Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 3: Ma’oz Tzur

My goodness, we’ve barely started the month of December and already we’re more than midway through Hanukkah. (As with Easter weekend, I never seem to know when the 25th of Kislev is going to roll around until it’s already upon me.) Later we’ll look at the delightful but surprising recent trend of recording artists trying to turn Hanukkah music into hit songs. But today we will focus on what is undoubtedly the song most associated with the holiday: Ma’oz Tzur

Before we get into Ma’oz Tzur’s rich history, let’s take a listen to a modern version by Leslie Odom, Jr.  

Sung after the lighting of candles during Hanukkah, Ma’oz Tzur’s lyrics come from a liturgical poem. The poem honors and celebrates God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from four Biblical oppressors: Egypt’s Pharaoh,  Babylonia’s Nebuchadnezzar II, Persia’s Haman, and Greece’s Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

We know that the poem’s initial composer was named Mordechai, though exactly which Mordechai it was is less than clear. Many credit the medieval Jewish scholar Mordechai referenced in the Tosafot, others Mordechai the Ashkenazi poet, and still others some Mordechai whose other works and deeds are lost to history. Most historians do agree that it was written at some point during the Crusades, however, and as well that the first letters of the song’s stanzas are an acrostic that spell “Mordechai.” 

For centuries there was no written recording of the Ma’oz Tzur’s melody, and so its tune varied largely from community to community. (Whatever melody Mordechai himself envisioned is lost forever, sadly.) The first recorded score of the song we have borrows the 18th century melody of Benedetto Marcello’s Estro Poetico Armonico. This is not the version commonly used today, though it is still sometimes performed. (If you wish, you can her a choral version here.) 

The melody we do associate with Ma’oz Tzur today is borrowed as well, from the German folk song So weiss ich eins, dass mich erfreut, das pluemlein auff preiter heyde, sometimes known by the truncated and translated name So I Know One Thing In German. For whatever it’s worth, the same folk song had been borrowed by many others over the years, including Martin Luther for his German Hymnal, Thomas Hastings for the Christian hymn Rock of Ages, and Bach’s fast and furious Chorale Prelude BWV 734, a fantastic version of which you can find here.

One last interesting historical note: at different points in history Ma’oz Tzur is referenced as having either five or six stanzas. For years many music historians assumed this was because Mordechai had only written the first five, with the sixth only added later. More recently, however, many have come to believe that the sixth stanza was part of Mordechai’s original poem, but that a fear of government censorship (or worse) ensured the sixth verse was still sung but never referenced in writing.

This is because the sixth stanza contains the line “And bring the end of the redemption (yeshua),” which some scholars believe held a purposeful double meaning. Yeshua did mean redemption, but it was also a collective noun referring to Christians as a whole. The six stanza of Ma’oz Tzur, in other words, may have slyly added to the four ancient Biblical oppressors a contemporary fifth: the European Christian communities of whom Jews often lived in fear.

Whether its history is political or strictly worshipful, it cannot be that denied Ma’oz Tzur is itself a thoroughly gorgeous piece of music, and a worthy addition to our Virtual Musical Advent Calendar. And so I leave you with my personal favorite recording, this haunting instrumental version by bassist Alex Bershadsky:

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