Babylon

Ghetto,‌ ‌Renaissance,‌ ‌and‌ ‌Modern‌ ‌Oblivion‌ 

Jessica‌ ‌Gould

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
For there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!

The text of Psalm 137 resonates as strongly today as it did for previous generations, and as a year of turmoil and loss draws to a close, a musical anniversary inspires us with light. 

The 450th birthday of the Jewish-Italian composer Salamone Rossi gives cause to reflect on an innovative figure who flourished during a dark time of plague and marginalization. Rossi revolutionized the music of both Jew and Gentile, ushering forward his art form while cautiously traversing the two worlds of Ghetto and Palazzo. He very likely died in a plague that swept Mantua in 1630, but not before leaving his mark on the music of both his own community and that of the dominant culture he served.

Rossi lived in the ghetto of Mantua, where Jews were forced to reside since its construction in 1612. He played violin and composed alongside Monteverdi in the decadent Gonzaga court. His talent and unique position exempted him from the yellow badge that all other Jews had to wear, exposing them to easy identification and thus ridicule and assault. In the palace he served his aristocratic patrons with decadent madrigals and instrumental flights, lavish evenings which Jews were forbidden to attend. In the ghetto, he set Hebrew texts to polyphonic music that he adopted from the Christian dominant culture. An act of provocation that directly confronted the Jewish prohibition against polyphony as unbefitting a people in exile, his 1623 collection of sacred music, slyly named “Hashirim Asher Li’Shlomo” (The Songs of Solomon) winked at the shared name of both its author and the wise Old Testament king, earning him the opprobrium of his co-religionists.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Brought to Italy as Roman slaves, Italian Jews are among the oldest populations of European Jewry. Ripped from their place of origin, their culture was rebuilt in an alien country. When Rossi donned the cloak of Christian polyphony to shape Jewish sacred music anew, sacred music for the synagogue had been confined to the solo voice, which was considered the only arrangement befitting of a people in mourning. At the palazzo, Rossi invented the form of the trio sonata, igniting a spark in the history of western music that would illuminate the path of subsequent European composition, both sacred and secular.


 

The first Jewish ghetto in Italy was erected in Venice in 1516. While not without precedent in Europe (an earlier configuration emerged a century previous in Frankfurt), the Venetian ghetto became the prototype for forced enclosure of a minority people throughout many Italian cities in the unfolding century. The ghetto was locked at night and guarded by gentiles whom the Jewish community was forced to pay for their services. While the movement of Jews was closely controlled, gentiles regularly visited the ghetto, taking in synagogue services as a form of entertainment, enjoying theater and musical productions produced and performed by the ghetto denizens, among whom was Rossi’s sister Madame Europa, who created a number of Monteverdi’s operatic roles.

The word ghetto, which derives from the Italian word geto, for foundry, after the original site of the Venetian ghetto, took on a metaphorical meaning as history progressed. It came to describe the forced, if unwalled, enclosure of a minority population, its inhabitants kept separate from the society at large, denied access to equal educational, economic, cultural, and nutritional resources, the threat of revolt always looming.

 

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”

Barred from and made to feel unworthy of the privileges of society at large, ghetto inhabitants are exoticized by the culture that marginalizes them. Minority bodies become the blank slates onto which the oppressor can project all that they find unacceptable in themselves. The ghetto body, ripe with the potential for rebellion, becomes hyper sexualized and hyper criminalized, imagined to be unable to resist the temptations that outwardly upstanding citizens ostensibly withstand with putative ease. The minority body becomes an entertainer. It performs the exoticism demanded of it in order to survive. As the dominant culture gazes upon the minority body in performance and savors its difference, the threat posed by its potential insurrection is neutralized by its transformation into an object of delectation.

Salamone Rossi played for a court from which other Jews were barred. The Babylon which he set to music in the form of an ancient Hebrew psalm you hear performed in our upcoming video (Al Naharot Bavel) was also the decadent milieu he served, in stark contrast to the privation of the ghetto in which he lived. For Babylon was not only a place in history immortalized in Psalm 137, but it is also, as in “Hollywood Babylon,” a metaphor in our culture for excess and moral decay. Functioning in the only professions permitted them, as doctors, musicians, or moneylenders, the Italian Jewish community survived by healing the bodies, entertaining the ears, and financing the cathedrals and crusades of the Babylon in which they lived.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

 

In a later Renaissance across the Atlantic, lavish clubs closed to the descendants of slaves presented some of the greatest African American talents of their generation to exclusively white audiences during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. The artists entered and exited through the kitchen, and after dazzling all-white audiences with their virtuosity and inventiveness, went home to ghettos of American making. Like the gentile visitors to the Jewish ghetto centuries previous, the white audiences of the Harlem Renaissance exoticized the bodies and talents of an oppressed minority, repackaging their otherness into a pleasing commodity that could be easily compartmentalized and thus controlled. 

The rich musical history of Western Africa, from which the slave population of the United States was abducted, predates the very existence of European nations. Djeli or griot were the troubadours, the center of village life, who were masters of not only the kora, a harp-like instrument almost as tall as a man, but also other instruments, like the mbira, shekere, and eerily human sounding talking drum. Family dynasties comprising nobilities of music masters endured through the centuries to this day, leaving a vast musical heritage that blossomed through the ages, survived through transmission both oral and aural, and has only recently begun to enjoy its own Renaissance in the ears of the non-African world.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.

As the Atlantic slave trade metastasized, this resplendent musical tradition was ripped from its roots with the transplant of black bodies into American servitude. The abducted and their progeny retained in musical memory a fading rhythmic palimpsest which became the blueprint for the earliest spirituals. Robbed of their ancestral languages both verbal and musical, the spiritual and gospel music that came out of slave communities made use of Old Testament narratives, finding a touchstone in the anguish of an ancient people enslaved in such works as Go Down Moses and Ezekiel Saw the Wheel. 

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American choral group formed in 1871 at Fisk University, was originally formed to help raise funds for the college. The group was named after the Biblical reference to the year of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus. The ensemble, which in its early years consisted of people recently emancipated from slavery, eventually toured internationally, helping to popularize the spiritual as an art form among audiences previously unaware of its existence. In our own time, the ensemble was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame and made a special appearance in Ghana at the invitation of the US Embassy.

The bloodline of Western African music also brought forth the Blues, with its call and response and hypnotic bass lines directly derived from African music. Emerging out of the south around the time of the Emancipation, the blues featured narratives of misery and troubles of African Americans in the post-slavery decades. In the 1920s a recording industry emerged that popularized African American artists performing ragtime and blues. Singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith came to define the genre, with virtuoso recordings that reached wide multiracial audiences. The Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the northern states in search of a better life brought blues music and later big band music to northern cities.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.

Against the background of lynchings and church bombings, rock and roll exploded onto the American musical soundscape with all the boundary breaking defiance and unapologetic libido of a young nation newly crowned global superpower. White superstars such as Elvis Presley, who admired and consciously imitated the guitar playing and performance style of the African American guitar virtuosa Sister Rosetta Tharpe, mesmerized a booming generation of young people and destabilized the confines of popular music, creating bankable personality cults that earned titanic profits for artists and record labels alike. In the 60’s and 70’s rock and roll and soul formed the core of the so-called “British Invasion” with artists like Mick Jagger electrifying audiences with a performance style derived from African Americans of decades ago. The Beatles feared for their very physical safety after live concerts, pursued within an inch of their lives by music-mad teenage girls grasping at their bodies, desperate with an almost religious fire for even a touch of one of the fab four. 

For there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!

The music that inspired such frenzy and wealth derived from African Americans credited little to the original musicians. Many of the originators of the salacious blues rhythms appropriated by Presley, Jagger, and Lennon and McCartney became footnotes of history. As the trio sonata invention of Salamone Rossi, a descendent of Roman slaves, bent the curve of European musical history and jostled it onto a different path, the soundscape of American popular music owes its DNA to the Western African music of centuries ago, brought forcibly to our shores in 1619.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

While racist atrocities in our own country have enjoyed a tragic spike in encouragement in the past four years, the arc of justice shortens its length as greater numbers of Americans of every color and creed stand up, resist, and say no. Heightened consciousness of discrimination allows us to re-examine not only the obstacles that endure in our larger society, but also the boundaries of what we consider to be early music itself. As we muddle through our own deeply troubled times, we may just be fortunate enough to be in the midst of our own Renaissance, in which a rebirth of learning, questioning, and reaching back to the distant past to illuminate a more enlightened future is upon us. And it is in this spirit of Renaissance and Enlightenment that we, a concert series devoted to Historical Performance, proudly present the work of a youthful composer at work in our own modern Babylon, processing the past into a new composition, as the field of historical performance takes a joyful sword to the tired boundaries of our own musical confines.

We hope you enjoy our video of Babylon, with music of Salomone Rossi, Brandon Waddles, and others, made possible by the most generous support of NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, featuring the Kaleidoscope Ensemble under the direction of Arianne Abela. We wish you health and safety as we join together to raze walls of all imaginings.

— Jessica Gould

Founder and Artistic Director, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts

Jessica Gould’s program notes include essays for Carnegie Hall, the Clarion Society (New York City), the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia), the Da Camera Society (Los Angeles), NYU Villa La Pietra (Florence), Palazzo Grimani (Venice), and Villa Finaly La Chancellerie des Universités de Paris – La Sorbonne (Florence), among many others. Other creative nonfiction publications include Belle Ombre (forthcoming) and she is delighted to be joining the roster of Exquisite Pandemic. A soprano, artistic director, Italian translator, and researcher, she performs and records in Europe and the United States. As the Founder and Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, based in New York City, her original projects have received grants from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation (no relation), the DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, the Charles Schwartz Foundation for Music, the Krumholz Foundation, and NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, among others. She holds a BA from Macalester College in Art History, Music, and Political Science, and studied Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons School of Design, and the National Academy of Design.

Babylon: Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion direted by Jessica Gould
Babylon