The ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ prayer begins with the words “Our Father our King, we have sinned before You”, followed immediately by the words “Our Father our King, we have no other God than You”. These words too received their own melody. One of the most famous tunes is the one attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813), known as the “Ba’al HaTanya” or the “Alter Rebbe” by followers of the Chabad movement which he established. In addition to being a great Torah scholar, he was known as have many talents, including a special musical talent. Chabad tradition attributes ten “Niggunim Mechuvanim” [Precise Melodies] to Rabbi Shneur Zalman.
As the book “Sefer HaNiggunim” (a unique anthology which complies many of the Hassidic tunes) attests, the tune to ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ is one of these ten songs. The melody has three parts: an opening phase without words, a middle phase with the words of the prayer, and a closing phase – also consisting only of a tune. The entire congregation sings the niggun immediately after the Ark is opened, before the Cantor begins reciting the prayer.
‘Avinu Malkeinu’ in Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s tune, from “Sefer HaNiggunim”, Volume 1, 1948
In a clip recorded during a Hassidic “Hitva’adut” thirty years ago the voice of the leader of the Chassidut, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh Rebbe of Chabad can be heard signing the niggun. The recording begins with the second phase of the melody, which includes the words of the prayer in the Rebbe’s voice. The Chassidim then join in the song, and then the other two sections are heard, the end section and the opening section, which appears at the end in this recording.
In a recording from the collection of Shmuel Zalmanov, who was also appointed as editor of “Sefer HaNiggunim” by the Sixth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the voice of one of the chassidim – probably Zalman himself – can be heard over the introduction announcing “Avinu Malkeinu – Einer fun di tzan niggunim fun di alten Rabbin” (One of the Alter Rebbe’s ten niggunim).
This is followed by the introductory section without words, after which the second part of the niggun is heard (sung like the version which appears in "Sefer HaNiggunim", slightly different to that sung today) and finally the concluding section is sung.
Another familiar melody of the ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ prayer is that of the musician, composer, conductor and arranger Max Janowski (1912-1991). Janowski was the son of the musician Chaim Chaikel Janowski, who was a wealthy merchant, musician and cello player, and of Miriam Rap-Janowska - the “prima donna of Israeli opera”. In Professor Schleifer’s words, Janowski was “the king of synagogue music in Chicago, primarily among the Reform and Conservative, but also in Orthodox congregations. Janowski used the Reform text of the ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ prayer for Rosh Hashana, which contains only selected verses from the traditional prayer, and wrote a work for a soloist, a mixed choir and an organ, in a style considered innovative in the Reform Temples of the time, who were still singing the repertoire of 19th century German synagogues. In contrast, in this work, like in others he wrote at this time, Janowski combined a style taken from Eastern European Cantorial music with elements borrowed from professional and grassroot Israeli music.”
“Avinu Malkeinu” in Max Janowski’s melody, Chicago, 1950
The concept behind the work is “intimate and not extroverted song”. Schleifer notes that Janowski told him personally that he wanted the singing to be calculated, not with a free beat, but dictated by the beat of the organ which accompanies it: ‘He wanted the organ to mark his heartbeats…’ The work ends with the words “Hear our voices”, and the choir’s role gives the effect of an echo. It seems that his main public exposure came from this melody in the famous performance of the singer Barbara Streisand, which was arranged differently than the original. An early publication of the work from 1950 is found in the Yaakov Michael Collection “for solo, mixed choir, organ or piano.”
May all the requests and prayers be accepted, as the prayer says – “Our Father our King, inaugurate a good year upon us”.