Mi Chamocha No. 1

Composition and recording © Alexander Massey – 14 March 2013

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Who is like You among the gods, O God? Who is like You,
glorious in holiness, awesome in splendour, doing wonders?
A new song the redeemed sang to Your name at the shore of the sea;
together, all praised, thanked and proclaimed:
The Lord will reign for ever and ever!

The words of Mi chamocha are an excerpt from the Song at the Sea (Shirat Hayam; Exodus 15), and are included in every weekday and Shabbat service. They have significance for several ‘firsts’:

  1. The first time that the Israelites did something together after they had escaped Egypt and Pharoah.
  2. The first time that they enacted any kind of ritual collectively.
  3. The first time that they sang together.
  4. The first time, by using the word yimloch (shall be king), that the metaphor of God’s kingship was introduced, and, by implication, that the Israelites might be subjects of that Divine King.

The 2nd century Rabbis taught through midrash that there may have been more than one way in which the original Song at the Sea was sung (Tosefta, Sotah 6:1). The first rabbi (Akiva) said that while Moses sang, the people responded antiphonally to each line with a repeated verbal formula – the leader took new initiatives, while the people stayed on a disciplined and familiar path. The second rabbi (Eliezer) said that Moses sang, and the people copied exactly what he said, line for line – a metaphor for another kind of leadership and following. The third rabbi (Nehemiah) said that Moses began and everyone then creatively added their own response to complete the line – a metaphor for each person taking responsibility for their own contribution, while cooperating with others.

This musical setting locates itself firmly in the Shabbat morning service by being based on the Adonai malach Jewish prayer mode associated with that service for many centuries. Adonai malach itself means ‘My Lord rules (is King)’, malach coming from the same root word as yimloch and melech (king). This musical mode, with its typical upward fanfare-like arpeggio, flattened 7th note, and the falling 4-3-1 motif, gives the music a majestic and celebratory character in keeping with Shabbat.

The musical form has subtle teachings in it, in part picking up on the ancient midrash. In this musical setting, the songleader (or ‘Moses’) starts the first line by him/herself. The second line is sung by everyone, but mimicking the music of the first, as in the second rabbi’s teaching. At shira chadashah – ‘a new song’ – new music (of course!) is introduced. In the full sheet music version of this piece, the second voice part begins by echoing the first, as before, but then, as the third rabbi taught, it starts to create its own melody to complement the first voice part. At yachad kulam ‘together everyone’, the parts are no longer echoing, but are in block harmony, singing together as one, but each contributing their own unique harmony part – representing a community in full maturity. One final subtle teaching comes with the musical setting of Adonai yimloch (bb 42-45), which is set to the same melody as shira chadashah ‘a new song’ (bb 21-23), reminding us that this acknowledgement of God as King was a new step for the Israelites; and the hodu v’himlichu v’amru melody (bb 33-37) is repeated on va’ed (b 53 to end), so the praising and rejoicing are never-ending.

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