When he was 15, Matthew Lazar had the pleasure of meeting Jewish-Italian Renaissance composer Salamone Rossi.
Never mind that Rossi died in approximately 1630 in Italy and Mr. Lazar was the youngest member of the Massad Choral Group of 1960s New York City.
For him, “meeting” a composer was accomplished by listening to and singing that composer’s music.
“That’s how you get a sense of who they are,” he explained.
As the first composer to apply Western musical harmonies and techniques to familiar Jewish liturgical psalms and hymns such as Adon Olam, Rossi made a profound influence on the teenaged Matthew Lazar.
“Rossi, of course, had been dead for almost 350 years, but his music spoke to me as clearly and directly as the great Western composers did, combining accessible yet riveting music with familiar and meaningful texts, creating an extraordinary experience and a journey like no other in the Jewish music canon,” Mr. Lazar said.
“I had never heard Western harmony, especially in the Renaissance and early Baroque style, so completely and easily express the essence of Jewish texts and beliefs through the music.”
In 1964, the Massad Choral Group changed its name to the Zamir Chorale, and in 1972 Mr. Lazar became the choir’s conductor. The following year, the first modern edition of Mr. Rossi’s work was released.
Mr. Lazar created the Zamir Choral Foundation to promote Jewish commitment through choral singing more widely in 1990. He also created Shirah, the Community Chorus at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades; that group began in 1995, under his direction, and continues to flourish today.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Lazar organized the world’s first Salamone Rossi conference; it was held at Merkin Hall on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. On November 20, again at Merkin Hall, Mr. Lazar will direct a concert in honor of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Rossi’s collection of 33 choral compositions set to sacred Hebrew texts. This was the first time that music was published with Hebrew characters. The songs will be performed by the Mantua Singers — the ensemble Mr. Lazar formed in 2002 to perform at that first Rossi conference in 2002.
While singers of Rossi’s compositions back in the 17th century had to master his unique presentation -– the musical notes flowed from left to right as the Hebrew words moved right to left — these 10 present-day singers, some of them professional cantors, are using modern editions of the music that have English transliterations underneath the left-to-right music.
“Each member of the Mantua Singers understands Rossi’s musical style and its relationship to the Hebrew text, a necessity for performing Rossi’s music passionately and with historical accuracy,” Mr. Lazar said. “They are acclaimed soloists skilled in performance practice and in understanding the Hebrew words.”
Rossi achieved popularity with his secular Italian compositions -– “mostly love madrigals,” Mr. Lazar said –- and was employed in the court of the dukes of Mantua, where he was a colleague of composer Claudio Monteverdi. (Rossi’s sister achieved her own fame as an opera singer of Monteverdi’s works, performing under the stage name Madama Europa.)
Rossi’s Jewish liturgical works, published in 1622, “were a kind of culmination of his self-identity as a Jew in a secular environment.”
However, Mr. Lazar said, “there’s nothing cantorial about this collection. Most people would say it doesn’t sound Jewish.”
Mr. Lazar began his own musical career with piano lessons when he was four years old. When he was 15 — already 11 years into that lifelong career — Mr. Lazar realized that Rossi “was an expert at word painting — expressing and illuminating the meaning of the text through the architecture of the music.”
“I knew what the relationship of the text to the music could be, often not in line with Jewish thought,” he said. “So to find a wonderful composer who was able to combine sacred texts with Western harmony, as opposed to Jewish traditional modes, was shocking for me.”
It is perhaps just as shocking that despite the discrimination Jews suffered in Renaissance Italy, Rossi became “the first Jewish composer of merit to keep his Jewish identity while succeeding in mainstream Christian society,” Mr. Lazar said. He was so well respected in the higher echelons of society, in fact, that he was exempted from wearing the humiliating badge required of his co-religionists.
“He established a model of being a faithful Jew and succeeding as a composer and violinist,” Mr. Lazar said. “It was quite a trick. But at the end of each day he still had to go back to the ghetto” to which the Jews were restricted.
There wouldn’t be another Jewish composer to compare with Rossi for another 200 years. That next computer was Salomon Sulzer, the 19th-century Austrian cantor whose liturgical works are still the standard in many Ashkenazi synagogues.
Rossi, whose family traced itself back to Jewish exiles deported to Rome after the Roman Empire’s conquest of ancient Judea and destruction of the Second Temple, seems to have felt a personal resonance to Psalm 137. Known in English as “By the rivers of Babylon,” it was written from the perspective of the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple.
This psalm, which contains the famous line “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,” ends with the promise of Babylon’s destruction.
Psalm 137 is on the playlist for the November 20 concert, along with other well-known biblical and liturgical compositions, including Shir HaMa’alot (Psalm 128), Mizmor L’David (Psalm 29), Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbat (Psalm 92), Ein Keloheinu, and Kaddish.
“We’ll be showing super-titles of the text of each of the selections as we’re singing them, so that the audience can follow the text along with hearing Rossi’s musical interpretations of those texts,” Mr. Lazar said.
“There’s been a revival of interest in Rossi’s music,” he noted. “More and more people are recording this music and talking about him. He’s a hero.”
The concert is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.
What: Zamir Choral Foundation presents the Jewish choral music of Salamone Rossi, the first person to compose and publish Jewish liturgical choral music to illuminate the meaning of sacred Hebrew texts
Who: Rossi’s late Renaissance/early Baroque music will be performed under the direction of Matthew Lazar by the Mantua Singers to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Mr. Rossi’s creation. The evening will include a talk by Mr. Lazar on the significance of this musical achievement.
When: Sunday, November 20, 8 p.m.
Where: Merkin Hall, Kaufman Music Center, Abraham Goodman House, 129 W. 67th St. (between Broadway & Amsterdam), Manhattan
Tickets: Music of Salamone Rossi (kaufmanmusiccenter.org): $40; $20 for students; box office: (212) 501 3330