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Salamone de'Rossi

(c. 1570 - 1630)

Salamone de' Rossi became the leading Jewish composer of the late Italian Renaissance, and a court musician of the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua. Very little is known about his life. He was apparently the son of a certain Bonaiuto (Azariah) de' Rossi; but this Azariah cannot be identical with the well-known philosopher of the same name who expressed regret that he had no sons to survive him.

Rossi's published works ranging between the years 1589-1628 are the only direct documentation on his life and work. It has been assumed that he was born about 1570. He entered the service of Duke Vicenzo I in 1587 as a singer and viola player, and soon became the leader of the duke's musical establishment and of an instrumental ensemble composed most probably of Jewish musicians. In 1606, Duke Vincenzo I freed Rossi of the requirement to wear the yellow badge imposed on the Jewish community of the city, and this privilege was renewed in 1612 by the new duke, Francesco II. Rossi's group achieved a high reputation and was occasionally loaned to neighboring courts, as in 1612 when Alessandro, duke of Mirandola, invited "the Jew Salamon and his company" to his court. Rossi's name as a violist appears on the ducal payrolls until the year 1622. The death of the last Gonzaga duke and the sack of Mantua by the Austrian army (1628-30) put an end to the golden age of Mantuan court music. In that year many Jews fled to the Venetian ghetto where the Mantuan music circle found a certain measure of continuation in the Jewish musical Accademia degli Impediti. This group was sponsored by Rossi's patron, the famed Leone Modena, although it cannot be ascertained whether Rossi himself was still alive and active in the Accademia.

With Salamone de' Rossi, a peak was reached in Jewish contributions to Western art music. He was perhaps the last, but certainly the most important, of a long and distinguished list of Jewish court musicians (instrumentalists, singers, dancers, players) who were active in Mantua throughout the 16th century.

At the Mantuan court Rossi developed his abilities through a constant exchange of views and techniques in composition with the well-known musicians of the court.

Like the other Mantuan court musicians, Rossi started as a madrigalist but soon tried his creative talents at the new style of ornamental monody, i.e., songs or instrumental pieces with one leading solo voice supported by a fundamental bass. He is considered the pioneer of these new baroque forms which include the trio sonata and suite. As a Jewish musician, his lasting contribution is his Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo, 33 settings for three to eight voices of Hebrew texts, comprising psalms, hymns, and other religious poems for festive synagogue services. The settings are composed in the then prevailing a cappella style of Palestrina and G. Gabrieli, with intent to regenerate traditional musical liturgy with polyphonic choral settings.

Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage