The significance of Meier Leon’s “Yigdal” melody as a link between Jewish and Christian hymnody in eighteenth-century London

Articles Image

This essay begins with a brief introductory exploration of some of the musical interinfluences between synagogue and church that have been manifested over the centuries. That is followed by a short biography and assessment of the Jewish singer and composer Meier Leon in the context of the musical life, and the Jewish life, of London in the second half of the eighteenth century. Commentaries are then offered on the meaning and significance of the Yigdal hymn in general and of the specific musical setting attributed to Leon. Observations regarding the circumstances of the transformation of this syn agogue melody into a church setting for the text of Thomas Olivers's hymn The God of Abraham Praise lead to an analytical comparison of the two ver sions. The essay concludes with some thoughts about how this phenomenon may be seen as a precedent for the transfer of Jewish and Israeli melodies into the modern-day Church.1

Musical influence between synagogue and church

The close relationship between the liturgy and music of the synagogue and those of the church has been traced back nearly two thousand years by numer ous scholars - Hanoch Avenari, Abraham Idelsohn, Curt Sachs and Eric Werner being among the most prominent during the twentieth century. Shared liturgies comprise, primarily, the entire Book of Psalms, the triple Kadosh which translates directly into the triple Sanctus and Hebrew exclamations such as "Halleluyah" and "Amen". There are also remarkable musical parallels that may be less familiar. Eric Werner has demonstrated convincing similarities

1 First presented during the 20th Annual Conference on "Music in Eighteenth-Century Britain", Royal College of Music, London, 26 Nov. 2004, and most recently for the Jewish Historical Society of England, St John's Wood Synagogue, London, 18 April 2013.

between the melodic patterns of Yemenite-Jewish chant and Gregorian Chant, one example among many being the opening phrases of the traditional Yemenite Shema and the Te Deum Laudamus} Many of the earliest Christian precentors had originally been brought up in synagogues. When the church separated from the synagogue, they were retained as Psalmistae and continued to chant according to the Jewish tradition. Werner has drawn attention to two epitaphs in the catacombs of St Calixtus in Rome, referring, respectively, to singers named "Archdeacon Deusdedit" (literal translation from the Hebrew Y'honatan - Jonathan) and "Lector Redemptus" brought from Jerusalem under Pope Damasus in the fourth century.' However, as Christianity grew, new forms, texts and music were required and so the influence of the music of Judaism waned and eventually all but disappeared, as the two religions moved apart. Over the past thousand years, reverse osmosis has taken place, where European-Jewish music has found itself absorbing and being enriched by more and more sacred and secular elements from the wider Christian environment, both Catholic and Protestant. This article focuses on one of the very few excep tions to this general trend: the celebrated case of the Leoni Yigdal.

Meier Leon in the context of the musical life, and the Jewish life, of London in the eighteenth century

Meier Leon

Become a member to read the full article
Become a member today


24 hour access to JHSE online resources

Instant access to over 700 articles View the original articles as a PDF
Learn More


Annual JHSE Membership

Members are entitled to a free copy of the latest Jewish Historical Studies, free access to our online resources and associate membership of the UCL Library in London.  In addition, they receive the JHSE Newsletter, special offers on books for sale and pay less to attend our series of lectures and other public events.
Learn More


Student Membership

The JHSE want to encourage students to engage with Jewish history.  Apply for a Student Membership with your university email account and once we have verified your status you will soon have all the benefits of being a full JHSE member.
Learn More


Associate your Institution with the JHSE

Give your members access to JHSE online resources and special offers on book sales.  Use your institutional email account when applying, and once your status is verified we will explain the scheme.  Preferred payment is by credit or debit card.
Learn More

Your Cart