Ma′oz Tsur is a beautiful five-stanza Hebrew liturgical poem from the thirteenth century. Each verse describes a different example of the Jewish community being saved from their enemies: the exodus from Egypt, the end of Babylonian captivity, the miracle of Purim, and the Hasmonean victory of Hanukkah. (A sixth stanza is sometimes included, calling for redemption from the current enemies of the Jewish people, but it is not clear whether this is part of the original that was censored out of some versions, or a later addition; the mnemonic of the author’s name, Mordechai, works without the sixth verse. Personally I prefer it without.) So in fact Ma′oz Tsur is actually just as much a Passover or Purim hymn as it is a Hanukkah one. Somehow (perhaps because Hanukkah is the last event mentioned in the poem, or because Hanukkah doesn’t have its own haggadah or megillah) it has become associated exclusively with Hanukkah. It is sung at home following the lighting of the Hanukkah lights, and before the arrival of the oily food or the onset of serious dreidl activity.
German tune and its English derivative
When I first came to Israel I found to my surprise that the melody sung here was subtly different to the one I grew up with in London, and I used to refer to it as the “Israeli variation”. I now know that the Israeli version is in fact the “original” Ma′oz Tsur, adapted (according to Birnbaum) from a 15th Century German folk song. The London version is an elegant four-voice adaptation of the German version, created by the famous English Jewish composer Julius Mombach (1813-1880), musical director of the Great Synagogue in Duke Street, London.
For the technically minded, there are two differences between the melodies of the two versions:
German Folk Version: In the original, the first phrase is repeated exactly, and the last phrase is repeated with a small change. So the structure is AABCC′. (In the example below I’ve added a simple second voice, but in fact there are some beautiful versions for four voices too.)
Mombach Version: In Mombach’s version the repetition of the first phrase includes a change and an interesting modulation (to the dominant), while the repetition of the last phrase is omitted. So the structure is AA′BC. Here’s the Mombach variation (again with a simple second voice that I’ve added).
It should be pointed out that due to the modulation in the Mombach version, the two melodies cannot be sung together.
And here's very different Ma′oz Tsur melody, transcribed and harmonised in 1724 by Italian composer Benedetto Marcello (a younger contemporary of Vivaldi), from an old Italian Ashkenazi tradition.
♫ Maoz Tzur (Italian, vocal) [JC]
(In the vocal recording I've ended with a picardy (sharpened) third, but both versions are widespread.)
Here's a lovely choir recording on YouTube (that also ends the final verse with a picardy third):
♫ Maoz Tzur (Marcello) [ZamirChorale 2001 - YouTube link]
♫ Maoz Tzur (Marcello) [Zamir Chorale 2019 - YouTube link]
And here's something different - from the Chassidic Court of Slonim (Lithuania). In common with many chassidic tunes, it is really a collection of several motifs, strung together.
♫ Maoz Tzur (Slonim) [JC]
And now for something completely different. Viznitz composer Nissan Yust produced this wonderfully exuberant medley that is well loved in the Hassidic Court of Viznitz.
♫ Maoz Tzur (Nissan Yust) [Viznitz]