An Assortment of Settings for “Mah Tovu”
By Cantor David E. Reinwald
This week’s portion includes the ever famous quote “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishk’notecha Yisrael.” It comes at a point in the story where three times over, the villain of the story, Balaam, finds God working magic upon him to speak words of blessing upon the Israelites rather than the curses he so desires. And, it is the last of these three ‘oracles’ that became one of the opening expressions of welcome in our morning service. “How great are your tents, oh Jacob; Your dwellings, oh Israel” is a parallelism of a statement—one that says the same thing twice, being that Jacob was also called Israel. But it also is a statement to the descendants of Jacob, the people of Israel—us, who now read this time and time again.
‘Mah Tovu’ definitely ranks in as one of the most set texts to music. It has been treated by composers in multiple styles, throughout not only the recent decades, but throughout several centuries. I have created a wonderful mixed playlist via Spotify for you to listen to (www.spotify.com – a free way to listen to streaming music, via the player which you need to download to your computer. Note, you can only listen to the playlist on a mobile device or tablet if you have a paid account). Fill your week with the sounds of Mah Tovu.
Here are a few descriptions of what you will experience (represented in two different genres—classical and folk, although we could certainly color outside these lines!):
Link to Spotify playlist: Mah Tovu Mania
Classical: Most of the great Jewish classical composers who composed for both the synagogue and Jewish liturgical texts set for the concert hall took to writing choral settings of “Mah Tovu.” David Diamond’s (1915-2005) setting uses florid movement of the organ backing the lyrical tenor soloist and the bright sounds of the choir. The setting by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), a member of the French Les Six group of composers, is rich, with beautiful orchestral accompaniment. I especially like the opening with the cello. This piece would be apt to be placed as the underscore of a brilliant film soundtrack. Ernest Bloch’s (1880-1959) Sacred Service begins the lengthy choral work with Mah Tovu. There is a shining tone to the baritone soloist and the harmonious sounds of the choir in this recording. And, of course, this genre would not be complete with none other than probably the most famous classical (and still reigning) setting by founding Reform composer Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894). His setting, written in the 1840’s in Berlin, echoes the cultural of oratorio of the time. The Boston Zamir Chorale has wonderfully represented this ever fitting rendition.
Folk: Why not start with the setting by the band who borrowed the name… Mah Tovu by Mah Tovu (Rabbis Josh Zweiback and Ken Chasen). It is bright, happy, and fun. Then, much more introspective, the relaxing voice of Neshama Carlebach, daughter of beloved Rabbi Shlomo. Likewise, Marsha Attie, a singer-songwriter-cantorial soloist in the Bay area, adds to the feel-good, folk-sway style. Two of the most popular renditions used today follow—the beautifully lyrical, light melody written by Danny Maseng, and the now classic setting with their simple, charming harmonies—Kol B’Seder (Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Danny Freelander). Clearly influenced by the style of these two, are newcomers David Meyer and Jon Nelson. I couldn’t help but tap my toes to the great addition of banjo to their setting. You will notice that they start their setting with the words “Eshtachaveh” rather than “Mah Tovu” meaning “I will worship.” The emphasis is on prayer, and that is what the extended prose of Mah Tovu highlights—the essence of prayer as we enter into these moments of our service together.
I end with the setting by Bonia Shur (1923-2012). I think above all, Shur fuses these two genres together better than any other composer I know. He was a composer who composed for all voices and instruments, actively seeking to write music that felt authentically Jewish, and yet was, at the same time, innovative, inspiring, and almost always his eclectic savoir faire. I could play this over and over and never tire of it. While these beautiful voices arch over the accompaniment, listen for Shur slowly fingerpicking the guitar.