Psalms 137 has been the subject of manuscript illustrations and paintings, [1] of several musical melodies and compositions, Judaica and Christian art, and even English poetry. A few examples:

The Middle Ages have also left manuscript illuminations of other subjects taken from the Psalms; and these are often extremely literal in interpretation. Psalm 137 ("By the rivers of Babylon") likewise formed the subject of manuscript illustrations, but also of paintings by the 19th-century French Romantic artist EugIne Delacroix (in the dome of theology of the Palais Bourbon, Paris, now the National Assembly) and the 19th-cent. German academician Eduard Bendemann (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne).

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 rivers 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.

I: Psalm 137 — A hymn of national mourning    I    III: A romantic poem by Lord Byron, 1815


[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]

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.
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Salamone Rossi Hebreo and the Italian Renaissance

The Zamir Chorale of Boston

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