What does the Jewish composer Salomone Rossi, born in Mantua 450 years ago, have in common with the Black Lives Matter movement, which in recent months has denounced systemic racial discrimination and police violence in the US against black and Latino minorities? Much more than you might think. It all begins with Psalm 137, one of the most powerful, well-known and poetic of the psalter. A psalm that we are all familiar with, even if we are not regular churchgoers, also because of its many successive incarnations,. It begins with these words:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars.”
It is one of the psalms of exile that expresses pain for lost freedom, nostalgia for a faraway homeland and the desire for retribution against the oppressor. Over the centuries it has inspired peoples and individuals who have found themselves in such conditions of slavery, exploitation and oppression. Verdi, for his Nabucco, transformed it into the most famous opera choir of all time, “Va Pensiero,” which during the Risorgimento became the unofficial anthem of Italian patriots who wanted to shake off the yoke of foreign domination and unite into one people.
Salvatore Quasimodo transformed it into his poem, “Alle fronde dei salici”, a cry of pain that rose from an Italy torn apart by the horrors of Nazi-fascist domination.
And how does the contemporary African American experience fit in with Psalm 137? And, more specifically, what does Salomone Rossi, a violinist and Jewish composer from Mantua, born in 1570, have to do with the contemporary African American musicologist and composer Brandon Waddles, born in 1988? The idea of putting them together in the recently premiered video Babylon, Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion is by the musicologist and soprano Jessica Gould, founder and director of Salon / Sanctuary, a company that produces concerts and performances in which the boundaries between musical genres, historical periods and geographical locations are systematically broken down, enhancing the unifying, revolutionary and therapeutic power of music.
We know very little about Salomone Rossi, except that he was a very talented musician who, first in history, used polyphony to set the Jewish liturgical prayers to music. He was born and lived in Mantua, which had one of the most prolific and original centers of polyphonic music at the Gonzaga court. The good Solomone, while probably enjoying some privileged treatment compared to other members of his community, was part of a discriminated minority and saw, during his life, the erection of the Mantua ghetto (1610-12). At the same time, as Jessica Gould explains, Salomone was looked upon with suspicion by members of his faith, who considered polyphony as unsuitable to the prayer of a people who, after the destruction of the temple and the diaspora, must have considered themselves in a state of perpetual exile and mourning. Only Rabbi Leone da Modena’s erudite and insightful defense saved him from isolation. The learned rabbi maintained that polyphony was a metaphor for the plurality of voices of the Jews of the diaspora, and thus allowed Maestro Rossi to continue to set to music the ancient prayers of his people with the most innovative melodies of his time.
I don’t want to tell you too much about the spiritual composed by Maestro Waddles, Singin wit ’a sword in my han’, but I would like to invite you to listen to it closely and with an open heart. You will hear a polyphony–obviously different from Rossi’s– in which resounds the plurality of voices and sounds that enslaved Africans brought into the new world; you will recognize the yearning for freedom that found its highest legitimacy in the Bible. From the ghetto of Mantua to the ghettoes of contemporary American cities, music continues to be the language that brings awareness of one’s oppression and invites action for one’s liberation.