Music Notes | Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

The Yigdal is a hymn (perhaps written around 1400, and sung in many Jewish traditions at morning and evening services) based upon the 13 Articles of Faith compiled by Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), the medieval Sephardic rabbi, Torah scholar, philosopher, astronomer, and physician. Upon hearing the Yigdal sung in the Great Synagogue in London around 1763, the Methodist preacher Thomas Olivers (an associate of John Wesley’s) wrote an expanded and intentionally Christianized paraphrase of it, ‘The God of Abraham praise’ (parts of which are found at Hymn 401). This he published with the seventeenth-century melody used in that synagogue, written down for him by its cantor, Meier Leoni, by whose name the tune is now known.

In 1884, in Rochester, New York, the rabbi Max Landsberg asked a local Unitarian minister to make a closer, non-Christianized, translation of the Yigdal which both Jews and Christians could use. This version was revised by a successor Unitarian minister, William C. Gannett, to form the text we now know as ‘Praise to the living God’, Hymn 372. (It should be noted that, although Christians will read the term ‘Spirit’ in st. 3 in Trinitarian terms – the line ‘high-surging where it will’ recalling Christ’s saying ‘the wind/spirit blows where it will’ – the word being translated is Shefa, literally ‘flow’, or divine influence, as acknowledged in the predicate of the first line: ‘His Spirit floweth free…’).

The repetition of the first couplet of the hymn at its end is a particularly effective evocation of the eternity of God, which is the very subject of that couplet, and the whole describes powerfully both the radical transcendence of God and the ways in which Creation reflects and depends upon its Creator.

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