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Musical Settings: Mah Tovu

Mah Tovu, Oh How Good. These words flow out of Balaam’s mouth at the summit of the height that overlooks the wasteland where the Hebrews are encamped. It is the third time that Balak has tried to get Balaam to curse the Israelites and yet out of Balaam’s mouth comes a blessing. Balak’s trepidation with the Hebrew clan is familiar to us from earlier Biblical narratives: fear that the Hebrews will rise up against him. Once again, the chosen people are delivered by the Eternal.

This dramatic scene from the book of Numbers 24:5, has long been a favorite text for synagogue composers to set to music and has become a mainstay of the morning liturgy as part of the introductory material in the Birchot Hashachar, Morning Blessings. 

Simply reciting these words could never express the deeper emotional meaning they convey, nor the dramatic physical and spiritual moment during which Balaam first uttered them.

Let’s take a look at several musical settings and explore how the melody, instrumentation, harmony, tempo, rhythm, and dynamics bring this highly theatrical moment to life.

Danny Maseng included Mah Tovu as part of his larger work “Soul on Fire,” (circa 1999) and it has become a familiar musical setting across America in synagogues on Shabbat morning. Listen Part of its allure is that the refrain is at once tuneful and singable by the congregation after just one verse. The setting calls for five vocal parts including, a solo voice, as well as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass accompanied by piano, guitar, bass, and drums. It is possible to perform the piece with just a melody line and piano or guitar. The verses build up the drama and the refrain keeps the excitement growing by modulating up a whole step after the third verse. The choral parts add some antiphonal touches as well as harmonic and rhythmic interest to the piece. Acquiring the sheet music or a compact disc of this setting is easily done at dannymaseng.com.

Louis Lewandowski’s setting of Mah Tovu was written some time before 1894 and was published by Metro Music in New York.  This setting can also be found in the “Out of Print Classics” reissued by Sacred Music Press and later printed by Transcontinental Music in New York. Listen It is considered one of our classic choral masterpieces demonstrating the height of Western Europe’s influence on synagogue music of that era. Lewandowski uses two techniques together to draw out the drama. First, he slows both the tempo and harmonic changes down through the last eight bars of the piece as if waiting for the Eternal to answer our plea for deliverance. In addition, each vocal line employs a number of chromatics (sharps and flats) that add color to the melody line.

William Sharlin arranged a Chabad folk setting of Mah Tovu for three voices, which can also be done as a solo. This piece begins as a niggun, easily learned by the congregation.  The main melody line can accommodate all the verses, and the niggun may be sung as the refrain. Listen

Jeffrey Klepper’s Mah Tovu setting became very popular throughout the Reform Jewish Camping Movement and is often used during religious school t’fillot services as well as regular Shabbat morning services. Listen This work can easily be sung  in two-part harmony. According to Jeff, Mah Tovu is the first song he wrote on his own while his writing partner Danny Freelander was at seminary in Israel. He wrote the piece in 1974 while he attended the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and it became very popular and well known on a NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) record album. The first interval of a minor third gives the song a modal and Eastern sound and feel. The move in the chorus to a major key sounds like the sun rising, making the song a great opener for Shabbat morning services. The sheet music may be found in The Complete Shireinu, p. 237. For more information on Jeff’s music check out jeffklepper.com.

David Margules is the cantor of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, CA.

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