Salamone Rossi interview
Interview with Anna Levenstein and Jeanette Sorrell of Apollo’s Fire
conducted by Benyamin Bresky
February 13, 2004
The Song of Solomon
Shaarey Tikvah Synagogue
Question: Why don’t you talk about your group and what you’re going to perform.
Jeanette Sorrell: Apollo’s Fire is a period instrument baroque orchestra, so were always interested in investigating baroque music that isn’t performed so music. There was a wonderful Jewish composer named Salamone Rossi who lived in the early 17th century who wrote a very special selection of Jewish sacred music in baroque style but with Hebrew text . So were having fun learning about this and were going to be performing it this coming weekend
Question: Anna why don’t you tell us what you do with Apollo’s Fire.
Anna Levenstein: I sing soprano in the chorus of Apollo’s Fire and I’ll also be giving a couple of pre concert lectures
Question: You’re a college student?
Anna Levenstein: I’m a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve and I specialize in early music performance practice, early music history.
Question: How many people are going to sing in the performance?
Anna Levenstein: I think it’s about fourteen or fifteen singers.
Question: And it’s mixed men and women?
Anna Levenstein: Yes. And we also have some instrumentalists.
Question: Is that the way it was in the 1600s?
Jeanette Sorrell: We really don’t know how this would have been performed. Probably male trebles singing the higher parts
Question: What’s a treble?
Anna Levenstein: Male sopranos. So boys, or men falsettists
Question: Just for those of us that don’t know, what is Baroque?
Anna Levenstein: The baroque period of music usually we say is from 1600 to 1750. This composer, Salamone Rossi is from the very beginning of the baroque period, so from around 1600. He lived and wrote n the city of Mantua in Italy which was one of the centers for the birth of baroque music and experimenting with new style there.
Question: He has the choral works and he also has the instrumental works. Are you going to perform both?
Anna Levenstein: Yes we’ll be alternating, some pieces from the sacred choral collection and then pieces that are instrumental only.
Question: And he did material that would be called Jewish themed and then also just general material?
Jeanette Sorrell: That’s right, because he worked for the Duke of Mantua and so his job during the day was to write basically secular instrumental music. Things like dances and trio sonatas. But then in his personal time at home he wrote this sacred Jewish music.
Question: When we say sacred Jewish music, what’s that mean? It was performed in the synagogue?
Jeanette Sorrell: It was intended to be performed in the synagogue we don’t actually know whether it was. That’s one of the mysteries. But that was the intention, certainly.
Question: And that was controversial?
Anna Levenstein: Yes, that’s right. This is a time in Italian Jewry where the Jewish community was really involved in Italian cultural life. The Jewish theater had been a part of the Dukal festivities part of Italian cultural life since the early 15th century really so they were really swimming in Italian music, Italian theater, Italian literature and I think they wanted to meld these worlds and create some music for their services that would express both these worlds. It s also a time when Jews, especially Sephardic Jews were coming back to their Jewish heritage , so they had been Christianized where they had been in the south and immigrated north to Italy and this music is part of the trend to reeducate the Christianized Jews who were coming back to Judaism in Italian culture.
Question: Salamone Rossi was Sephardic?
Jeanette Sorrell: No. He was coming from the Italian Jewish community but the rabbi who was the editor and publisher of this was very instrumental in this education movement. He also published education texts. Translations of Hebrew texts. And transliterations of Hebrew texts. For this community that was wanting to learn more about Jewish culture.
Question: But some of the rabbis said 'oh no, you can’t bring that Goyishe stuff in the synagogue.'
Jeanette Sorrell: That’s right. The music that you would have normally heard in the synagogue was chants. It only had one line. Like cantillations you’re used to hearing in synagogue today. The traditional cantiliations. So there was a controversy over whether to make the polyphonic music, this complicated art music, was glorifying G-d or against the tradition.
Question: But this whole thing is also kind of returning to the tradition too, you’re saying.
Jeanette Sorrell: I think it’s an attempt in a way to bring these two worlds together and in a way to attract the Christanized Jews and encourage them in their cultural; exploration. Because I think the problem was that Jewish that had become secularize who wanted to hear art music, sophisticated music, then it had to be Christian music because there wasn’t really any Jewish music like that and so this was a way of saying, okay in the Jewish culture we can have elaborate art music this serious great compositions, we can have in the synagogue also for our own people and it is for the glory of G-d.
Question: Now this brings us up to today and some of the Jewish music I get is like rap or reggae and some of these guys, that just the music they happen to do, but other Jewish musicians say, “yeah, we need to make it hip and modern to attracts the kids.
Anna Levenstein: I think its the same issues that were happening in the 17th century. It very similar to our conditions today. The Italian Jews in the 17th century were very comfortable in Italian culture just as we are in American comfortable in American culture and if and if we want to encourage the young people to learn Hebrew and to be involved in the Jewish community one way to attract them is with music. If you keep the text and if you keep the message and change the music, that’s in keeping with a long tradition of Jewish, I don’t want to say assimilation, but acculturation to the county and society their living in.
Question: What do you call the work The Song of Solomon in Hebrew?
Anna Levenstein: It’s called Shir HaShirim HaShel L’Shlomo.
Jeanette Sorrell: That’s a play on words on Shir HaShirim from the Bible, the Song of Songs. So instead of the Song of Songs, it the Song of Solomon, after the composer’s own name.
Question: The music and the lyrics, does it basically follow the Shabbat service?
Anna Levenstein: Yes. They’re written for services.
Question: Does it basically go through the entire synagogue service?
Anna Levenstein: Some of the pieces are for Sabbath. Some of the pieces are for particular holidays. There’s a wedding ode, kaddish. They’re all different.
Question: What is a trio sonata?
Jeanette Sorrell: A trio sonata is for two treble type instruments, which could be two violins, or flutes or recorders, plus a bass line. The bass line is played by either cello or viola de gamba. It could even be a bassoon. Usually with some kind of chord playing instrument alongside, which could be harpsichord or lute. So its flexible as to what instruments can play it.
Question: Rossi was one of the guys that invented this?
Anna Levenstein: Yes. He was one of the important composers that developed this form of music. I wouldn’t really say he invented it alone but he was one of the three or four composers who kind of developed it early on.
Question: OK, now getting back to Jewish life in Italy. He lived in the ghetto? What does that mean and what was the yellow badge?
Jeanette Sorrell: Well it was typical in Italian society at that time that Jews were forced to live in a certain part of the city that was often barricaded off and they were also forced to were a yellow badge. A star of David . This is the same kind of tradition that was resurrected later by Hitler. But Rossi was exempted of this because he worked for the Duke in the palace. And the Duke very much appreciated his music. And so he did not have to wear the star but he did live in the ghetto and walked every day to the palace.
Question: We just talked about Jewish people being acultured into Italian society. Is this during the same time period?
Anna Levenstein: The ghetto wasn’t established until about 1610. So this is quite a late development. Since they had been living there since the 14th or 15trh century.
Question: A new guy came along?
Anna Levenstein: There had been very strict anti Jewish laws made in Rome and there was resistance to them in the north of Italy but eventually they had to give in and they started adopting these anti Jewish laws, creating ghettos and enforcing this badge that had been a law but hadn’t been enforced for many years. But here were always Jews that served at court as doctors as philosophers and as musicians and they were aloud to were whatever they wanted, and they also didn’t have to were the badge.
Question: Okay now let’s talk about you two. How did you get into this? What attracts you to this?
Jeanette Sorrell: We in Apollo’s Fire are always interested in bringing to the public baroque music that is great music but maybe has been neglected and I think that’s the case with Salamone Rossi. He’s really one of the important early baroque composers from Italy but his music hasn’t been played very much in this century because his music doesn’t work very well with modern instruments. It needs to be played by period instruments. Specialists. Which is what our group does. So that’s one thing. But I think Anna has been immersed in Rossi for many years.
Anna Levenstein: For a couple of years I’ve been looking into music of this time in Italy for my doctoral project at Case and so I’ve been interested in what the musical; life around Rossi was and how it could be that a great composer could be Jewish and could work for the duke and I’ve discovered that the Jewish community ad been involved in musical life in Italy since the early 15th century. And had presented theatrical productions with music for many years. So that’s how it came about that they had those genius composer who could come out of this culture.
Question: Again this is Jeanette Sorrel, the conductor and Anna Levenstein, one of the singers from Apollo’s fire. Thank you for being with us, do you have any final words?
Anna Levenstein: Just to mentioned that recordings that we’ve been playing today are by a different group and that group performs this music a capella with no instruments but in fact we’ll be performing it with instruments accompanying the singers and so it’s quite a bit more colorful that way.
For more info see the Zamir Chorale article on Rossi.