Penn Live Arts Blog

Cappella Pratensis and Salamone Rossi educational engagements

Posted November 21, 2023

For Rutgers musicologist Rebecca Cypess, who spoke at our recent roundtable on the music of Italian-Jewish Renaissance composer Salamone Rossi, there is something strange about Psalm 137. Though the text describes the Israelites rejecting music in the face of mourning – “there on the poplars we hung our lyres” – and though that custom persists in certain Jewish communities, she noted that the psalm has been set to an astonishing variety of melodies, including Rossi’s own. It’s almost as if, she noted at her talk’s conclusion, the poem presents a challenge: to sing even in times of distress.

Her work and that of Hebrew University scholar Edwin Seroussi explored Rossi’s output for both the Italian court and Jewish liturgy, his contemporary reception (due to his ability to adopt the dominant Christian style of the time, he was often held up as proof of Jewish musical legitimacy) and his afterlife in scholarship and performance. In response to questions about why Rossi alone among his Jewish contemporaries survived the centuries, both Cypess and Seroussi cautioned against relying only on the written record to demonstrate the extent to which music was part of the fabric of Jewish communal life. Mezzo-soprano and Penn Department of Music artist-in-residence Meg Bragle, who also performed a program of Rossi’s work on November 9, bracketed the talks with samples from his Hashirim asher Lishlomo (The Songs of Solomon) and a madrigal in the dominant style of his day, accompanied by Cypess on harpsichord. 

As host to the event, the Kislak Center displayed related materials from the Penn collections, including a Renaissance-era Haggadah, a Parisian edition of Rossi’s Cinq Choeurs Religieux (Five Religious Songs) and a Roman siddur (prayer book).

Earlier in the month, ahead of our performance by Cappella Pratensis & Sollazzo Ensemble, early music audiences and scholars got to experience a five-hundred-year-old rehearsal process under the tutelage of Cappella Pratensis artistic director Stratton Bull and ensemble member Tim Braithwaite. With the aid of a Guidonian hand from the Penn collections, about 25 participants learned the medieval mnemonic method of using the finger joints as a guide to solfege. Braithwaite and Bull then guided the singers in reading parts on either side of a large music stand as is traditional to group singing from that period. Despite the group’s newness to the method, they quickly achieved a kind of unity, perhaps the way monks and nuns once did, circled around a similar score. Leaning deeply into the written materials that survived these eras gave way to an ephemeral feeling, one that might otherwise have been lost to history. 

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