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Can an Ancient Style Yield Truly New Music? Israeli Composer Elam Rotem Shows How

Jim Poynter

A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR (Barney Sherman): Hebrew was in ancient times a living language. Then, like Latin, it “died” – it ceased to be a native tongue for everyday speech, and was instead used only in liturgy, scholarship, and literature. But in the 20th century it was brought back to life as a daily language. The revival of spoken Hebrew had no precedent and has been challenging to duplicate. Would a similar revival be just as unlikely, then, in music? Could composers today create music in a pre-modern style not as a reference or exercise but as their own everyday “native tongue”?

That possibility is raised by the work of Elam Rotem. The Israeli composer, scholar, and performer sets texts in his actual mother tongue, Hebrew, using a musical style that flourished in Italy at the turn of the 17th century. In music from this "early Baroque" era, Rotem has gained renown conducting his ensemble Profeti della Quinta, in which he also sings and plays harpsichord. He is equally noted as a scholar of the era's music, especially that of Emilio de' Cavalieri, an Italian composer, performer, dancer, and diplomat whose Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) seems to be the earliest oratorio ever written (it just received, by the way, an imaginative recording by Rene Jacobs).

But Rotem stands out from other performer-scholars in that he also composes brand-new works in a style that might have seemed contemporary to Cavalieri. Is this music the equivalent of a Civil War re-enactment, or could it be artistically vital, even contemporary? 

In this new review for Iowa Public Radio Classical, our regular contributor Uri Golomb argues that Rotem's music has surprising power and distinctly modern resonance. Dr. Golomb, who received his doctorate at Cambridge and is a teaching associate at Tel Aviv University, has previously written about Bach'sArt of Fuguefor IPR, and it’s a pleasure to welcome him back:


reviewed by Uri Golomb

ELAM ROTEM, Rappresentatione di Giuseppe e i suoi Fratelli (Joseph and His Brothers) - Profetti della Quinta led by Elam Rotem (Pan Classics 10302) 
ELAM ROTEM, Quia amore langueo: Song of Songs and Dark Biblical Love Tales- Profetti della Quinta led by Elam Rotem (PAN Classics 10321)
Also reviewed:

SALOMONE ROSSI, Il Mantovano Hebreo-Profetti della Quinta led by Elam Rotem (Linn CKD 429)
SALOMONE ROSSI, Song of Solomon -Profetti della Quinta led by Elam Rotem (PAN 10214)

Baroque-music polymath Elam Rotem is a veritable Renaissance man. The modern classical-music world tends to divide labor strictly, with composers writing the music, performers playing it, and scholars studying it. But before the 19th century, performers would also compose (and improvise), while composers would also perform. Similarly, 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.1 

Credit Credit http://quintaprofeti.com/elam-rotem
Israeli composer, scholar, singer, keyboardist, and conductor Elam Rotem

In his approach to composing Rotem breaks another boundary, this one stylistic. 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. Rotem pushes this option further than most composers: he does not just draw upon an old style, but composes entirely within it, making no reference to any style more recent.

My own position is that composers achieve best results when writing in the musical style and language that feels most natural and appropriate for them. In Rotem’s case, the early 17th-century idiom is clearly his native musical language, the style in which he lives and breathes. He has not only mastered the technique of the music he studies and performs, he has also entered fully into its spirit. And he is setting texts in what is, literally, his native language: he is an Israeli composing music for Biblical Hebrew texts. The music and the text are alive and relevant for him, and through his musical-dramatic gifts he makes them relevant for us. These two new releases demonstrate how intensely dramatic and sensuous the musical results can be.

The match between the Bible and the “stile rappresentativo”

By fusing together the literary style of Old Testament with the Italian musical style known around 1600 as the secondaprattica ["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.

Biblical narrative style is renowned for its concision and brevity: Old Testament narratives usually don’t go for richly detailed descriptions, prolonged inner dialogs or extended background stories. Instead they are economical and to-the-point. As a result, every added description and every seemingly redundant repetition becomes significant. Likewise, we are often left to deduce characters’ motivations and feelings from their actions, so that every time a character’s emotions are mentioned, it becomes especially noteworthy. Yet the narratives also incorporate some poetic flights of fancy and startling imagery.

Many of these features are shared by the early baroque stile rappresentativo, the speech-centered style of “second practice” Italian operas and oratorios. This music differs from the familiar opera of the 18th and 19th centuries, which often halts the action for arias - settings of short texts (usually expressing one or two emotions) that are extended through long melodies and constant repetitions. By contrast, the stile rapprasentativo is dominated by highly expressive “recitatives' (half-sung texts) and short ensembles. The writing is frequently "syllabic," with only one note per syllable of text. Yet the musical expression is actually more flexible than in later opera. A single emotionally significant word or image can be highlighted through an unexpected chord or ornament, or by a sudden “melisma" (the extending of a syllable over many notes), or by a melodic turn of phrase, which stands out precisely because of its rarity. Likewise, there are no pre-set formulas for repeating text or music – there is nothing like the late-baroque dacapo form, with its clearly contrasted sections (a long "A" section, then a contrasting B section, and then the A section repeated). Instead, the composer is free to repeat words and passages that he or she deems particularly significant.

 All these dramatic potentials are marvelously realized in Rotem’s musical dramas – the large-scale Joseph and His Brothers, and the briefer Amnon and Tamar and Samson and Delilah. None of these are set as operas: Rotem has instead chosen to retain the Biblical text as it stands, so the text consists primarily of narration rather than direct speech. He does not assign specific singers to specific roles. In Joseph, for instance, the first canto, sung by counter-tenor DoronSchleifer, is assigned most of Joseph’s lines, but he also sings lines in the narrative that are linked primarily to Joseph; and he also forms part of the general ensemble, taking up other parts besides Joseph’s. Jacob’s lines often move between a soloist and a group of three or more singers.

This flexibility allows the composer to assert his own interpretation. Thus, when Jacob is shown Joseph’s blood-stained garment and is led to believe that his beloved son is dead, the lines are split as follows:

  • Tenor (in a harmonically tense recitative): “It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath eaten him”
  • Choir (in a quick, agitated exclamation): “He has been devoured.”
  • Choir (in slow, prolonged chords): “Joseph!”

The succession of emotions – recognition, shock, agitation and finally mournful numbness – is thus conveyed with great economy and power. Space precludes a detailed analysis of this and similar examples, but in many ways, they reveal that Rotem is acutely aware of the subtleties of the Biblical narrative, and is highly skillful, often inspired, in using the devices of the stile rappresentativo to bring these nuances to life. (Note, for example, his expressive use of word repetitions)

Unflinching honesty

Both in the Biblical texts and in Rotem’s settings, there is a sense of unflinching honesty. This is not to deny the music’s rich beauty – there are some ravishingly sensuous passages. But the dramatic peaks pack a considerable punch, intensified by the performers’ complete identification with text and music alike. It is from these - not overt dramatism - that Rotem’s dramatic power derives. 

Perhaps the best example is Amnon and Tamar. Rotem’s setting of this harrowing tale seems, at first glance, rather low key, but this understatement turns out to be a dramatic device: the restrained treatment of the story’s opening portions contrasts with the startling, highly dissonant choral setting of the actual rape (on the words “Nevertheless he would not hearken unto her voice; and being stronger than she, forced her”). The intensity does rise prior to this passage, as Tamar begs Amnon to spare her, in a way which underscores her emotional turmoil yet still allows the brutal depiction of the rape to emerge as a sudden, violent outburst. 


Rotem’s Amnon and Tamar ends with the verse, “And when King David heard of all these things, he was very wroth.” This hints at things to come – Amnon’s murder by Absalom, Absalom’s exile and his eventual rebellion against David. By ending his piece with this particular verse, Rotem creates a “to be continued” sense – one can only hope that he will pick up where he left off, perhaps with an extended oratorio on David and Absalom.

The Song of Songs settings

 So far, I have focused on Rotem’s dramatic muse, yet the album Quia amore langueo also includes settings of Song of Songs verses. One of these – I sleep, but my heart waketh – could still be viewed as a music drama, with the first canto taking up the role of Shulamit seeking her beloved, and a three-part chorus of lower voices enacting alternately the roles of the Beloved and of the Daughters of Jerusalem whose aid she enlists in her quest. Rotem’s dramatic talents are clearly in evidence here as well.

Elsewhere, however, Rotem sets himself a different challenge: to compete with earlier Latin settings of these verses, setting a premium on sensuous beauty rather than dramatic thrust. To my taste, the most successful of these is Come with me from Lebanon whose immediately arresting, confident choral opening immediately grabs the listener’s attention, which is retained through ingeniously varied textures:

An early-contemporary voice

Rotem directs Profeti della Quinta in lively, articulate and heartfelt performances of his own music, as well as the music that inspired his compositions. We cannot know for sure whether composers like Cavalieri or the Jewish Italian composer Salomone Rossi (ca. 1570-1630), would have recognizedRotem as “one of their own,” but my guess is that they would. To my modern ears – and those of many others – Rotem’s music sounds credibly early-baroque.

  Yet I doubt if such music would have been possible before now. For one thing, the modern revival of spoken Hebrew has been crucial to Rotem's creative achievement (notwithstanding the counter-example of Rossi’s 17th-century Hebrew settings, which Rotem and Profeti perform brilliantly and passionately, most recently on a Linn album titled Il Mantovano Hebreo, and earlier on a PAN release, Song of Solomon, and in a documentary, Hebreo: The Search for Salomone Rossi, posted below). For another, Biblical though they are, Rotem's choices of subject matter and his treatment of them are in some ways characteristically "modern." Consider, again, Amnon and Tamar: to the best of my knowledge, no composer prior to the 20th century dared touch this particularly loathsome Biblical story of rape and incest,2 and Rotem presents it with a harrowing compassion that might have been less likely for composers who lived before our own time. That is in part because of our increasing willingness to recognize and confront less savory (yet powerful) aspects and passages in holy scriptures, and in part because of our growing understanding of the horror of violence against women.

Rotem thus reveals the continued dramatic and moral relevance of Biblical narrative and stile  rappresentativo alike, through compositions permeated by a sense of vitality, dramatic bite and sensuous beauty. Whatever its historical roots, his is an exciting new voice. Let us hope it will continue to engage and enthrall listeners for years to come.


Hebreo: The Search for Salomone Rossi

1. To be sure, he is not the only period-instrument specialist to do so: the late Bruce Haynes discusses this phenomenon in chapter 12 of his book The End of Early Music(Oxford University Press, 2007), where he calls upon early-music specialists to “stop staring and grow your own."

2  As far as I’m aware, only one composer prior to Elam Rotem –his compatriot Josef Tal (1910-2008) – confronted this story. Tal wrote a short opera based on this story in 1958. For more details, see http://joseftal.org/operas/; a complete recording can be heard at this youtube link.

Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host