Shlomo Rosowsky (1878-1962)

Scholar, composer, pedagogue


Shlomo Rosowsky, a composer, critic, and folklorist who went on to have a huge influence in Israeli and American Jewish musical life, particularly as a scholar and pedagogue. Founder of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, first Jewish National Conservatory of Music in Riga (Latvia), Haganim Music Society in Israel, America-Palestine Institute of Musical Sciences (Mailamm). Rosowsky’s seminal work, The Cantillation of the Bible: the Five Books of Moses (New York, 1957), provide an analytical theory of the Eastern Ashkenazi Biblical Cantillation.

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Shlomo (Solomon) Rosowsky was born in Riga in 1878. A fourth-generation Jewish musician, Rosowsky had the distinction of being the son of one of the first graduates of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Borukh-Leyb Rosowsky (1841-1919). His father went on to become a legendary cantor in Riga. Despite his father’s career in the synagogue, Rosowsky grew up in a musically cosmopolitan home, where the works of Wagner and Strauss were popular and the Finnish composer Sibelius was a frequent guest.

After completing his first degree in Law at the University of Kiev, Rosowsky went on to study music at the St. Petersburg Imperial Conservatory as a composition major under teachers Rimski-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Lyadov, and studied conducting with Arthur Nikisch at the Leipzig Conservatory.

He with pianist Lev Niswizski (Arie Abileah) and singer Joseph Tomars (Iosif Beer) was among the initiative group to found the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1908.

His composition, “Fantastisher Tants” (Fantastic Dance), based on a Lubavitch Hasidic melody drew immediate acclaim from fellow composers and audiences for its original naturalistic harmonic treatment of folkloric motives and intense rhythmic energy. The piece was published by the Society in 1914.

Between 1917 and 1919, Rosowsky served as music director of a Jewish national art theater headed by director Alexander Granovsky in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was renamed during World War I). In 1920 he returned to Riga, now part of the independent republic of Latvia, where he worked in a local theater, as a music critic, and established the first Jewish National Conservatory of Music.

In 1925 he moved to Palestine and began working as a composer of incidental music for the Hebrew theater Ohel. Rosowsky, along with colleagues David Schor and David Mirenburg, established the Haganim Music Society in an attempt to continue the work of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music in Palestine. Rosowsky received a teaching position at the Palestine Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem (now the Rubin Academy of Music) where he introduced new courses pertaining to his research of Biblical cantillation. In 1931, Rosowsky helped to found the America-Palestine Institute of Musical Sciences (known as Mailamm), an organization dedicated to supporting musical research in both countries.

It was also during this time that Rosowsky began his influential research in the field of Biblical cantillation and spent the next two decades composing and researching the history of the liturgical melodies. In 1947 he moved to New York, where he taught at the New School for Social Research. Rosowsky later joined the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he became a leading scholar in the musicological study of Jewish Biblical cantillation.

Rosowsky worked alongside with Joseph Achron, Lazare Saminsky, Jacob Weinberg, and Joseph Yasser to promote new projects in Jewish music research. Solomon Rosowsky, a composer, critic, and folklorist who went on to have a huge influence in Israeli and American Jewish musical life, particularly as a scholar and pedagogue. Rosowsky’s seminal work, The Cantillation of the Bible: the Five Books of Moses (New York, 1957), based on his research of the Lituanian-Israeli tradition provide an analytical theory of Biblical cantillation. The massive work is broken up into three main sections: the first defines the basic functions of the 28 tropal signs; the second includes his field work results in musical notation; and the third delineates Rosowsky’s original theory of the Law of Assimilation (how tropes are joined) and includes an analysis of the scalar basis of Shabbat cantillation.

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