Since about the mid-19th century, classical music has been governed by a narrative of historical progress. Composers have been taken seriously only if they write in a modern, new-sounding style; composers who continued to write in traditional styles were considered less “important,” and when they wrote in frankly historical styles – as when Mendelssohn wrote fugues in the style of Bach – the results were considered exercises or trifles. But with today’s expansion of cultural pluralism, that narrative of musical progress is being questioned. A composer can, without losing respect, draw on virtually any style from any era to create something new.
Meet Elam Rotem, a veritable Renaissance man: Rotem is a notable performer of the early Italian Baroque and also a distinguished scholar of the era. That combination is not unusual among early-music specialists, but Rotem adds a third endeavor that is quite rare among his colleagues: he composes ambitious new works.
Rotem has chosen to set texts from the Bible, in the original language, Hebrew, writing oratorio styled works based on the story of Joseph and his brothers as well as the Song of Songs.
By fusing together the literary style of Old Testament with the Italian musical style known around 1600 as the seconda prattica[“second practice” – to distinguish it from the Palestrina-like style of Renaissance polyphony- ed.], Rotem shows that the two style bear a remarkable affinity, even though they are separated by vast historical, geographical and cultural gaps.
Using the musical language and context of the revolutionary musical Dramas by Cavalieri, Caccini, and Monteverdi, the piece tells the story of Joseph and his brethren – one of the most touching stories of the old testament. The piece was composed especially for ensemble Profeti della Quinta, and is set for five voices, instruments, and basso-continuo. The text is taken directly from the book of Genesis in its original Hebrew (subtitles in various languages are available).
The piece stresses the implications of taking early music a step further: not only to bring music from the past to the present day, but by acquiring lost skills of music making and attempting to understand the spirit of the time, to create new work of art.
Rotem and his group have also recorded the music of Salomone Rossi, one of the few Jewish composes who rose to fame during the late Renasissance. Along with his CD Il Mantovano Hebreo, Italian madrigals, instrumental pieces and Hebrew prayers by Salomone Rossi, Rotems group Profeti Della Quinta was featured in a new documentary on the life and work of Rossi: Hebreo, The Search for Salomone Rossi by Joseph Rochlitz.
Much of this article was adapted from “Can an Ancient Style Yield Truly New Music? Israeli Composer Elam Rotem Shows How”, Iowa Public Radio, Barney Sherman, 10/12/2015.