Ma tovu (Wyner: Excerpt for Psalms of Joy and Sorrow CD) 02:35
Shiru l'adonai (Wyner: Excerpt for Psalms of Joy and Sorrow CD) 02:40

Liner Notes

Yehudi Wyner’s Ma tovu and Shiru Ladonai–Psalm 96 are two movements of his twenty-movement Sabbath Eve Service, which Cantor David Putterman commissioned for his 1963 annual service of new liturgical music at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. That event also coincided with the congregation’s celebration of Cantor Putterman’s thirtieth anniversary of his ascension to its pulpit.

Ma tovu (lit., How lovely [are your dwellings]...) is the text incipit of a prayer traditionally recited by Ashkenazi Jews upon entering the synagogue. (Among Sephardi Jews the custom is to recite Psalm 5:8 for this purpose.) The text is a pastiche of Psalm verses (5:8, 26:8, 69:14, and 95:6), preceded by an introductory quotation from bamidbar (Numbers 24:5). Talmudic interpretation equates the reference to “tents” and “dwellings” in this verse from Numbers with synagogues and schools (Sanh.105b). The phrase et ratzon (time of grace) in Psalm 69:14 is held to signify the time of communal worship (Ber. 8a). The text of ma tovu generally appears as a prefatory passage in the traditional Ashkenazi daily prayerbook, prior to the preliminary prayers of the morning service. But it is also commonly associated among American (and Western) Jewry with formal Sabbath eve worship, as an introductory rendition leading into the kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service. In some congregations it is also sung as a prelude to other evening services—Festivals and High Holy Days.

The evidence contained in 19th-century European notated cantorial and synagogue choral sources (manuscript as well as printed) suggests that formal vocal rendition of ma tovu as a prelude to kabbalat shabbat was a musical innovation by the first learned Emancipation-era cantor-composers in German-speaking Central and western Europe. This probably reflected new prayerbook formats there, not only for specifically Reform worship, but also for modernized but traditional-leaning synagogues (Liberale, or “moderate reform”) of the mainstream. Choral settings of ma tovu for this liturgical function were most likely introduced in Vienna by the pioneer modern cantor Salomon Sulzer (1804–1890), and were followed shortly afterward in Berlin—with even greater impact on the subsequent aggregate repertoire in the West—by Louis Lewandowski (1821–94). (Even the most prolific cantor-composers in eastern Europe—apart from those in certain cosmopolitan settings who sought to emulate western models late in the 19th century—ignored the ma tovu text altogether when composing for the Sabbath liturgy.) Thereafter the practice was transferred to America, where the text was included as a preamble to Sabbath worship in many prayerbooks, and where it became a standard (though by no means mandatory or exclusive) musical overture to formal Sabbath eve worship—in many orthodox as well as most midstream traditional and Reform synagogues. Cantorial-choral settings of ma tovu have also been used frequently in America as preludes for nonliturgical occasions such as public and civic celebrations, and even for wedding ceremonies.

Psalm 96 (shiru ladonai shir ḥadash—Sing to the Lord a New Song), adopted in the canonization of the liturgy as the second component of the kabbalat shabbat service, is also categorized as one of the Enthronement Psalms. Like Psalm 93 (discussed above with reference to Jacob Druckman’s composition), it addresses the concept of God as supreme and eternal cosmic King. In its instruction to “Declare His glory among the nations,” it transcends the historical relationship of God to Israel by underscoring His sovereignty over all peoples; and it emphasizes the divine attributes of justice and fairness. God is described here in universal terms as the “true judge” who, as the essence of righteousness and the instrument of salvation, will ultimately judge all. In addition to the images of divine strength and power in Psalm 93, this Psalm projects the notion of beauty onto God’s embodiment of perfection and holiness (b’hadrat kodesh).

Wyner exercised complete artistic freedom—motivically, harmonically, and modally—in composing his service. He deliberately chose neither to employ nor to follow the established Ashkenazi prayer modes (nusaḥ hat’filla) that are historically applicable to parts of this liturgy; and he did not observe consciously any preexisting musical strictures. The work as a whole displays—and the musical ideas are advanced by—a rich blend of contemporary idioms along with the composer’s own brand of mid-20th-century musical language. Yet there is an almost uncanny feeling of spiritual connectedness in terms of an aggregate Ashkenazi tradition. Solo vocal lines are at times logogenic, yet remarkably expressive, and the service is awash in references to biblical cantillation motifs—the one traditional source upon which Wyner did draw consciously and liberally to provide historical linkage. But these motifs are used freely, even sometimes arbitrarily, as musical subject matter rather than as required formulaic patterns. Other devices that contribute to a Hebraic flavor are the astute juxtaposition of open fifths and other intervals—more suggestive of antiquity than of conventional triadic harmony—and syncopated rhythms of an eastern European folk character.

Despite its artistic freedom, Wyner has acknowledged that this service probably does bear the subconscious imprint of traditional character, which he feels he absorbed during his youth from cantors who came to his home to coach Yiddish songs with his father: “The traditionalism of this service stems more from absorbed experience than from applied method.”

Despite its artistic freedom, Wyner has acknowledged that this service probably does bear the subconscious imprint of traditional character, which he feels he absorbed during his youth from cantors who came to his home to coach Yiddish songs with his father: “The traditionalism of this service stems more from absorbed experience than from applied method.”

In his preface to the published version, Wyner explained that he had tried to create “an expression of directness and intimacy, relevant to the modest, undramatic conduct of worship in the traditional synagogue.” To that end, he gave the voices “absolute primacy,” relegating the accompaniment to the role of “punctuation and color.” And he deliberately kept the forms simple, with minimal elaboration. “Indeed, were it possible to further reduce the texture to a single line of adequate strength,” he wrote, “I would gladly do so; for I am more interested in the image than in its elaboration—the bare theme more than its variation and extension.”

For a long time Wyner resisted what he called “the temptation to detach this music from its synagogue function” by bringing it to the concert hall; and thus he declined at first to orchestrate it. Had he intended the work to be performed as a cantata or oratorio, he explained in a subsequent interview, he would have designed the structure, dramatic flow, and connection between movements quite differently. However, he eventually came to view the religious and potential concert contexts of the work as not necessarily mutually exclusive, recognizing the spiritual possibilities in performance outside the synagogue. He thus orchestrated the service for chamber orchestra in 1991, and that version received its premiere in 1992 at Brandeis University, conducted by his wife, Susan Davenny Wyner.

The flow of the ma tovu movement is guided by an ancient responsorial format. Shiru ladonai evokes ancient psalmody as well, which is recast here in contemporary and imaginative guise. But there is no loss of the text’s transparency in this setting, which mirrors the structural properties and cadences of the Psalm verses.

By: Neil W. Levin




Sung in Hebrew


How lovely are your dwellings, O House of Israel.
O Lord, through Your abundant kindness I enter Your house
And worship You with reverence in Your holy sanctuary.
I love Your presence in this place where Your glory resides.
Here, I bow and worship before the Lord, my maker.
And I pray to You, O Lord, that it shall be Your will
To answer me with Your kindness and grace,
And with the essence of Your truth that preserves us.

*The self-contained Psalm texts, which are not given here, may be found in any standard Bible.



Composer: Yehudi Wyner

Length: 12:35
Genre: Liturgical

Performers: BBC SingersMeir Finkelstein, Tenor;  Avner Itai, Conductor;  Spectrum

Date Recorded: 10/01/2000
Venue: St. Paul's Church (I), Knightsbridge, London, UK
Engineer: Campbell Hughes and Morgan Roberts
Assistant Engineer: Weir, Simon
Project Manager: Schwendener, Paul

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Associated Music Publishers, Inc.
Translation by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman


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