Sunday, December 20, 2009

Maoz Tzur Origins

Musical Note

by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

Each year we sing Maoz Tzur on Chanukah, but have little idea of its origins. The words were written by the 13th Century German "paytan" (poet), Mordechai ben Yitzchak Halevi. It was not originally written for Chanukah. The poem is an historical overview, originally in five paragraphs (the sixth is a later addition), referring to Pesach, Exile, Purim, and only the last mentions Chanukah.

The melody, which became popular among German Jewry in the 16th Century, is written in the German chorale style of the 15th/16th Century. It is first recorded as an old German folk song, "So Weiss ich", and was used as Martin Luther's first Protestant hymn, "Nun Freut Euch" in 1523. This is the origin of the suspicion that this is a "Christian" song. The middle section is thought to come from one of two old German songs, the 1504 "Benzenauer", or an earlier "Narrenweise" melody. "So Weiss ich" was already known to the Jews in Germany in 1450 and, therefore, may even have been composed by a Jew! In any case, we are still singing it and Lutherans are not. So enjoy the melody with your children, as tens of generations have done before you!

[Note: I used to sing Adon Olam to Greensleeves on occasion, but there was one Lubavitcher in the old shul who used to complain that I shouldn't use "that Christmas song." Except, well, Greensleeves was a secular song written by King Henry VIII (who was something of a Talmud scholar). The Christmas words to the same old tune were written in the 1890s. So using it for Adon Olam is just as [il-]legitimate. -jjb]


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

The attribution of Greensleeves to King Henry is apparently disputable (see Wikipedia on Greensleeves).

Shlomo said...

"The Christmas words to the same old tune were written in the 1890s. So using it for Adon Olam is just as [il-]legitimate. -jjb"

Is their something magical about the first usage of a tune that makes it legitimate or illegitimate forever afterwards? It makes more sense to judge the tune based on its current association. In this case, the associations are negative, at least for your Lubavitcher.

thanbo said...

Well, yes. We actually do the same thing as the Xtians, you know, reusing existing themes for religious music, as this posting demonstrated. So what if this Lubavitcher knew something as an Xmas carol? I didn't know it as an Xmas carol, probably a lot of people didn't.

Lubavitchers adopt alien tunes for their own as well - look at La Marseillaise, which for some reason they took on (because the last rebbe lived in France for a while?) despite the Alter Rebbe's opposition to Napoleon and loyalty to the Czar.

Dovid said...

I wrestled, for about 5 minutes, as to whether I'd put Yedid Nefesh to the tune of Weeping Willow, a song written and recorded by Blind Boy Fuller in 1937. I liked the way it fit/sounded:

And, turning it around, what chasidic nigun has been heard by more non Jews than Jews? The '1-800-Cucumber' song.