02 April 2019

A popular hymn with
Jewish origins and links
to a Dublin synagogue

The site of the former Marlborough Green Synagogue, off Marlborough Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of my favourite hymns in recent years has been ‘The God of Abraham Praise’ (Church Hymnal No 323), by Thomas Olivers (1725-1799), who was inspired to write this hymn after hearing the Jewish Yigdal sung in the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place in London in 1770.

But only recently did I realise that the name Olivers gave to the tune of this hymn, ‘Leoni,’ is a tribute to a great singer of the 18th century who once ran a theatre and opera company in Dublin and who may have officiated regularly as a cantor or assistant rabbi at the Marlborough Green Synagogue in Dublin.

Praying for the Messiah to come is a daily part of prayer in Judaism, and at the heart of Jewish prayer life is a prayer known as the Amidah (18 Blessings). It is often said three times a day and includes: ‘The offspring of your servant David may you speedily cause to flourish.’ The Yigdal, which is part of daily morning prayers in many congregations, focuses on the 13 Articles of Faith that Maimonides (1130-1205) says every Jew should believe in.

The tune is a Hebrew melody Thomas Olivers heard sung by Myer Lyon (Meier Leoni), the cantor of the Great Synagogue in London. Jewish tradition says the Yigdal was sung to this tune at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple … although the tune probably dates from the mid-14th century.

Olivers wrote ‘The God of Abraham Praise’ as a Christian adaptation of the Yigdal, loosely translating it loosely and giving it a Christian context after visiting the Great Synagogue of London in 1770. It was first published in 1772. The title of the hymn was based on a verse in the Book of Exodus: ‘I am the God of thy Father, the God of Abraham’ (Exodus 3: 6).

Olivers was working with John Wesley at the time he wrote ‘The God of Abraham Praise.’ During that time, he often met members of London’s Jewish community. Olivers was attending the Great Synagogue in London in 1772 when he heard the cantor, Myer Lyon, singing Yigdal in Hebrew during a service.

Olivers then paraphrased and translated Yigdal into English and gave the hymn a Christian emphasis. He then asked Lyon if he could use the Jewish melody for the new hymn. Lyon gave him the music and Olivers named this hymn tune Leoni after Lyon.

When Olivers showed the new hymn to a friend, he annotated each line with scriptural references from the Bible.

‘The God of Abraham Praise’ was first published in 1772 as a leaflet with the title ‘A Hymn to the God of Abraham.’ It was later published by John Wesley in the Methodist hymnal Sacred Harmony.

Olivers wrote the hymn with 13 verses. However, later editions omitted a number of these verses, and most hymnbooks use only four verses.

Thomas Olivers was born at Tregynon, near Newtown, Montgomeryshire, in 1725. He was only four when his father died, his mother died soon after, and he was brought up with little education. He moved to Bristol when he was still living in poverty, and there he heard George Whitefield preach.

He soon joined the Methodists in Bradford-on-Avon, where he met John Wesley and became one of his preachers. Olivers became an evangelist in Cornwall in 1753. When he died in London in 1799, he was buried in Wesley’s tomb at the City Road Chapel.

The version of the Yigdal Olivers heard Leoni sing was probably written by Daniel ben Judah, a Jewish liturgical poet who lived at Rome in the mid-14th century.

According to Simeon (Simcha) ben Isaac Luzzatto (1583-1663), a prominent rabbi in 17th century Venice, Daniel ben Judah was the author of this hymn containing the 13 articles of belief of Maimonides. This poem is sung by the Sephardim on the eve of Sabbaths and holy days, is included in the Romaniot ritual for Saturday evening and forms part of the morning prayer among the Ashkenazim.

Myer Lyon (ca 1750-1797) was a hazzan or cantor at the Great Synagogue in London. But during his life he was better known by the stage name Michael Leoni, which he used as a tenor opera singer in London and Dublin, and as the mentor of the singer John Braham.

Myer Lyon may have been born in Germany ca 1750. According to the memoirs of the actor James de Castro, he was born in Frankfurt-on-Main and was invited by ‘the German Jews’ to London, where ‘a very rich Jew, Mr Franks, instantly patronised him.’

The first record of him is in October 1760, when David Garrick (1717-1779) refers to him as ‘ye boy Leoni.’ In his teens, he was appointed meshorrer or choirboy to Isaac Polack, hazzan at the Great Synagogue in London, in 1767 at an annual salary of £40, on the understanding that he was to behave as a Yehudi Kasher or observant Jew.

When his voice came to the attention of the aristocracy and the actor David Garrick, he was given permission by the synagogue elders to appear on stage, where he adopted the name Michael Leoni. He sang a role in Garrick’s The Enchanter at Drury Lane Theatre, and was ‘received with great applause.’

Leoni’s reputation encouraged a number of Christians to come to the Great Synagogue on Friday nights to hear him. Thomas Olivers was so impressed by Leoni’s moving rendition of the Yigdal in 1770 that he was inspired to write words for his hymn using the melody. The result was the hymn ‘The God of Abraham Praise.’

Because of financial problems, the synagogue decided to cut Leoni’s stipend by £8 a year in 1772. But he continued to sing in both the synagogue and in the theatre continued for some years.

He appeared frequently on the stage in London from 1770 to 1782, achieving successes in 1775 in Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes (1775) and as Carlos in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna at the Covent Garden Theatre. The Morning Chronicle noted The Duenna could ‘never be performed on a Friday, on account of Leoni’s engagement with the Synagogue.’

The site of the former Marlborough Green Synagogue, off Marlborough Street in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Leoni performed in Dublin theatres regularly between 1781 and 1784, and in his history of Irish Jews, The Jews of Ireland (Shannon, 1972), Louis Hyman suggests Leoni officiated in Marlborough Green synagogue, at least during the High Holidays. ‘It is tempting to speculate whether he assisted in 1781 at the marriage of Isaac Franks, of Manchester, who may have found the Jewish authorities in England, in their nervousness concerning the insidious perils of proselytising, unduly hesitant about accepting his fiancĂ©e, Miss Nash, daughter of a wealthy Quaker of Norfolk, as a convert to Judaism.’

Leoni’s success and his limited stipend at the synagogue led him to change his career in 1783 and chance his arm as an opera promoter as well as a performer. A rumour spread that he was dismissed by the synagogue for performing in Handel’s Messiah, but the rumour was unsubstantiated.

Leoni began his venture in Dublin with the composer Tommaso Giordani. One of Leoni’s most applauded songs in Dublin was an Italian version of Eileen Aruin. Leoni and Giordani took over the New Theatre in Capel Street, to be devoted exclusively ‘to the Exhibition English Opera.’

The new opera house opened on 15 December 1783. During this time, once again, Hyman says ‘it may be safely surmised’ that Leoni officiated as cantor at the synagogue in Marlborough Green, Dublin.

However, this venture turned out to be a disaster, and without enough capital the theatre closed its doors after only seven months. Leoni was still in his mid-30s, and he never fully recovered from the financial consequences of this season in Dublin.

He appeared in 1787 in a benefit performance at Covent Garden Theatre, which was also the first stage appearance of John Braham. He last appeared on stage in London in 1788. He moved to Jamaica to become hazzan or cantor to the Jewish community in Kingston, where he died in 1797.

His former pupil, John Abraham, better known as John Braham (1774-1856), sang at the Theatre Royal in Dublin for 15 nights in 1809 for a fee of 2,000 guineas. He was stage in Dublin again in 1823 and 1825, and his daughter Frances (1821-1879) married Samuel Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue (1823-1898), MP for Co Louth amd Chief Secretary of Ireland (1865-1866, 1868-1870).

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