Musical Settings: Yigdal

In his essay on closing hymns, Rabbi Richard Sarason enumerates the Maimonidean Thirteen Principles of Faith as rendered in Yigdal Elohim Chai (“May the living God be exalted”), the poem attributed to Daniel b. Judah. Has so much theology ever been compressed into so few words? This is a didactic text, filled with cognitive language. How then are we to feel about this eternal, incorporeal, singular, omniscient and just God who has created all things, and who has invested the people of Israel with a prophetic vision, transmitted by Moses through the Torah as an immutable revelation, and in whom we find hope for ultimate redemption and eternal life? With what qualities of expression do we interpret these words through music?

A careful reading of the text suggests many expressive pathways. Exaltation, praise, limitlessness, holiness, majesty, trustworthiness and spiritual intimacy are all valid possibilities. Music for Yigdal, in spite of the textual density of the poem, tends to distill its feeling content into a single melodic strand that is repeated for each strophe, often in a form intended to be sung by all. These melodies may convey one or more of the above qualities, or they may extend our understanding of Yigdal into an emotional-spiritual province not specifically referenced in the poem, as we shall hear. As you listen to the musical examples, consider which feeling-connotations come up for you in each case.

Among American Reform Jews, the most familiar Yigdal may be the one many of us grew up hearing in English as “We Praise the Living God.” The melody is ascribed to Meyer Lyon (Leoni), an 18th-century cantor in London. It was adopted for use in the Methodist church as “The God of Abraham Praise,” and many Christian hymnals still include a variant with Leoni’s name attached. We listen to it now in Hebrew, as recorded for the Transcontinental Music compact disc compilation, “Yamim Noraim: Days of Awe,” Listen with an accompaniment by Herbert Fromm. This setting seems to evoke the more stately qualities of the poem.

For a traditional cantorial interpretation of Yigdal, let’s listen to this vintage recording (1909) by Cantor Zavel Kwartin. Listen It begins with the words “Shefa n’vuato n’tano” (“God inspired with the gift of prophecy”) and suggests the sanctity of our human capacity to receive the gift of divine insight. Fair-use standards limit this excerpt to one minute’s length, but it’s worth tracking down a complete recording online, just to hear the sublime passage that immediately follows, “ Torat emet natan l’amo Eil” (“A Torah of truth did God give our people”).

The great tenor Richard Tucker can be heard in a Yigdal by Sholom Secunda on the album “Welcoming the Sabbath.” Listen In Secunda’s music, the soaring and exuberant solo line alternates with a choral-congregational response in which everyone could join.

The call-and-response form takes on a decidedly different garb in this recording of a Sephardic melody by the Israeli artist Yasmin Levy, found on her recent album, Sentir. Listen Levy imparts an almost mystical intimacy to her interpretation. A men’s ensemble chimes in periodically with repetitions of the closing melodic phrase.

The renowned conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein contributed to the Yigdal literature with a simple round, published in The Songs We Sing (1950), a well-known anthology of the era. It is given a spirited performance by the Rochester Singers, conducted by Samuel Adler, on Leonard Bernstein: A Jewish Legacy, issued by the Milken Archive of Jewish Music . Listen The contagious joyfulness of this rendition evokes a sense of celebration arising not specifically from the poem, but rather from our response to it: how delightful it is to live in the light of an all-encompassing God.

Finally, here’s another Sephardic melody, arranged and performed by Danny Maseng and collaborators on his disc, Labor of Love. Listen Danny Maseng says, “it is bursting with joy and energy,” and this setting definitely coaxes us out of our seats. “May the living God be exalted” indeed!

For a mind-expanding encounter with Yigdal, check out the ample cross-section of musical examples on the website “ An Invitation to Piyut.”

Cantor Richard Cohn serves Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, Texas. He is a past-president of the American Conference of Cantors, as well as the 2009 recipient of the Shomeir Shira award from the Guild of Temple Musicians.