He was given the tune by Meyer Lyon or Meier Leoni (ca 1750-1797), the
cantor of the synagogue. The tune is the traditional Friday evening tune
for the Yigdal in synagogues in England, and it has also been used for
festivals in Germany and in some parts of the former Czechoslovakia.
Although the tune probably dates from the 17th century, a Jewish
tradition claims that it was sung at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple.
During his lifetime, Meyer Lyon was better known by his stage name Michael Leoni. He was a hazzan
at the Great Synagogue in London but also achieved fame as a tenor
opera singer in London and Dublin, and as the mentor of his nephew the
singer John Braham.
His origins remain unclear. Some accounts say he was born in
Frankfurt-on-Main and was invited to London by the German Jews. Other
sources say he was born Meir ben Judah Loeb in Poland. He first appeared
on the stage in Drury Lane with the great Shakespearean actor David
Garrick in 1760. But he returned to the synagogue and from then on had a
dual career, appearing on stage in London frequently between 1770 and
Meanwhile, he was appointed meshorrer (choirboy) in the Great Synagogue in 1767 at a salary of £40 a year, “on the understanding that he was to behave as a Yehudi Kasher” or observant Jew. Although he appeared as Carlos in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna at the Covent Garden Theatre, the play was never performed on a Friday because of Leoni’s engagement with the synagogue.
Thomas Olivers came to the Great Synagogue on Friday nights especially to hear Leoni sing.
The story that Leoni was eventually dismissed by the synagogue for performing in Handel’s Messiah
is unsubstantiated. His stage success and his limited stipend at the
synagogue led Leoni to change career. He became an opera promoter and a
performer. In the 1780s, he staged a series of concerts in the Rotunda,
Dublin, and for some time in the 1780s he was the manager of the English
Opera House in Capel Street, Dublin. The site of the theatre later
became Lenihan’s of Capel Street (No 124-125).
Leoni returned to London, but left again in 1788, when he moved to Jamaica. There he become hazzan to the Jewish community in Kingston, where he died in 1797.