Last time we looked at the history of the beloved Hanukkah song, Maoz Tzur. Today, the music – including some surprising variations you’ve probably never heard.
Maoz Tzur Variations
Have you ever wondered what Maoz Tzur would have sounded like if it had been composed by the likes of Bach, Brahms or Beethoven? Well, Tzvi Vigel did and he set about to answer his own question. In his Maoz Tzur Variations, you can hear hints of the famous Hanukkah tune with splashes of Beethoven’s Pastorale, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Schubert’s The Trout Quintet and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition among others.
Below is your guide to the Masters’ Maoz Tzurs – or if you think you know your stuff, just listen away and see if you can match up the variation with its classical “composer.” (Some of the composer labeling in the video is incorrect.)
- Bach @ 1:39
- Mozart @ 2:18
- Beethoven @ 3:13
- Schubert @ 4:32
- Brahms @ 5:52
- Mahler @ 6:47
- Mussorgsky @ 8:25
- Marc Lavry @ 9:46
Cantor Moshe Oysher – Maoz Tzur
Born in 1906 in Bessarabia, Imperial Russia, Moishe Oysher began performing in Canada in the 1920s and then gained famed as one of America’s most entertaining cantors. Oysher performs in this this duet, (with an uncredited partner.) His booming voice can be heard toward the end. If the lyrics don’t sound quite familiar, that’s because they’re from the fifth stanza of Maoz Tzur.
Greeks gathered against me / then in Hasmonean days.
They breached the walls of my towers / and they defiled all the oils;
And from the one remnant of the flasks / a miracle was wrought for the roses.
Men of insight – eight days / established for song and jubilation
Here’s more Oysher with a lively Hanukkah tune in Yiddish.
The Maoz Tzur tune which many of us belt out is a classic but we shouldn’t forget that Judaism boasts many traditions. This lovely Moroccan melody was performed by Mani Maimon Cohen, R ‘Haim Biton and Shimon Iluz during an evening of Hanukkah piyutim (liturgical poems.) The melody starts slow and soulful but don’t let that fool you.
Maoz Tzur from Slonim performed by Noga Eshed
I am also so pleased that I came across another melody that was new to my ears. Israeli singer-songwriter Noga Eshed performs a delightful, even delicate version of Maoz Zur from Slonim. Slonim was a major centre of Jewish life in Poland until its devastation in the Holocaust.
Yosef Karduner sings Maoz Tzur
I am a huge fan of Yosef Karduner, an Israeli Hasidic singer, songwriter, and composer. Karduner is a Breslov Hasid who often sets the words of rebbe Nachman’s teachings to music and is best known for his rendition of Shir LaMa’alot (Psalm 121). Here Karduner performs a lovely version of Maoz Tzur, new (to my ears.). If you’d like to hear another performance by Karduner of Maoz Tzur that’s a bit more upbeat, not a problem.
Shivchei Maoz performed by the Southern Command Band
This next tune isn’t actually Maoz Tzur in the traditional sense but was inspired by it. Following the Six Day War, Israel was engaged in the drawn out War of Attrition. In response, the famous Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer composed Shivchei Maoz. The word maoz can have various meanings including stronghold, salvation, protector, or in this case refuge, referring to the “Bar-Lev Line” – a series of fortifications built by Israel along the Suez Canal. Here is a selection from its lyrics:
My refuge, my rock of salvation
How fitting to sing your praises. …
I shall come through tunnels, citadels and caves
Clefts in rocks and dusty cavities.
Somewhere in the heart of the night, tense and silent,
Someone who seeks my life is looking at me. …
My refuge, my rock of salvation
How fitting to sing your praises
In stubborn battle you will triumph.
This version of Shivchei Maoz was performed by the Southern Command Band in 1970.
Ori Schlesinger’s 8-part a cappella
It’s not tough to find an a cappella rendition of Maoz Tzur online. The Maccabeats certainly deliver a fine, jazzy version. However, my vote goes to the Ori Schlesinger Octet. Although it’s not officially called that, I think it’s a pretty accurate description – as you listen to Ori in perfect harmony with himself and himself and – well you get the picture.
Technion Test Tubes
Haifa-based Technion – Israel Institute of Technology deserves its reputation as one of the country’s leading universities. But I sometimes wonder whether all those budding scientists may be getting a bit stir crazy spending endless hours in the lab. Well, no need to worry. It seems that some of them have perfected another use for their test tubes, beakers and pipettes – as musical accompaniment as they sing Maoz Tzur.
Whatever your variation, have a wonderful, melodious Hanukkah.