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Hebrew Cantatas and Choral Works

The term "cantata" is used here to designate an accompanied vocal composition in several movements for one or more soloists, with or without choral sections. Contemporary names for works in this form can vary: "dialogo," for example, or "oratorio." During the 17th and 18th centuries the performance of such works was widespread in some European Jewish communities such as Italy, southern France, and the Netherlands. These works appeared side by side with simpler settings for individual prayers or religious poems for two or more voices, with or without accompaniment. They were not intended to replace the traditional synagogue chants, nor did this practice arise through any consideration of reform. These performances of art music in the synagogue took place only on particular occasions, such as "special Sabbaths and feasts" (Shabbatot Reshumim u-Mo'adim, in the words of Leone *Modena ; cf. S. de *Rossi , Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo (Venice, 1623), fol. 5a), and at "times of rejoicing" (Zemannei Sason; ibid., fol. 2a), weddings, circumcisions, the inauguration of synagogues, or festivities of religious fraternities.


The introduction of art music into the Italian synagogue appears to have begun in the late 16th century, probably as the result of segregation. The Jewish musicians who had flourished in Italy during the Renaissance period and were now excluded from gentile society and confined to the ghetto turned to the synagogue. Some literary sources predate the first actual musical evidence. There are references to this kind of music in Padua about 1555–65 and especially in Ferrara about 1605. Leone Modena headed a choral association whose members "raise their voices at the time of feasts and they sing at the synagogue songs of praise… Ein k-Elohenu, Aleinu Leshabbe'aḥ, Yigdal, and Adon Olam…" (De Rossi, op. cit., introd., fol. 4b). The introduction of art music in the Mantuan synagogue took place between 1605 and 1622. The main evidence is De Rossi's Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo, a collection of 33 psalms, liturgical chants and other religious poems set to music for three to eight unaccompanied voices. It was printed in Venice with important introductory texts, mainly by Leone Modena who had been editor and proofreader for this publication. De Rossi wrote his synagogal compositions in the musical style of his period, apparently with no attempt to use or adapt traditional tunes of the synagogue. The same trend is also obvious in all other synagogal compositions during the 17th–18th centuries. In the Venice ghetto between 1628 and 1639 the existence is known of a Jewish music "academy" called "Accademia degli Impediti" and later on "Compagnia dei Musici," again headed by Leone Modena. It had an extensive repertoire of Hebrew texts set to art music (musica figurata), including compositions for double choirs and settings with an instrumental accompaniment. Modena's disciple, Giulio *Morosini , who converted to Christianity, describes a particularly brilliant celebration of the feast of Simḥat Torah in Venice about 1628 with the musical participation of this "Accademia di Musica." The only other musical document of this period known at present, apart from De Rossi's Ha-Shirim…, is an anonymous Italian manuscript (HUC, Birnbaum 4F 71, now lost or mislaid), containing the upper parts of the second choir from a collection of synagogal and other religious music for double choir. By the middle of the 17th century such performances of art music in the synagogue had become customary in many places. In the collection of texts relating to the heated dispute about choral singing in the synagogue of Senigallia, from about 1642 to 1652, the well-known rabbi of Modena, Nethanel *Trabot , states in his pesak (rabbinic decision) of Nov. 9, 1645, "By God! It is not my intention to condemn those who sing according to music, for in all the religions through which I have passed there is the custom of singing [thus] in honor of our God on the days of our feasts…" (Budapest, Ms. Kaufman 151, resp. 142).

The performance of cantatas, dialogues, and oratorios between the second half of the 17th and the end of the 18th century for specific circumstances in such communities as Modena, Venice, Florence, Ancona, Padua, Leghorn, and Siena is documented mainly from the libretti which have been preserved. They have indications for the performance of music interspersed between poems, dialogues, and plays. Surveys and inventories of these sources were published by Ḥ. Schirmann and by I. Adler (see bibliography). A few musical sources that have survived are the following:

(1) The printed publication by the Christian composer Carlo Grossi, Il divertimento de Grandi… (Venice, 1681), contains the "Cantata ebraica in dialogo," Aḥai ve-Re'ai, for a Shomerim la-Boker ("Watchmen of the Dawn") fraternity of unknown location. The cantata is set for a solo singer in dialogue with a four-voice choir, with cembalo ("basso continuo") accompaniment, and the text reveals that it was written for the annual celebration of the founding of the fraternity, coinciding with the feast of Hoshana Rabba.

(2) Manuscript 807 of the Guenzburg collection (Lenin State Library, Moscow) contains three cantatas and additional music from the repertory of the "Zerizim" fraternity in one of the communities of Piedmont for the celebration of Hoshana Rabba in the years 1732, 1733, and 1735. Each of the three cantatas is preceded by arias and duos on liturgical texts, Adon Olam, Va-Ani be-Ḥasdekha (Ps. 13:6), or Mizmor le-Todah (Ps. 100:1), for one and two voices, with cembalo accompaniment and orchestral overtures, preludes, and interludes. The title page of the score for the celebration of 1732 shows that the name of the conductor was Joseph Ḥayyim Chezighin, who as usual also performed the cembalo part and is known to have been ḥazzan at the great synagogue of Turin in the middle of the 18th century. The text of the cantata, Yonah bein Ḥagvei ha-Sela ("Dove in the clefts of the rock"), is by Samuel Ḥayyim Yiẓḥaki and is also preserved in print (Va-Yeẓe Yiẓḥak Lasu'aḥ ba-Sadeh, preface dated at Vercelli, 1732). The name of the composer is not given. The subject is the consolation of Jerusalem and the characters – the Dove (i.e., Zion), two angels, the Defender (meliẓ), the "Man clothed with Linen" (Ezek. 9:2; Dan. 10:5) and the "Voice of God" – express themselves in arias, recitatives, duos, and a final choir, with orchestral accompaniment and basso continuo (cembalo). The text of the cantata of 1733 – Elyon, Meliẓ u-Mastin ("God, defender and accuser"), of unknown authorship (though possibly S.Ḥ. Yiẓḥaki or Menaḥem Chezighin, rather than J.H. Chezighin) – has been preserved in two other manuscripts (London, Montefiore Ms. no. 373; Jerusalem, Schocken Ms. no. 67) and also in print (Piẓḥu Rannenu ve-Zameru, Mantua, 1733). The Guenzburg and Schocken manuscripts include an Italian translation of the Hebrew text, under the title (in the Guenzburg Ms.) Dio Clemenza e Rigore. The subject is the judgment of man before God, and the musical structure is similar to that of the previous cantata. The cantata of 1735 is an anonymous religious poem in ten strophes, relating to the feast of Hoshana Rabba. It starts with the poem Oseh Shalom bi-Meromav, and is without dramatic personages. An orchestral overture is followed by a succession of arias, with orchestral accompaniment and interludes and recitatives with cembalo accompaniment, and concludes, as usual, with a choir.

(3) Manuscript It. 33 of the Jewish Historical General Archives of Jerusalem contains the "score of the music performed on the occasion of the inauguration of the new synagogue [of Siena] on May 27, 28, and 29 of the year 1786, music by the Sgre. Volunio Gallichi, dilettante." The libretto, with extensive descriptions of the ceremony and its background, appeared in print in Leghorn in 1786 under the title Seder Zemirot ve-Limmud. The ceremony began with processions from the two old synagogues toward the new one. The music contained the traditional, one-voice tunes, followed by a "spiritual concert" in the new synagogue consisting of arias, duos, recitatives and choral pieces, for solo singers, choir, and orchestra.

(4) Manuscript It. 34 (ibid.) is the first violin part of the musical score for the consecration at Siena, in January 1796, of a Torah scroll donated by Moses Castelnuovo. The Hebrew texts, beginning with the poem Zeh ha-Yom Asah El, are also preserved in two other manuscripts (New York, JTS, Ms. no. 568; BM, Or. 9608) and in print as Yashir Moshe (Leghorn, 1796). The text, comprising poems by various Siena authors, and the music are both composed in the same vein as the texts and music written ten years earlier for the consecration of the Siena synagogue. The composer, Volunio Gallichi, also served as cello player, tenor solo, and conductor of the ensemble which comprised players and seven singers – two basses, three tenors, and three boy-sopranos – all mentioned by name.

(5) Manuscript It. 35 (ibid.) consists of the first violin part and two copies of the second violin part of a score most probably composed by Volunio Gallichi for a Sienese ceremony similar to the one described above. The initial poem, performed by choir and soloist, begins Kumu Sharim Piẓḥu Shirim. Another Jewish composer from Tuscany, M. *Bolaffi , who was possibly a young contemporary of Volunio Gallichi, wrote for the synagogues of Florence and Leghorn. The score for his setting of Daniel Terni's Simḥat Mitzvah, composed for the inauguration of the "Italian" synagogue of Florence in 1793, seems to have been lost. Some of his synagogal compositions for solo singer with instrumental accompaniment, for choir, choir and orchestra, and for solo, have been preserved in several 19th-century manuscripts.

Southern France

The only notated relic of synagogal art-music activity in the "four holy communities" of the *Comtat Venaissin district of Provence so far discovered is found in manuscript Vm1 1307 of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale. This is the score of the Canticum Hebraicum by Louis Saladin, a local, and probably gentile, composer, and is an extensive cantata for three solo singers, choir and orchestra, composed about 1680–1700 for a local circumcision ceremony. The main part of the cantata, on the liturgical text Yeled ha-Yulad Yihyeh be-Siman Tov, was later transformed into a one-voice chant which became traditional and can be traced in this form in the Seder ha-Kunteres (Avignon, 1765).


The practice of synagogal art music in the Netherlands, mainly within the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community, was similar to the Italian but apparently more intensive. For the 17th century only literary and documentary evidence is available at present. The 18th century repertoire is preserved in several important music manuscripts (Amsterdam, Ets Haim Mss. 49 B 22, 49 A 14, and 49 A 13), comprising cantatas for solo voice with orchestral accompaniment and liturgical compositions for one, two, three and four voices with basso continuo or orchestral accompaniment. The principal occasions for such art music performances were Shavuot, Shabbat Bereshit, and especially Simḥat Torah and Shabbat Naḥamu, which coincided with the annual commemoration of the inauguration of the Great Synagogue in 1675, as well as celebrations of fraternities, weddings, royal visits to the synagogue and, above all, the competitions for the appointment of a new cantor. Together with works by anonymous composers, these sources reveal the names of M. (?) Mani, Abraham Rathom, Abraham *Caceres , who was the local composer par excellence of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community, and the Italian gentile composer Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti (1730–after 1793). Lidarti's works left a profound imprint on the musical repertory of the community which has lasted down to present times.


Ḥ. Schirmann, in: Zion, 29 (1964), 61–111; Adler, Prat Mus, includes bibliography; M. Gorali, in: Tatzlil, 7 (1967), 109–24; 8 (1968), 5–14 (to be used with caution).

[Israel Adler]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.