Reclaiming the Musical Past: Leon Modena and Salamone Rossi in Context

A map of Mantua from 1628 by Gabriele Bertazzolo
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Rebecca Cypess


Since the founding of the Maccabeats in 2007, it has become increasingly common for a sheliah tzibbur in American synagogues to be accompanied by singers who provide a cappella harmony in the synagogue liturgy, especially for holidays and other special occasions. In some cases, such polyphonic (multi-voice) music-making takes the melodies of a traditional nusah and embeds it in a rich harmonic context. In other cases, polyphonic music from other sources—Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, for example—finds its way into synagogue practice.

This custom is not a new one. In 1604, the rabbi and cantor Leon Modena was criticized for introducing a nearly identical practice into his synagogue in Ferrara, in northern Italy. Modena’s detractors claimed that a cappella harmonization violated halakhic prohibitions against celebratory music-making in synagogue. In his teshuvah on this subject, Modena wrote, “If, at his side, [the sheliaḥ tzibbur] had assistants whom the Lord favored with a sweet voice, and they sang along with him not in order [i.e. by means of composition] but rather a[d] aria, as is customary all day long in the Ashkenazi congregations, and it should happen that they relate to and coordinate with him, would it be considered a sin on their part?”[1] Singing ad aria is what is often done today in a cappella polyphony in synagogue: the sheliah tzibbur chooses a melody and applies it to a piyyut or other liturgical text; the accompanying singers harmonize with him according to a set of shared musical conventions. These shared conventions allow the singers to improvise their harmonies—to make them up on the spot.

Yet Modena also refers to another practice: singing “in order” (be-seder), by which he meant singing compositions—polyphonic works in which every voice is written out in musical staff notation. Composition would have enabled the incorporation of more complex, less predictable music. Yet, from a halakhic standpoint, musical composition and its reliance on staff notation were a double-edged sword. Composition was an artform that developed over centuries in association with the evolution of musical styles used in European churches. It was also used for repertoires with no obvious ties to the church, but some in the Jewish community viewed it as essentially connected to non-Jewish musical traditions.

It is therefore remarkable that Modena later became involved in a musical project that was indeed centered on the composition of Hebrew liturgical music. Just over 400 years ago, on Rosh Hodesh Marheshvan 5383 (1622), the Mantuan Jewish composer Salamone Rossi signed the letter of dedication of the first book of polyphonic Hebrew musical compositions in history: Ha-Shirim asher le-Shlomo. (The title, “The Songs of Solomon,” is a play on both the biblical Shir ha-Shirim and on the composer’s own name.) The book featured a lengthy preface by Modena, incorporating both his teshuvah from 1604 and a new essay outlining his involvement in Rossi’s project.

The title page of Rossi’s volume celebrated the innovative nature of these compositions, calling the book hadashah ba-’aretz, “something new on earth” (Figure 1), and Modena’s preface predicted that this book would be the first of many in the Jewish tradition. Yet that goal proved elusive: Rossi’s compositions stood as the only exemplars of liturgical Hebrew compositions for centuries, and his first successors were composers associated with the Reform movement in the nineteenth century. Indeed, those reformers celebrated Rossi as a model for their work.[2] Today, Rossi’s music is still performed, but not typically by Orthodox groups. (In my opinion, the best performances of these works are those by Profeti della Quinta, which can be found on YouTube.[3]) Indeed, within the Orthodox world today, many people have never heard of Rossi; the music he composed would sound foreign in a modern-day Orthodox synagogue or if performed at a popular Jewish music concert aimed at Orthodox audiences.


<<Figure 1. Salamone Rossi, title page of the sesto (sixth voice) partbook, from Ha-Shirim asher le-Shlomo (Venice: Bragadini, 1622–1623). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.>>

Despite his currency among nineteenth-century adherents to Reform, the construction of Rossi’s volume suggests that he and Modena were attempting to operate within a halakhic framework. This point is clear from the nature and contents of Modena’s introductory material. In addition to defending the use of improvised polyphony, Modena provided a justification of the use of composed music in the synagogue. He and Rossi clearly anticipated that the Shirim would be met with skepticism within the Jewish community—in particular, due to the halakhic sources that curtailed the practice of music as a sign of mourning for the ancient Temple or in order to avoid non-Jewish influence. Indeed, in the twentieth century, Tzitz Eliezer (13:12), sensitive to these issues, dismissed Modena’s teshuvah as illegitimate. Given the halakhic sources that sought to limit music among the Jewish community, how could Rossi and Modena justify their attempt to introduce composed polyphony—a musical style associated with secular and Christian contexts—into synagogue worship?

In this essay I will revisit Rossi and Modena’s project in the Shirim. As I will argue, whether or not one agrees with Modena’s positions, his collaboration with Rossi was, in fact, firmly rooted in a distinctly Jewish outlook and a framework of respect for Halakhah. A full appreciation of these points first requires exploration of the music-historical contexts of the Jewish communities in northern Italy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, including their active participation in—and advancement of—Italian musical life, as well as the cultural permeability of the Italian ghettos that arose during this period. While it might seem at first glance that Rossi and Modena were simply attempting to counter the halakhic restrictions on music and to justify the adoption of musical customs from the non-Jewish world, I will argue that the Shirim in fact represented an effort to bring what they viewed as advanced musical practice into the sweep of halakhic life—to reclaim music as a historic Jewish art and a site of national self-expression.

Jews and Musical Life in Early Modern Italy
Understanding Rossi’s Shirim and Modena’s justification of them requires a brief survey of musical life among Jews on the Italian peninsula in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Prior to the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, the Italian peninsula consisted of a collection of principalities, city-states, and territories, some governed by the papal authorities and others by local hereditary rulers; Venice, that most cosmopolitan city at the center of important trade routes, boasted a complex system of government with republican (though not egalitarian) pretensions. The experience of Jews in this social and political landscape was paradoxical. On one hand, the Christian authorities and rulers often sought to contain Jews and mitigate their impacts on the broader, predominantly Christian society in which they lived. On the other, this communal containment meant that Jews were often centralized and united, and this configuration allowed aspects of Jewish culture to thrive.

As historian Robert Bonfil has argued, this paradox is exemplified in the ghettos that were built in many Italian cities.[4] In 1516, Venice became the first locale to construct a ghetto and require urban Jews to live there; many other Italian cities followed suit, including Rome (1555), Florence (1571), Mantua (1612), and others. These ghettos had both advantages and disadvantages. They restricted where Jews could live, but they meant that Jews could continue to live in those cities, rather than being expelled. (By contrast, the Kingdom of Naples expelled its Jews in 1541; the Papal States did so in 1569; and the Duchy of Milan followed in 1597.) The ghettos of Venice, Rome, Florence, and Mantua, among others, inscribed Jews within the landscape of the cities, meaning that these communities experienced a measure of safety and stability. Moreover, as Bonfil observes, whereas the Venetian ghetto was placed on the outskirts of the city, most other Italian ghettos were located at the center of their respective cities, often near a major church. While the doors of ghettos were closed at night, they were generally open during the day, meaning that Jews were able to move about the city and mix with their non-Jewish neighbors, and non-Jews often entered the ghetto to do business or for other reasons, including out of a sense of curiosity.

The Jewish experience also varied over time, with Jews sometimes living in safety and sometimes experiencing harassment, violence, and forced conversion. Jews, like prostitutes, were generally required to wear a special hat or badge, which marked them as marginal and undesirable. Salamone Rossi, a frequent employee of the court of the ruling Gonzaga family in Mantua, was exempted from the requirement to wear such a physical marker of his Judaism. This exemption was a sign of his special status in relation to the ducal court, making him an exception that proved the rule.

The precariousness of Jews’ existence extended to their professional lives. It is well known that early modern Jews were often restricted, whether by formal law or by informal understanding, from participation in a wide array of professions. Mobile by necessity, Jews frequently had international connections that meant that they had the wherewithal to be successful in business. What is less well known, however, is that Jews in early modern Italy found professional opportunities and success in the field of music.[5] They performed as instrumentalists and singers; they taught these subjects to both Jews and Christians; they performed in private homes of adherents to both religions; they participated in the busy field of instrument design and creation, also serving as instrument dealers and traders.

Within their own communities, too, Jews cultivated music actively. These “insider” musical activities included the authorship of Hebrew-language treatises on music and the development of traditions of sung poetry and musical theater intended for insider audiences. (Nevertheless, in the city of Mantua, Jewish musical theater was so highly prized that the Gonzagas required the Jews to perform musical theater for them annually, and non-Jews sometimes entered the ghetto to experience the art form for themselves.) While Rossi’s Shirim clearly display his full integration into the stylistic world of the broader society in which he lived, their Hebrew texts—many of them liturgical, meant to be performed as part of synagogue worship—suggest that they should be understood as an example of such insider-oriented musical innovations. For musicologist Stefano Patuzzi, they exemplify Rossi’s status as a “marginal mediator.”[6]

Jews’ active participation in the musical life of early modern Italy presented challenges to the halakhic tradition. Communal authorities needed to contend with Mishnaic and Talmudic sources that sought to limit Jewish musicianship. Ḥagigah 15b relates that Elisha ben Abuyah, the heretic who came to be known as Aher, abandoned his Judaism because “Greek [i.e., vernacular] song never left his lips.” Thus, the Talmudic tradition exemplified there suggests that the power of music from outside the religious tradition led to the spiritual downfall of one of the greatest rabbinic minds of his generation. Even more sweeping is the discussion in Gittin 7a, which suggests that all song—indeed, all music—should be curtailed as a sign of mourning following the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. These sources—and a long line of commentaries on them—debate the extent of these prohibitions, with factors such as the medium of the music (voices vs. instruments) and the presence or absence of intoxicating drink playing pivotal roles. I will return to these issues when I discuss Modena’s teshuvah below.

Still, by the turn of the fifteenth century, some communal leaders had begun to lament the state of disrepair into which the Jewish musical tradition had fallen. Don Isaac Abravanel, the leader of the Jewish community of Spain who settled in Italy following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, wrote in his commentary to Exodus 15, the Song at the Sea, that music had been an integral part of ancient Jewish practice. Enumerating various types of Hebrew poetry, some of which relied on musical performance, Abravanel explained that song served a key purpose in the transmission of traditions and texts: “For most people forget plain texts [i.e., those that are not sung], even if they study them day and night. But when [the texts] are set to melodies to which they can be sung and played, they will be remembered forever by means of their melodies.” For Abravanel, music impressed the meanings of the words in the memory of those who sing and hear them—an observation that was, for him, borne out by the survival of the Masoretic cantillation system and the texts that it was meant to deliver. Abravanel was clear that the oral tradition of music that had existed prior to the exile was rich and advanced. It was not only melodies and rhythms of ancient Jewish music that were lost; so, too, was the tradition of musical instruments, as Abravanel explains in the same passage:

In their practice [in the Temple] everything was done according to the various instruments and their types: their strings, their threads, and their holes: kinor, ‘ugav, and tof and ḥalil and minim and metzaltim and neginot and gitit and the sheminit and the ‘asor, and the nevel and the maḥol and their like . . . for this science [of music] holds great powers—wondrous matters pertaining to divinity.

Abravanel cited the unstable nature of oral transmission as a reason for the loss of knowledge of the Jewish musical tradition: “There is no doubt that [ancient Jews] once had known melodies, but those were forgotten because of the passage of time and the length of the exile.” In this statement, he was echoing an idea from the early fourteenth-century poet Immanuel Ha-Romi, who lamented what he saw as the Jews’ loss of musical tradition to the Christians: “What will the science of niggun say to the others? ‘I was surely stolen from the land of the Hebrews [Gen. 40:15].’”[7]

In his commentary, Abravanel conceded that the Jewish musical tradition was in a state of disrepair, but he insisted that music had once encompassed a central feature of Jewish life. Its loss was a result of the exile and oppression that Jews had faced in foreign lands. Not surprisingly, non-Jews viewed the situation quite differently. Musicologist Ruth HaCohen has identified what she describes as a “music libel against the Jews”—a persistent and insidious feature of European discourse for centuries.[8] The music libel contends that Jews were ethically incapable of creating harmonious music because of their failure to accept Christianity as truth. The “noise” they created was a result of their immorality and errant ways. Thus, the English traveler Thomas Coryat, who visited Venice in the early seventeenth century, described synagogue music there as:

an exceeding loud yaling, undecent roaring, and as it were a beastly bellowing of it forth. And that after such a confused and hudling manner, that I thinke the hearers can very hardly understand him [i.e., the cantor]: sometimes he cries out alone, and sometimes againe some others serving as it were his Clerkes hard without his seate, and within, do roare with him, but so that his voyce (which he straineth so high as if he sung for a wager) drowneth all the rest.[9]

Modern readers familiar with the participatory chanting of synagogue liturgy may recognize features of Coryat’s description, even as we chafe at his discriminatory characterization. In synagogue practice, the sheliah tzibbur leads the congregation and keeps them more or less together, but every individual is expected to contribute to the kol tefillah, the persistent sound of prayer. For those of us who know and participate in this practice, there is nothing unusual, and certainly nothing objectionable, about it. For Coryat, by contrast, this apparently disorganized music was a sign of Jews’ baseness—their animal-like, “beastly” nature.

In sum, music was a contested space. Jews in early modern Italy used music within their own community—as a means of expression and of creating communal and cultural cohesion—and, in a variety of capacities, within the broader societies in which they lived. They were highly trained in musical performance; they were skilled teachers of music; they contributed to instrument design and used their international networks to disseminate instruments and notated scores of music; they were fluent in the latest developments in the musical styles cultivated by the Italian courts and the print market. Yet the halakhic sources argue for a curtailing of music, and Italian synagogue practice remained in a very different style—one that could be easily understood, both by insiders and outsiders, as disorganized—and this perception led writers like Abravanel to lament the loss of the ancient Jewish musical tradition. It is within the context of these tensions—tensions of musical history, musical practice, and musical identity—that Modena’s writings and Rossi’s Shirim should be understood.

Modena’s Teshuvah and Musical Practice from Improvised Harmony to Polyphonic Composition
Modena’s preface to Rossi’s Shirim suggests that he was well aware of the potential halakhic objections to the innovations of the volume. There are two aspects to these innovations: one is the introduction of harmony writ large in synagogue, and the other is the use of composition to prearrange synagogue music; I will address each of these in turn. At first glance, it would be easy to think of either of these as adopting a clearly non-Jewish practice into the synagogue. Yet, as I will show, Modena viewed them as central to reviving the lost art of music that had been the pride of ancient Judaism.

As noted at the outset of this essay, in 1604, Modena had attempted to introduce polyphonic music in the Italian style into the synagogue liturgy. Although most listeners were pleased with the result, one communal leader in attendance, Rabbi Moses Coimbram, objected, citing the passage in Gittin mentioned above. In response to this episode, Modena authored his teshuvah laying out his justification for the cultivation of musical education and musical practice within the Jewish community. He engaged with the halakhic debates over the extent of the Talmudic prohibition on music, considering the various parameters that must be weighed in evaluating the permissibility of music making: “two of [those parameters] concern the practice of song [zemer] and four its intention and its occasion.” The first five of these had been well-rehearsed by this point (see especially Tur Orakh Ḥayyim 560:3 and Rambam in Laws of Fasts, chapter 5, as well as the sources presented in Rabbi Todd Berman’s recent Lehrhaus essay, “Secular Music and the Jewish Soul”):

The first is instrumental music [zimra de-mana]; the second, vocal music [zimra de-fuma]; the third, singing [leshorer] while drinking wine; the fourth, enjoying oneself like kings; the fifth, gladdening a groom and bride or for a ritual observance; and, to add still another one, [the sixth], studying the science [of music] [lilmod ha-hokhmah] in order to remember it on ritual occasions.

The permissibility of the use of music to gladden a bride and bridegroom leads Modena to affirm the need for beautiful music in synagogue, as he draws on the familiar analogy between a wedding and the sabbath: “I do not see how anyone who has a brain in his skull could cast doubt on praising the Lord in song [zimra] in the synagogue on special sabbaths and holidays. It will be called a ritual observance just as gladdening a bridegroom and bride, for every holy sabbath is, among us, a bride, and we are obliged to adorn and gladden her with all kinds of gladness.” It is by extension of this practice that Modena justifies the most innovative aspect of his position: the study of music, if applied to a devar mitzvah, is not only permitted, but something to be celebrated. After all, Modena reasons, if God saw fit to endow some people with a natural talent for music, then it would be nonsensical to forbid them to refine that talent through practice so that it can be used to greatest advantage for a devar mitzvah.

In crafting his logical argument, Modena gave pride of place to the notion, already articulated by Abravanel, that the Jewish musical tradition as practiced in the Temple in Jerusalem had once been the envy of the world. Now, nearly 1600 years after the destruction of the second Temple, Modena lamented what he perceived as a lack of refined musicianship within synagogue worship, and he noted that non-Jews regularly mocked Jews for their apparent lack of musicianship: “Will we, who were masters of music in our prayers and our praises, now become a laughingstock to the nations, for them to say that no longer is [this] science in our midst? . . . No sensible person or sage would think of prohibiting the praise of the Lord (may He be blessed) with the most pleasant voice possible and with this science that awakens souls to his glory.”

As noted above, the musical practice that Modena applied in Ferrara—singing ad aria— did not imply formal composition, but relatively informal harmonization, as is often practiced today when a cappella harmony is used in synagogue. Modena notes that the sheliah tzibbur is required to make his voice as pleasant as possible. Beautification of that voice by additional singers who harmonize with him is, for Modena, a natural extension of this principle. The use of recognizably secular or Christian tunes was not essential to the practice of singing ad aria; the adoption of specific forms of “Greek song” was thus not the central issue here. Instead, it was the very use of harmony that prompted Coimbram’s objection. And yet, Modena’s note that this practice had already been adopted by Ashkenazi congregations—as distinct from those who followed the Italian rite—confirms that he viewed the introduction of improvised polyphony as only a minor innovation.

Modena’s language also confirms that he understood the introduction of composed polyphony—singing “in order,” be-seder—as another matter entirely, and this was the innovation that Rossi’s Shirim introduced. In Rossi’s compositions, strophic poems such as Adon Olam and Ein Kelokeinu are not set to repeating arie, as was common in the singing of strophic piyyutim. Instead, Rossi creates new music for each stanza of the poem. Moreover, the music is not predictable, and it therefore requires the singers to engage with the notated musical score—to read and interpret it both rhythmically and melodically, and to work out the complex interactions of the voices with one another. Rossi’s music does not derive recognizably from any preexistent melody; rather, Rossi composed each piece anew, specifically for the piece of the liturgy that he was setting. Nevertheless, this musical style engages in a much deeper way with non-Jewish musical practices because of its use of polyphonic counterpoint (in which the voices are independent and interact according to strict rules) and its reliance on staff notation—a system that had developed over centuries especially for church worship. It is thus even more striking that Modena saw Rossi’s innovations as operating within a Jewish framework.

To fully appreciate the significance of Rossi’s use of staff notation, it is helpful to compare it to a distinctly Jewish system of musical notation: Masoretic trop. Trop differs from staff notation in that the trop markings do not specify the precise pitches (higher vs. lower notes) of the melodies they record; this is why different communities execute trop using different melodies from one another. (Think of the differences between how Ashkenazi and Yemenite communities read from the Torah today; the melodies sound completely different.) The trop can record rhetorical phrasings, accentuation of words, and relative importance of words. But while it can suggest the general directionality of the melodies, trop does not capture specific pitches, as staff notation does. This is why the Masoretic musical tradition is subject to interpretation and change with time and place.

The pitch-specificity of staff notation is what facilitates the composition of polyphonic music of the sort that Rossi employed. If a strophic song is being performed using a commonly known tune or aria, there is no question about how to harmonize with that tune, and notation is unnecessary. In the absence of a predictable melody, however, it is very difficult to improvise polyphony or counterpoint in which the different voices complement one another. The staff notation that Rossi adopts here was developed by Christian composers over centuries to suit the kinds of musical idioms used in church. Thus, the shift that Rossi’s Shirim introduced was not just the introduction of a non-Jewish style of music into synagogue, but the introduction of a style that relied on literacy and fluency in staff notation—a system developed for Christian liturgical practice.

Modena clearly recognized the dramatic nature of this shift, and he called special attention to it in his essay outlining Rossi’s compositional process: “Blessed are you now, congregation of believers, for we have succeeded in a peaceful beginning: an inkwell may be seen in our days, alongside that wise man who writes and prints these praises in song.” The inkwell here refers to the medium of written musical notation used to create musical compositions. Modena’s veneration of the inkwell highlights the introduction of the literate tradition of composition into the synagogue.

The apparent mismatch of staff notation and synagogue worship may be seen in the unusual typography of Rossi’s Shirim. While the music is written according to the European custom, from left to right, each Hebrew word appears under the musical notation such that it must be read from left to right despite the Hebrew words themselves reading right to left in line with Hebrew practice (Figure 2). The reader’s eye must constantly skip to the right to locate the next Hebrew word, which is again read from right to left.

<<Figure 2. Salamone Rossi, “Baruch ha-ba be-shem Hashem,” from Ha-shirim ’asher li-Shlomo (Venice: Bragadini, 1622–1623). Each independent voice was printed separately; this book includes only the music for the sesto (sixth) voice. Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.>>

Thus, even more than the improvised polyphony that Modena introduced in Ferrara in 1604, Rossi’s compositions would seem deeply problematic from a halakhic standpoint. After all, these works adopt not just the musical style of non-Jews, but a whole system of notation and composition that originated in church worship. Yet Modena did not see them in this light. Instead, he went out of his way to frame the entire field of music as a Jewish one. In his understanding, the development of Christian music was a historical anomaly that required correction: music was an ancient Jewish art, one that had been “stolen from the land of the Hebrews.” In Modena’s understanding, it was time for Jews to reclaim their lost tradition and reassert their primacy in the practice of music.

Rossi’s Shirim as a Reclaiming of Ancient Jewish Music
For Modena, there was an indelible link between Jews and music. This was attested throughout the Bible, and it was embodied in the figure of King David, whom God endowed with deep musical understanding. In seeking to promote what he saw as advanced musical practice among the Jews of Italy, Modena framed Salamone Rossi as a latter-day David who had been graced with a similar level of understanding. (Even Rossi’s first name positioned him as the heir to King David.)

Modena’s preface to the Shirim creates a narrative of musical history that explicitly links Rossi’s work to the lost art of music from the ancient Temple. He recalls the wisdom of the ancients:

Sages sprouted like grass in all studies in ancient Israel—because of them all lofty sciences flourished; they won the honor and respect of the nations, rising on wings like eagles. As one of them [the sciences], it [music], too, was not absent from them [the sages] in its perfection; it was taken from them as from a man.

In Modena’s history, King David was responsible for promoting and advancing “orderly” music within the Jewish tradition: “Who could forget or fail to remember the efforts of old King David in providing, beforehand, orderly instruction in the rudiments of song for all the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Juduthun, as written in the book of Chronicles [1:25:1], to make them understand how to produce sounds?” Modena’s use of the word “orderly” (be-seder) echoes his description of musical composition as “order” (seder). Through this link, he connects David’s musical practice to Rossi’s art of composition.

After establishing the wisdom of the ancients in the art of music, Modena takes up the narrative of loss adopted by Abravanel a century earlier:

Yet the circumstances of our foreign dwellings and of our endless running throughout the lands, and the results of life in foreign lands, were enough to make [the Jews] forget all knowledge and lose all intelligence. For the wrath of the Lord was upon the nation; and He afflicted and besotted them and made them wander into a pit empty of all understanding. Moreover, when they were in a land not of their own, the wisdom of their sages disappeared.

In Modena’s framing, the remedy to this loss was the study of the highest forms of music practiced in his own day in Italy, for in this elite musical art, one could discern echoes of the ancient art of Jewish music: “Still, their ears picked up a trace of it afterwards from their neighbors, as the remnant of the city [Jerusalem] in these generations at the end of time.” With these lines, Modena framed Rossi’s compositions not as an adoption of non-Jewish musical idioms, but as a reclaiming of the lost, stolen art of Jewish music. It was on this basis, Modena explained, that Rossi proceeded with the composition of his Shirim:

Imputing his power to his God, he worked and labored to add from the secular to the holy to honor the one who favored him by using that with which he had been favored. . . . 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, making several available. When people sang them, they were delighted with their many good qualities; the listeners too were radiant, each of them finding it pleasant to hear them and wishing to hear the remainder. . . . He agreed to give them to the press in order to leave behind a name better than sons, for he is beginning something that will not be outdone and that did not exist as such in Israel.

Like Modena, many Jews would have understood the stark distinctions between the sounds of music inside and outside of the synagogue, since Jews were integrally connected to the musical styles prevalent in northern Italy, and they used those styles both within their own community and in the context of their larger society. They used music as a means of communal cohesion and self-definition; they made a living through music; they used music to mediate their relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors. Indeed, Rossi’s career stands as evidence of all these points. They suggest that the distinction that many writers today attempt to make between “Jewish music” and “non-Jewish music” is an artificial one. Jews in early modern Italy made music of all kinds, and, in doing so, they rendered it all part of Jewish history and identity.

Through their extensive experience with music, Jews in northern Italy would have thought of polyphonic, contrapuntal musical composition as representing the best of Italian musical culture. How, then, could they stand by while music-making in synagogue was denigrated as chaotic or beastly? In the context of the early seventeenth-century, the adoption of composed polyphony in synagogue was a matter of kiddush Ha-Shem. Modena makes this point clear: “No sensible person or sage would think of prohibiting the praise of the Lord (may He be blessed!) with the most pleasant voice possible and with this science [of music] that awakens souls to His glory.”

As noted above, Rossi’s compositions had no immediate successors, and no other polyphonic synagogue music appeared in print until the nineteenth century. The reasons why others in Rossi’s circle did not pick up on his cue to write such music for the synagogue are unclear. From the standpoint of musical style, Rossi’s Hebrew compositions are quite conservative. From the standpoint of Jewish law and custom, however, it seems possible that they were too progressive—that there were too many Jews who objected to the introduction of this musical style into sacred contexts. Another possible reason may be the plague that hit northern Italy in 1629–1630. This devastating episode may have killed too many Jews who had become musically educated, or it may have drawn communal attention away from the arts and refocused it instead on mere survival. How Rossi died is unknown, but the fact that his latest known publication is dated 1628 has led scholars to speculate that he died during this plague. Whatever the case, his musical innovations in synagogue led nowhere.

Nevertheless, Rossi’s Shirim and Modena’s prefatory essays serve as a fascinating case study. Without rendering judgment on the halakhic permissibility of Rossi’s music or its use in tefillah, my aim has been, simply, to meet Rossi’s compositions and Modena’s writings on their own terms and within the context in which they lived. Rossi was celebrated for his musical skills both within the Jewish community and far beyond it; Modena understood this and collaborated with Rossi to attempt a revolution in Jewish musical practice. In their framing, the adoption of polyphony in synagogue was not a matter of non-Jewish influence but of national identity and national pride. Far from degrading synagogue worship, polyphonic composition offered them a means of recapturing, reviving, and reclaiming the lost art of ancient Jewish music.

[1] The full text of Modena’s responsum is also transcribed in Shlomo Simonsohn, ed., She’elot u-Teshuvot: Ziqne Yehudah (Jerusalem: Rabbi Kuk Foundation, 1956), 15–20. The translations here are quoted or adapted from Salamone Rossi, Sacred Vocal Works in Hebrew: Ha-Shirim asher le-Shlomo / “The Songs of Solomon,ed. with introduction and notes by Don Harrán, Complete Works, part 3, vol. 13a (S.l.: American Institute of Musicology and Neuhausen: Hanssler, 2003).

[2] The first modern edition of Rossi’s music was published by the Reform cantor Samuel Naumbourg; see Salamone Rossi, Cantiques de Salamon Rossi: Hebreo, ed. Samuel Naumbourg (Paris: Chez l’editeur, 1876).

[3] As would have been done in Rossi’s day, Profeti della Quinta perform Rossi’s music using only men’s voices, including on the high parts.

[4] Robert Bonfil, Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy, trans. Anthony Oldcorn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 44–50.

[5] An excellent overview and interpretation are in Daniel Jütte, “The Place of Music in Early Modern Italian Jewish Culture,” in Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas, ed. Ruth F. Davis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 45–61.

[6] Stefano Patuzzi, “Salamone Rossi’s Songs of Solomon: The Pleasures and Pains of Marginality,” in Music and Jewish Culture in Early Modern Italy, eds. Lynette Bowring, Rebecca Cypress, and Lizza Malamut (Indiana University Press, 2022), 185–194.

[7] Immanuel Haromi, Maḥbarot, ed. Dov Yarden (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1957), 6:341.

[8] Ruth HaCohen, The Music Libel against the Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

[9] Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudities (London: Stansby, 1611), 231–233.

Musicologist and harpsichordist Rebecca Cypess is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Music at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. She holds a PhD in music from Yale, an MMus from the Royal College of Music (London), and a BA from Cornell, as well as an MA in Bible from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. Her recent publications include Women and Musical Salons in the Enlightenment and the edited collection Music and Jewish Culture in Early Modern Italy.