ITALICS Glimpsing the Mantuan Ghetto

italicsby Susan Miron*

It was a colorful affair last Thursday in Harvard’s Paine Hall in many senses. “Italian Baroque Music from the Jewish Ghetto” (mostly Salamone Rossi) featured scholar Christoph Wolff and conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas McGegan joined by an impressive array of forces including scholar Francesco Spagnolo and superb soprano Sherezade Panthaki. McGegan presented an enlightening lecture/recital, bringing this fascinating musical period to life via the Yale Voxtet, a group of eight graduate students at the Institute of Sacred Music, and the excellent Philharmonic Baroque Chamber Players, comprising violinists Katherine Kyme and Noah Strick, cellist Phoebe Carrai, and theorbist David Tayler.

McGegan and Spagnolo devoted most of their lecture/concert to composer Rossi (c.1570-1630), the extraordinary musician who inhabited three worlds, the synagogue, the Court of Mantua, where he worked, and the theater. In 1587 Rossi was engaged as musician and singer at the ducal court of Vincenze I of Mantua, where his sister Europa was a singer. She is known to have sung in the play Il ratto di Europa (“The Rape of Europa”) in 1608. The chronicler Federico Follino raved over her performance, describing it as that of “a woman understanding music to perfection” and “singing, to the listeners’ great delight and their greater wonder, in a most delicate and sweet-sounding voice”.

Rossi stood in high favor at this court and was allowed to appear in public without the yellow badge other Mantua Jews were obliged to wear. Synagogue life in Venice allowed for multifaith, multicultural encounters. Even non-Jews appeared in synagogues in the Venice Ghetto, founded on March 29, 1516. (It was actually called “ghetto” before Jews lived there). There were eight synagogues in Venice, 20 in Mantua. After publishing collections of Italian vocal music and instrumental works, Rossi decided, around 1612, to write Hebrew songs. He describes these songs as “new songs [zemirot] that I devised through ‘counterpoint’ [seder].” Attempts had been made to introduce art music into the synagogue in the early 17th century, but none of these early works survives. Rossi’s 33 Songs by Solomon (Ha-shirim asher li-Shelomoh) are the first Hebrew polyphonic “songs” to be printed. His other compositions comprised chiefly religious poems, hymns, and madrigals; he wrote also a musical drama entitled Maddalena. Several of his poems were dedicated to persons of princely rank. It is likely that Rossi in 1612 was the leader of a Jewish band of singers, and likewise of a theatrical company.

Divided in five parts, the concert began with two choral and one instrumental piece by Rossi. It began with “Hallelujah, Ashrei Ish” (Psalm 112), sung in Hebrew (and appearing onscreen in Hebrew and English), followed by Sonata in dialogo la Viena, Book III no. 6, with two violins on opposite sides of the stage, for which a painting, “The Concert” by Pietro Longhi (1741), featuring three violins and an undersized dog along its bottom edge, appeared onscreen. A charming “Vendr`o l’ mio sol” from the third book of madrigals followed in Italian. “Mizmor shir leyom ha shabbat”, in what was was termed 17th-century Italian-Hebrew, exemplified Rossi’s setting Biblical texts to music in their original Hebrew, which makes him unique among Baroque composers.

The next three Rossi tracks, sung in Hebrew and meant for synagogue, included the beautiful Sabbath song, “Mizmor shir leyom hashabbat (Psalm 92), the prayer “Hashkivenu,” and the wedding ode, “Lemi ‘ephors,” which featured echoes, with the last words repeated as bilingual puns.

Four songs by Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739) showed the influence of Rossi. Most striking was “Salmo Decimottavo Aria” (O immaculate e santa divine) from Estro poetic-armonico, sung with seductive beauty by Sherezade Panthaki. After two Rossi theater songs, we heard Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Laudate Dominum” (Psalm 150) and his glorious Prologue (La Musica) from Orfeo, played with enthusiasm and grace by the Philharmonia Baroque instrumentalists. Four Rossi instrumental pieces closed, accompanied by period paintings, including a lovely ceiling by Andrea Montenegra. from the ducal palace. The last work, in Italian, was the charming “Pargoletta che non Sai” from Rossi’s Madrigaletti (1628).

A lot of information and music was squeezed into an hour and a half, and the rapt audience could have easily listened for another hour.

*Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti. This article was published in The Boston Musical Intelligencer on November 21, 2016.