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The Renaissance Composer Who Put Hebrew Prayers To Music Is Having A Resurgence

“Louder!” a woman hollered from the back of the auditorium.

Onstage, Elam Rotem paused in the middle of a sentence. His eyebrows inched towards his hairline.

It was a gentle night in late February, and the soft-spoken founder of the Israeli male vocal quintet Profeti della Quinta – which is currently based in Basel, Switzerland – was performing with his ensemble at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. As their musical director, Rotem not only takes responsibility for introducing their selections – the task in which he was engaged when the aforementioned interruption was let fly – but also guides those selections from the outset.

From Profeti della Quinta’s first professional outing, the group’s programs have prominently featured the work of Salomone Rossi.

Rossi, a late Renaissance Italian Jewish violinist and composer, was a contemporary of Claudio Monteverdi, known as the father of opera. At their performance at the Met, Profeti della Quinta’s program largely consisted of songs by the two composers, who worked side by side in Mantua for much of their careers.

Stopping by the Forward’s offices on the day of the performance, Rotem considered the musical relationship between the two composers.

“Rossi is perhaps slightly more reserved than Monteverdi,” Rotem said. “Rossi doesn’t seek to shock the listeners, as Monteverdi does.”

Unlike Monteverdi, Rossi also wrote music for Hebrew psalms, in addition to more traditional Italian madrigals and love songs. As far as Rotem knows – and given that he’s spent most of his career immersing himself in Renaissance vocal music, he should know – Rossi is the only composer of that era who wrote religious Jewish music.

“I think we were the first group to combine the sense of being Israelis, and thus knowing the texts and the language very well, of his Hebrew psalms, [with] being specialists for early music performance,” Rotem said.

The group’s emphasis on singing Rossi’s Hebrew psalms is personal, but also a matter of musical revelation.

“Since Hebrew is our mother tongue, we can understand how it was for Italians, for example, to sing Italian music,” Rotem said. “It’s one thing to know the meaning of the translation of something and sing it, and it’s another thing to just know what it means, without any filter.”

Rotem founded Profeti della Quinta in high school, when he was fascinated by medieval music. (His focus, and the group’s, has since shifted to the late Renaissance.) He had participated in a kibbutz youth choir; enchanted by the experience, he recruited friends to join him, in his high school corridors, in singing “medieval weird things.” Over subsequent years, the group managed to survive, adopting new forms after its members returned from their service in the Israeli Defense Forces, then again after a number of them relocated to Basel.

It’s a rare story for Israel, which, Rotem explained, has a remarkably small choral scene. The mixed-gender kibbutz youth choir he once loved no longer exists, he said, and most contemporary choirs are for girls alone.

Still, he thinks, there’s room for those with a passion for music to pursue it – once they know such music exists.

“No one taught me,” he said. “There was no harpsichord teacher, and there was no harpsichord, actually, where I grew up. So I just followed the things that seemed interesting to me.”

On stage at the Met, Profeti della Quinta wove Rossi’s psalms and love songs into Monteverdi’s madrigals, breaking to allow an Alessandro Piccinini solo for lute and a harpsichord improvisation by Rotem, who also composes. Profeti della Quinta are spirited performers, and they embraced the opportunity to showcase some playfulness; in two later items of the program, which featured comically frustrating interactions between lovers, the singers occupied their roles with a winning eagerness.

The group was at its strongest when singing Rossi’s Hebrew psalms. After closing with Rossi’s flirtatious, secular piece “Pargoletta, che non sai,” the group returned for an encore, Rossi’s “Kaddish.” Like many Jews, I had the text of kaddish drilled into my mind from an early age. Still, I found myself transported by the piece. Sung with a precise warmth, it made me feel a pleasant, spiritually substantive sense of alienation from the prayer, enough to make it new again.

In light of that sensation, it’s easy to understand why so many Catholic classical composers – including Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, and of course, Monteverdi – were drawn to composing musical settings for mass. Listening to Rossi’s work, it’s easy to wonder what contemporary Jewish art of all genres might look like if, as a people, we hadn’t spent large amounts of our diasporic history isolated from artistic mainstreams.

Western classical music developed in Christian nations – many of which, of course, at various points expelled their Jewish populations – and composing for religious services, a standard aspect of the vocation, was sometimes understood as an indicator of ability and ambition. (The “Requiem,” a sung Catholic mass for the dead, counts as one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s most compelling accomplishments not solely for the notorious drama surrounding its composition.) More importantly, artists of all kinds, if not independently wealthy, were often financially supported by members of aristocracies that were, institutionally, Christian. Mozart’s greatest patron, Vienna’s Joseph II, was the Holy Roman Emperor. His predecessors in that role had been crowned by the Pope.

No wonder that if European Jews did indeed compose music during the Renaissance, let alone music with such explicitly Jewish themes, so little has survived. Ditto for painters, sculptors, and writers. Within Jewish communities, artists sometimes thrived – the Italian Renaissance, for instance, yielded illuminated Jewish manuscripts of extraordinary beauty – but while that Renaissance marked a period in which Jews intersected more frequently with their broader society, often as bankers or physicians, their cultural creations were largely ostracized.

Is this longstanding remove from the broad currents of classical music – and specifically classical vocal music, which, opera aside, was historically overwhelmingly Christian – partially responsible for the dearth of choral musical training Rotem observed in modern-day Israel?

It is, of course, difficult to say. But Rotem did share an oblique insight to the matter.

“Salomone Rossi is kind of famous in the choir scene in Israel, which is very small,” he said. “And yet, every choir would probably sing one piece by Salomone Rossi, [for] obvious reasons.”

If others like Rossi had found opportunities to compose, or if their work had survived, one can only imagine the song that might blossom in Israel today.

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