Progam Notes on Jewish Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries

From biblical times, music has played a significant role in Jewish worship services. However, there are very few descriptions of the music for these services. The Mishnah, the first major work of rabbinic literature, compiled between 200 and 220 CE, reports on historic musical practices at the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the most important center of Jewish worship at that time. It describes music being performed at the Temple by a choir of 12 men and 12 instruments. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, worship services were held in the synagogues and music was chiefly performed in the recitation of prayers and the cantillation of psalms by a single cantor with no instrumental participation allowed. This practice continued unchanged for centuries. During the Italian Renaissance, some Jewish scholars began to contemplate what the music of the Temple might have been and whether contemporary musical styles might be able to restore what they perceived to be the glories of historic times.

In 1622, Salamone Rossi (1570-1630) published the earliest polyphonic settings of Jewish liturgical texts. This collection of Hebrew sacred compositions, Ha-shirim asher l’Shlomo (The Songs of Solomon), was produced in Venice by a prominent Jewish scholar and publisher, Leon da Modena. Leon da Modena was also the author of a book on Jewish customs and rituals, seemingly the first Jewish book meant to be read by non-Jewish readers since the first century CE, suggesting that he wanted people of other faiths to become familiar with Jewish practices, including music.

Rossi was a celebrated violinist who was associated with the court of Mantua and who is thought to have played at the premiere of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1609. He was also a notable composer of instrumental music and madrigals. Musically, his settings show that he was greatly influenced by Giovanni Palestrina and had mastered the style of the leading composers of his day, Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli. However, Rossi’s music and influence seemed to have little impact on music in worship in Jewish services until much later. It was only with the discovery of Rossi’s Hebrew works in Paris by Samuel Naumbourg (1817-1880) in the mid- nineteenth century, some two hundred years after Rossi’s death, that his compositions began to have an influence on other composers of Jewish liturgical music. Naumbourg, a Bavarian cantor and musician living in Paris, was so moved by his discovery that it led him to publish his own edition of Rossi’s Hebrew works and to increase his own efforts to reform the music of the Jewish liturgy. At the same time, two composers, Samuel Sulzer (1804-1891) in Vienna and Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) in Berlin, were working on similar efforts.

The music you will be hearing today is only rarely performed in worship or in concerts. One of the challenges musicians encounter is the matter of text underlay; music is usually read from left to right, while Hebrew is read from right to left. The solution in Rossi’s original publication was to print the music normally, while printing the Hebrew from right to left with each word beginning underneath the last note of the related musical phrase. While not ideal, this solution served to underlay the text, more successfully in his syllabic sections than in his florid ones

Rossi’s Hebrew settings are composed for combinations of voices ranging from three to eight singers. His three-part setting of the Barechu heard on today’s program shows two significant elements of Rossi’s approach to text setting: the use of a florid style to heighten the musical impact of the particular words or phrases and a simpler style in which all the voices sing the same text simultaneously, which increases the clarity of the text. The opening section in this piece is in the florid style, while the second section is composed in the simpler, more homophonic style. The florid style is also employed to great effect in the opening and closing sections of Rossi’s setting of Keter yitenu lakh, also on today’s program, a version of the Great Kedusha used in the Italiani liturgy that was customarily used in Jewish worship in Italy. In this piece, Rossi sets only the odd-numbered verses, an indication that these pieces were meant for use in services, where the even-numbered verses would be recited by the congregation and the odd-numbered sung by the singers.

The familiar words of Psalm 137 – “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept” – are set by Rossi for four voices, in the syllabic style. The most striking feature of his setting being performed today is the remarkable harmonic shifts between major and minor, which he uses to underscore the strong emotional impact of this lament.

Rossi sets the three verses of Psalm 80 that comprise the Elohim Hashivenu in a three-part structure: the first verse opens with a florid invocation of the name of God for two lower voices, which are then joined by the upper voices for the remainder of the verse; the setting of the second verse reverses this pattern, with the two upper voices singing the opening word and the lower voices joining in with a more elaborate response than in the first verse; the third and final verse, begins with all four voices in a chordal statement that expands into a florid, ecstatic conclusion of this prayer.

As in Keter yitenu lakh, Rossi sets only the odd-numbered verses of the Kaddish, one of the most important prayers in the Jewish liturgy, with the expectation that the congregation would recite the even-numbered ones during a service. In our performance, only Rossi’s settings will be performed.

In order to provide some additional context for listening to Rossi’s sacred works, we are including examples of two important and influential contemporaries: Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554-1612). Gabrieli was one of the foremost Venetian composers, a master of the polychoral style cultivated at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. His setting of Psalm 96, Cantata Domino, is written for eight voices used as two four-part choirs. Monteverdi’s setting of Psalm 113, Laudate, pueri, Dominum, for five voices illustrates his mastery of the contrapuntal style and provides a contrast to both of Rossi’s styles: the florid and syllabic.

The influence of Gabrieli is most easily seen in Rossi’s setting of Adon Olam for eight voices that concludes the first half of today’s program. These eight voices are treated as two choirs, in alternation and together, creating a lively setting of this ancient text.

The remainder of today’s program presents rarely heard music composed for the dedication of the Synagogue in Siena in 1786. While this music is modest in its aims and achievements, it nevertheless represents a sincere attempt to adapt a contemporary musical style to music intended to enhance and elevate an important moment in the lives of the Jews in Siena at that time.

The history of Jews in Siena began in 1229, when a community was established around the banking industry. In 1555, laws were enacted requiring the establishment of a ghetto. All Jewish citizens were to wear an identifying yellow cap or scarf, although Jewish banks prospered and Jewish students were allowed to attend the university. These restrictions were eased in the eighteenth century and the new Synagogue in Siena was designed and built in 1786. Its dedication was held on May 27, 28, and 29, 1786. The music for the dedication of the Synagogue in Siena was composed by Volunio Gallichi and Francesco Drei, two otherwise unknown musicians. The manuscript identifies Volunio Gallichi as one of the tenors who sang at the dedication and his son, Elia, who sang several of the soprano solos. The music is composed in the Rococo style, emphasizing a graceful simplicity that is evocative of the music of the young Wolfgang Mozart. This charming music is typical of the type of occasional music that was heard in the Siennese ghetto in the late eighteenth century.

Sadly, in 1799, rioters burned the ghetto and killed 19 Jews. From that time forward, the Jewish community in Siena grew smaller as many left the city. While the synagogue, for which this dedication music was composed, remains to this day, there are few other outward signs left of this once thriving community. We can, however, enjoy the charming musical compositions of Gallichi and Drei and recall better times.

© Dr. Bruce Carvell, Oct 2013