Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Daughter Zion



To mark the first day of the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, I bring a famous oratorio written by Handel. The music itself was composed around about 1747 and fitted to words written by Thomas Morell: See, the Conquering Hero Comes. It was originally part of Handel’s Joshua. A few years later, Handel lifted the piece and used it, again, in Judas Maccabaeus, he who was the famous hero linked to the Festival of Lights. The first two verses of the song run as follows:

See, the conqu’ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets! Beat the drums!
Sports prepare! The laurel bring!
Songs of triumph to him sing!

See the godlike youth advance!
Breathe the flutes and lead the dance!
Myrtle wreaths and roses twine
to deck the hero’s brow divine!

When I came to this country and attended one of my earliest Advent-time musical events, it surprised me to hear that music and those words. What I had gotten to know was something quite different—not in sound but in its words. What we heard in Germany, sung to the same music, was Tochter Zion. I always thought it was the German version of Judas Maccabaeus. Not so—at least so far as I’ve been able to determine, and time is running out today. Thus, for example, I could not find “Tochter Zion” in the sole German-language libretto of Judas Maccabeus I’ve managed to find on the web. What I do know follows, but first two verses, in German and then followed by my translation:

Tochter Zion, freue dich,
jauchze laut, Jerusalem!
Sieh, dein König kommt zu dir,
ja, er kommt, der Friedenfürst

Hosianna, Davids Sohn,
sei gesegnet deinem Volk!
Gründe nun dein ew
ges Reich,
Hosianna in der Höh!

Daughter Zion, sing for joy,
Gladly shout Jerusalem!
See, your King approaches now,
Yes, he comes, the Prince of Peace.

Hosianna, David’s son,
Blessed is thy folk in thee!
Founder of eternal realm,
Hosianna in the heights!

The words certainly fit the context of the story but are quite different. Indeed they were written around 1820 by an evangelical theologian, Friedrich Heinrich Ranke. He set the words to Handel’s music. The piece became enormously famous—as indeed the English-language version has as well.

In whatever language, by all means let us celebrate the Festival of Lights—in the most universal language of all, that of music. But, to tell you the truth, I side with Daughter Zion. I rather have my fill of conquering heroes.

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