Suggested Listening: “Adon Olam” by Salamone Rossi

And now for something a little different.  For this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC, take a listen to Adon Olam by Salamone Rossi, performed below by the Boston Camerata, led by Joel Cohen.

 About the Composer:

Salamone Rossi (c. 1570-1630) was nicknamed l’ebreo, Ialian for “the Jew.”  These days, you can easily name many a Jewish composer — Bernstein, Mahler, Bloch, CoplandRochberg, Korngold, Reich — but back in the Baroque era (1600-1750), Jewish composers of repute were few and far between.  A gifted violinist who served as concertmaster in the ducal court orchestra of Mantua, Rossi performed and composed alongside other esteemed court musicians — including Claudio Monteverdi, famous for composing the first true opera — and was held in such high regard at court that he wasn’t required to wear the badge marking him as a Jew, which had become obligatory for Mantua’s Jewish community thanks to a 1577 edict.  Rossi’s sister was Madama Europa, who may have been the first Jewish opera singer and who, like her brother, was employed as a court musician.  Though the cause of Rossi’s death remains unconfirmed, it is widely believed that he and his sister both perished when Mantua’s ghetto was sacked and destroyed by Austrian Imperial troops in 1630.  Rossi left behind a lasting legacy: the first published collection of Jewish liturgical music; over 100 secular vocal works; innovative instrumental music that paved the way for some of the standard compositional techniques of the later Baroque; and a reputation as a talented and well-liked individual whose success radiated throughout his religious and cultural community.

About the Piece:

Hebrew transcription and English translation of Adon Olam, courtesy of Wikipedia.  Click to enlarge.
Hebrew transcription and English translation of Adon Olam, courtesy of Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

It is particularly rare and special to hear a religious work from this historical era sung in any language other than Latin, but Rossi’s Adon Olam is exactly that.  Adon Olam is a Hebrew prayer that has been part of the daily Jewish liturgy (the fixed set of ceremonies, texts, and songs used in worship by a particular religion) since the 15th century.  The text itself is much older, often attributed to the 11th-century poet Solomon ibn Gabriol or even the tenth-century rabbi Hai Gaon, but it wasn’t until the 1400s that the prayer was included regularly as part of the morning and Sabbath services.  This prayer obviously predates our pal Rossi, but that didn’t stop him from putting his own spin on an old classic.  His version is energetic and and powerful, with the harmonies of many voices lifted at once to declare, in the final line of the text, “I will not fear.”  What makes Rossi’s iteration so unique is that it is more similar in style to the Christian liturgical music being composed by his contemporaries, than it is to the traditional Jewish cantorial melodies normally heard in synagogues.  Here, take a listen to a sacred composition by Venetian church composer Giovanni Gabrieli, and one of the traditional tunes to which Adon Olam has been set, and compare to Rossi’s version above.  Rossi and Gabrieli lived and composed around the same time, and their music — be it Jewish, Catholic, or secular — is infused with the lively, intricate, pious spirit of the early Baroque.

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