“Ma’oz Tzur” (מָעוֹז צוּר) is a piyyut, or Jewish liturgical poem, that is sung during each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, after the lighting of the hanukiah (menorah). The hymn is named for its Hebrew incipit, which means “Strong Rock (of my Salvation)” and is a name for G-d in Judaism. Thought to have been written sometime in the 12th-13th century, the hymn was originally sung only at home but has been used in the synagogue since at least the 19th century.
The hymn retells Jewish history in poetic form, celebrating salvations from historic persecutions and deliverance from ancient enemies, including Antiochus, the Greek Hellenistic ruler of the Seleucid Empire who initiated a massive campaign of repression against the Jews beginning in 168 B.C. From 167-160, a Jewish revolt led by Judas Maccabeus resulted in the capture of Jerusalem from the Seleucids, the cleansing of the Second Temple, and the rededication of the altar, which are celebrated in the festival of Hannukah.
Although different tunes have accompanied the singing of “Ma’oz Tzur” across the centuries, the one sung nearly universally by Jews today is thought to have originated as an adaptation of a German folk song that was widely spread among German Jews as early as 1450. Interestingly, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther used it as the basis for one of his chorales, and J.S. Bach adapted and harmonized it for his works.
Although often cited as “traditional” or “folk” in hymn books, the hymn as it is sung today (and the basis for this arrangement) is largely the work of Julius Mombach (1813-1880), composer and choirmaster at London’s Great Synagogue for nearly 40 years until his death. Mombach, who employed traditional modes of synagogue music but also incorporated German and English folk song and contemporary classical themes in his works, is considered one of the greatest contributors to and influencers of synagogue music.
Score, parts (Bb tpt. 1, Bb tpt. 2, F horn, tbn, tuba) — $12.99