Salamone Rossi: Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua

Article excerpt

by Dona Harrán. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 332 pp. $78.00.

This volume is a welcome addition to current studies of music and musicians in northern Italy during one of its most impressive periods of accomplishment, experimentation, and influence. Its subject is nothing less than "the first [Jewish musician] to leave an indelible imprint on European music history as a composer," and it is presented by an author of great erudition.

Rossi remains, in fact, a ghostly presence. A decided virtue of Harrán's study is that it collects and puts in certain perspective what can be discovered about his family and activities in Italian archives. Of his family and early training, little can be recovered, apart from some financial records involving his brother and records concerning his sister, by all accounts a supremely talented singer known as Madama Europa. On the whole, Harrán speculates reasonably about various relationships and possibilities. He argues that Rossi entered the service of the Gonzaga court at Mantua sometime in the late 1580s and remained in that family's service until his death (which is uncertain but probably took place around 1630), and demonstrates that many of Rossi's activities can be explained through connections provided by the Gonzaga family. That research reveals that Rossi was a talented singer and virtuoso string player, who directed both vocal and instrumental groups, often being called upon to perform at various court functions.

The bulk of the book is devoted to studies of Rossi's vocal and instrumental compositions, ranging from his secular vocal and instrumental compositions for the Mantuan court and for the local Jewish theatre to his remarkable compositions on sacred Hebrew texts for use in local synagogues, published near the end of his life in 1622. All told, Rossi published thirteen collections of music, many of them reprinted so that he could claim twenty-five publications during his lifetime. Harrán treats the publications in large blocks by genre and supplies extended analyses of Rossi's musical forms and of the organizational principles of the collections as a whole. Also included is a speculative chapter on Rossi's music for the theater and a very useful chapter devoted to issues of performance.

From beginning to end there is much to admire. Harrán demonstrates how Rossi eagerly gravitated to "modernist" poets for his texts, frequently being the first to set texts which became the rage. More enduring were Rossi's contributions to instrumental composition, where his works hold a prominent place in the transition of forms and styles from Renaissance to early Baroque style. Rossi was, in fact, a pioneer in the development of the early Baroque trio sonata, and Harrán provides a fine portrait of his place in the evolution of that form. For readers of this journal, Rossi's towering achievement will remain his Hebrew settings of the Songs of Solomon, "the first known collection of polyphonic works set to Hebrew texts," a controversial collection attempting to introduce art music into the Hebrew musical tradition. (In addition to other exceptional features, the collection contains a very early example of a "Hebrew wedding cantata.") Harrán's analysis of the larger theoretical implications of this work in his final chapter is among the finest contributions of the volume.

Yet despite these virtues, I confess to leaving the work with dissatisfaction. Much of that dissatisfaction comes from Harrán's handling of the socio-political matrix of musical Mantua. Throughout the study, for instance, Harrán draws only fleeting connections between Rossi and his prominent contemporaries, among them Monteverdi, De Wert, Pallavicino, and Gastoldi, all of whom served in the musical establishment at the Gonzaga court. Such an environment is ripe with rich interconnections, yet the vitality of that environment fails to emerge here. Rossi clearly knew Monteverdi's early madrigal collections, several of whose texts he took up on his own in his own initial collection. …