Salamone Rossi
(?1570-c.1630)

Very little is known about the life of composer Salamone Rossi, nor is his music often heard today.  Nevertheless, he is an extremely interesting figure, primarily because he was one of only a handful of Jewish musicians contributing to the tradition of European art music before the nineteenth century.

Speculations about Birth and Family


The hypothesis that Salamone Rossi was born on August 19, 1570, comes from a possible code hidden in his first published collection, the Canzonette (1589).  Its table of contents holds an acrostic reading VIVAT S R (Long live S[alomone] R[ossi]).  In addition, the dedication was dated August 19, 1589.  Finally, the work contains nineteen pieces, possibly one for each year of his life.  Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence to support this theory.

Rossi was probably a native of Mantua, where he spent his entire career.  He may have been a relation of the Jewish historian Azariah de’ Rossi, a native of Mantua, but Azariah wrote in 1573 that he had no living son.  Rossi did have at least one sibling, a sister named Europa.  From 1589 to 1590 and again from 1592 to 1593, she was engaged by the Mantuan court as a singer.  In fact, Europa Rossi is the only Jewish woman of her day known to have been a professional singer.

A Jewish Composer in Mantua


From his first publication, Rossi was associated with the court of the Gonzaga family at Mantua.  The Canzonette are dedicated to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, as is his next published work, a book of five-part madrigals (1600).  Rossi’s second book of madrigals (1602) begins with a dedication to another nobleman at the Mantuan court, the Marquis of Pallazuolo.  Rossi later wrote an intermedio and some incidental music for the Gonzagas, although these pieces have not survived.

Rossi’s works also include three additional books of five-part madrigals, a book of four-part madrigals, a book of duets, and four books of instrumental music.  Most remarkably, he published a collection entitled Hashirim asher lish’lomo (Songs of Solomon) in 1622 and 1623.  These are the first known polyphonic (multi-voice) settings of Jewish texts.  Rossi may have been inspired to try this experiment by Leo da Modena, a Jewish scholar who ran a music academy in Venice.

Despite his works dedicated to Vincenzo Gonzaga and his occasional appearances on the Gonzaga payroll, Rossi seems never to have been a permanent member of the court.  He could not have played sacred music because of his religion.  Although he is known to have played the viol, he was not included in a list of court violists in 1599.  There were several Jewish theatrical troupes active in Mantua, and he may have been involved in one of those.

For some time Mantua had been a relatively welcoming place for Jews, but Mantuan Jewish life became worse under Vincenzo Gonzaga.  In 1590, all non-Mantuan Jews were expelled.  In 1600, an eighty-year-old Jewish woman was burned as a witch.  Finally, in 1610, the Mantuan government created a Jewish ghetto. 

Rossi, however, enjoyed a privileged status.  In 1606, Vincenzo Gonzaga exempted the composer from the law, instituted in 1577, which required Mantua Jews to wear a yellow badge.  Six days after the new duke, Francesco II, came to the throne in 1612, Rossi was again given special permission not to wear the badge.

The last trace of Salamone Rossi is his publication of a book of duets in 1628.  He may have died in or just after 1630, when Mantua was sacked and the Jewish ghetto burned.

References:


Fenlon, Iain: ‘Rossi, Salamone’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 04 May 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

Harrán, Don.  “Tradition and Innovation in Jewish Music of the Later Renaissance.”  Journal of the American Musicological Society 7 (1989): 107-30.

Harrán, Don.  “‘Dum Recordaremur Sion’: Music in the Life and Thought of Venetian Rabbi Leon Modena (1571-1648).”  Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies 23 (1998): 17-61.