In the 1820s, when Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn rose to prominence in Paris and Berlin, it was widely assumed that they were the first Jewish composers to write in the western classical tradition. That was a partial truth. Jewish musicians had played since the Renaissance in many courts of Europe, where they were obliged to conceal their ethnic identity or convert to Christianity.
Salmone Rossi (c.1570-1630) was an outstanding exception. A colleague of Monteverdi in Mantua, he flourished as concertmaster and composer in a ducal haven of relative religious tolerance. He wrote madrigals for court dances, trio sonatas for practice, swoony little love songs and a large volume of new tunes for the Sabbath and festival Jewish liturgy.
The result is always agreeable and often uplifting
The gulf between Italian Baroque curlicues and guttural Hebrew texts would seem too large for any composer to bridge, no matter how well versed he was in both cultures. Rossi solves the difference by choosing prayers that are traditionally susceptible to vocal decoration – such as the cantor’s Kaddish – and treating each word of the prayer on rhythmic merit. The result is always agreeable and often uplifting, the charm of the music dispelling doubts of its aptness. Belgium’s Ensemble Daedalus performs a mix of Rossi’s religious and secular works with sweet voices and infallible enunciation. It sounds almost like the dawn of multiculturalism.
Artists: Ensemble Daedalus/Roberto Festa
Norman Lebrecht is a prolific commentator on music and cultural affairs and an award-winning novelist. See his blog Slipped Disc.