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Five Things to Know About Luigi Rossi

Who Was Luigi Rossi?

It’s a fair question—there were several Italian Baroque composers named Rossi, and sometimes it’s tricky to tell them apart. Let’s start with Michelangelo (ca. 1601–1656) and Salamone (1570–ca. 1630). The Genoa-born Michelangelo was a violin virtuoso and composer of operas and madrigals (a vocal work for multiple voices set to a lyric poem), but was chiefly remembered for his strikingly progressive keyboard music. Salamone, a Jewish musician at the Gonzaga court, was born in Mantua and is most famous for his Hashirim asher lish’lomo (The Songs of Solomon), a collection of Hebrew sacred music.

This leaves us with Luigi (ca. 1597–1653). Born in Torremaggiore in the Kingdom of Naples, he was a master composer of operas, cantatas (vocal works with instrumental accompaniment), and canzonettas (light secular songs).

Career in Rome

Rossi was a musician in the household of Prince Marc’Antoinio Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V. His career flourished when he moved to Rome; he associated with the leading musicians of the day and was appointed organist at San Luigi dei Francesi, a church for French worshippers and an important music center. He married harp virtuoso Costanza de Ponte, and the couple frequently performed together and were in great demand at rival courts.

A French Connection

Court politics influenced Rossi’s departure from the patronage of the Borghese family, and he entered the service of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, a dedicated Francophile and nephew of the powerful Pope Urban VIII. Rossi’s music was extremely popular in France, where it was favored by two of the nation’s powerbrokers, Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin. They were good men to have on your side.

A Scandalous Premiere

Even with the change of patrons, Rossi could not escape the politics of his day. Papal politics forced him out of Rome, and he moved to France under Mazarin’s protection. While in Paris, Mazarin commissioned an opera from him, and Orfeo premiered in March 1647. It was supposed to be one of the most important musical events of its day and a milestone for opera in France, but the premiere was a disaster. Mazarin spent an exorbitant amount of money for the lavish production, but his political enemies were quick to damn the work. Time has been more kind, and Rossi’s score is now praised for its tremendous emotional power and melodic splendor. Rossi eventually returned to Rome, where he died in 1653.

Why Rossi Matters

While Rossi’s sacred music and operas are formidable, his nearly 400 cantatas and canzonettas are lasting testaments to his genius. Some things to consider:

He was never boring. Rossi was extremely versatile and would juxtapose several styles within a single work. In a cantata, an intense recitative (vocal writing imitating speech) can switch in a heartbeat to mellifluous song. His melodies are sublime and his rhythmic dexterity always impressive.

He was daring. He would frequently use harmonies that were unconventional, sometimes introducing dashes of dissonance for dramatic affect.

He wrote brilliantly for multiple voices. Many of his secular vocal works are for multiple voices, and it’s here that he displays his mastery of counterpoint, with an uncanny gift for weaving gorgeous vocal tapestries. During his time in Rome, Rossi met and befriended singer Leonora Baroni, a member of a famous trio of sopranos called La Canterine Romane. He was likely inspired by the trio—quite a few of his finest works are for two or three sopranos.

He was revered by his peers. Nicknamed “the new swan of Rome” by the respected 17th-century music theorist Severo Bonini, Rossi was also honored by the younger composers of his day, who quoted snippets of his music in their works—the sincerest form of flattery among composers.

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