Psalm 137, By the rivers of Babylon, is a hymn of national mourning, which probably dates to the post-exilic period. This psalm, which depicts the anguish of the exiled Jews and their longing to return to Jerusalem, has been the subject of manuscript illustrations and paintings[1] as well as several musical melodies and compositions.

The following composition, published in 1622 by Renaissance musician and composer Salamone Rossi, is the most darkly dramatic of his motets. This rendition is performed by the Zamir Chorale of Boston.

Al Naharot Bavel (By the waters of Babylon)

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Rossi's approach to the text from Psalm 137 is extremely personal, suggesting an ardent Jewish nationalism. Since this motet is considered a lamentation in Jewish liturgy, Rossi may have turned for his models to the Latin late sixteenth century settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

Pietro Cerone described the prevailing 17th-century church music practice in his treatise: "The style for composing the Lamentations is such that all the parts proceed with gravity and modesty, nearly always singing together.... In this kind of composition, more than in any other, the composer makes use of dissonance, suspensions, and harsh passages to make his work more doleful and mournful, as the sense of the words and the significance of the season demand... They are always sung by very low and heavy voices." [2]

All of these characteristics are present in Rossi's setting of Psalm 137.


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.
There on the willows we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall;
how they cried, "Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!"
Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks.

Hebrew text



[1] Painting by 19th-century French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix (in the dome of theology of the Palais Bourbon, Paris) and German academician Eduard Bendemann (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne) [back]
[2] El melopeo y maestro (Naples, 1613) [back]

excerpted Recording from: Zamir Chorale of Boston, "Salamone Rossi Hebreo, Baroque Music for the Synagogue and the Royal Court." Recorded in 1996 in the sanctuary of Congregation Kehillath Israel, Brookline, Mass. Program notes by Dr. Joshua Jacobson, used by permission of the Zamir Chorale of Boston.


Salamone Rossi Hebreo and the Italian Renaissance
The Zamir Chorale of Boston



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