi follows the accents of the Hebrew declamation, merely adorning it with simple harmonies. Thus, the listener can easily follow the text while enjoying the beautifully delicate music. By using these simple tools, Rossi aims to touch the hearts of the listeners, rather than to impress them.
Elam Rotem © 2013