Hebrew versions of Handel’s beloved “See the Conqu’ring Hero” chorus from the oratorio Judas Maccabeus emerged in in the Land of Israel in the first half of the 20th century, to meet the need for children’s songs, especially celebrating Jewish heroism, and as part of the development of high culture in Hebrew. Just as translations of Shakespeare became major achievements of Hebrew poetry, selected great works of the European musical tradition were produced to celebrate Bible and Jewish History, in the revived language of the Bible and the revived homeland of the people of the Bible.
“See the Conqu’ring Hero” was originally a very popular piece in G. F. Händel’s otherwise not very successful oratorio Joshua (1747). Perhaps it would have been forgotten in due course. The world is lucky that Handel added “See the Conqu’ring Hero” to Judas Maccabeus, written and first performed a year earlier, in 1746. Today it is hard to imagine Judas performed without it.
The text was written by Thomas Morell (he wrote the libretto for both oratorios). Judas Maccabeus’ popularity in England was based in part on the story’s perceived parallels to the Duke of Cumberland’s victory over the forces Bonnie Prince Charlie in April 1746 (by the way, according to Wikipedia this was the last pitched battle ever in Great Britain).
Of course, since it is the story of the victory of Judah the Maccabee, the story of Hanukkah and the rededication of the Temple, the oratorio was popular among Jews. London’s small Jewish community subscribed to Handel’s oratorios, and to this day it is often performed in honor of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. See a column on this at http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/981210_HandelHanukkah.html
The most familiar Hebrew version is the popular children’s song for Hanukkah, Hava Narima. (The first line translates to “Let’s raise the banner and torch….”). The words are by Levin Kipnis, (15 Av, 1890 or 1894–20 June 1990), the prolific author of children’s stories, poems, and song lyrics. Kipnis was one of the key creators and adapters of songs and literature, forming the basis for programming for very young children in the growing Hebrew-speaking pre-State Yishuv—and continued to be active until his death in 1990. According to Zemereshet, Kipnis wrote these lyrics in 5696 (1936), well before the establishment of the state.
The other version is a translation of Morell’s words by Aharon Ashman, Hine hu ba. Literally something like “Behold, he comes.” The oratorio Judas Maccabeus was translated for a choir founded and conducted by Fordhaus Ben-Tzisi, a major proponent of bible-based Oratorios in the Yishuv. It was one of a string of songs of Jewish heroism performed in 1932 at the opening of the first Maccabiah—world-wide Jewish gathering for sports competition (a “Jewish Olympics”). Other vocal works performed in Hebrew on that occasion included the vocal section of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Ashman translated a number of other oratorios for Fordhaus, including Creation, Elijah and Judas Maccabeus, and quite a few librettos for the Palestine Opera, including Carmen, Samson and Delila, Gounod’s Faust and many others. Like Kipnis, he was known for children’s songs as well.
On Ashman’s lyric: http://www.zemereshet.co.il/song.asp?id=362 (Hebrew).
On Kipnis’ Lyric: http://www.zemereshet.co.il/song.asp?id=363 (Hebrew).
Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880 1948: A Social History, by Yehoash Hirschberg—available on the internet with no deletions: (English)
http://gfax.ch/literature/history/Music_in_the_Jewish_Community_of_Palestine_1880_1948__A_Social_History%5B1%5D.pdf (the relevant section is pp. 93ff.)
Yaḥad po nashira
Banner and torch
Together here, let’s sing
The song of Hanukkah
יַחַד פֹּה נָשִׁירָה
Diglenu ram nachon
|We are Maccabees
Our flag is raised on high
We fought the Greeks
And victory is ours!
מַכַּבִּים אֲנַחְנוּ ,
|Peraḥ el peraḥ
Zer gadol nishzor
|Flower to flower
We will weave a great wreath
For the head of the Victor
The Hero Maccabee
פֶּרַח אֶל פֶּרַח
Zamreshet refers to a source who recalls an additional stanza (sung to the same melody asmakkabim anahnu…) that does not appear to have been written by Kipnis.
|Hineh hu ba im tzva heilo
Bashofar nari’a lo
Zer dafna ve-shevah rav
Hineh hu ba ne’pad kavod
Bitru’a beshefa’ hod.
|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.See, the conqu’ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums!
הִנֵּה הוּא בָא,
זֵר דַּפְנָה וְשֶׁבַח רַב
הִנֵּה הוּא בָא נֶאְפָּד כָּבוֹד
This image above is the page from the published Ashman libretto. “See the conquering hero” begins with the “Youths” (ne’arim) eight lines from the bottom on the right side.
A different translation was used by the Massad choir (the forerunner of the Zamir Chorale) in the Israel Hootenany Album.
The iconic performance of the Kipnis lyrics may well be by Hani Nahmias and the late Uzi Hitman–about minute 4:40. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pg3Be6doSCU
A unique choreographed performance of Hava Narima (not the original arrangement from Judas Maccabeus even though the original was for three treble voices). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=me8oanol3DU
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uw_GkvnyeR4&feature=related Performance under the baton of Johannes Somary. See the Conqu’ring Hero begins at about minute 13:40 of this recording.
This one should go straight to the start of this part of the Oratorio:
One final link – a different piece from Judas Maccabeus: Richard Tucker singing “Sound an Alarm,” a tenor aria from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, at the opening concert of the Hollywood Bowl 1951 season:
 Interestingly, in checking for Kipnis’ dates, I found that his birthday was always given as either 15 Av, or either August 1 1890 or Aug 17 1894, both of which, in the Gregorian calendar, are 15 Av in the Hebrew calendar. However, he was born in Russian Empire, where presumably the Julian calendar took precedence.