The Romantic Movement fostered an interest in works of ancient and primitive national literature, as well as traditional national music. In this spirit, Jewish composer Isaac Nathan (1790-1864, England) embarked on a project which produced the famous Hebrew Melodies. Nathan composed Hebrew chants, claiming that they were "all of them upwards of 1,000 years old and some of them performed by the Antient [sic] Hebrews before the destruction of the Temple." They were not of course, but rather a jumble of familiar synagogue hymns, none more than two or three centuries old.

British poet Lord (George Gordon Noel) Byron (1788-1824), intrigued by the project, produced for the sacred tunes some of his most lustrous verses - including She Walks in Beauty Like the Night, Thy Days Are Done, and The Destruction of Sennacherib.

The Hebrew Melodies enjoyed instant success and popularity, Though not all are specifically Jewish in theme, most are on themes from the Hebrew Scriptures and many express sympathy for the plight of the oppressed Jews. Byron's Selection of Hebrew Melodies was published in 1815, simultaneously with their musical edition.[1] A further Selection was published the following year; the lyrics remained in print for a full fifty years, and the songs were performed in both home and synagogue with great regularity until the late 1860s.

Byron based two of the Hebrew Melodies on Psalm 137. The following was also set to music by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876).

By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept
by Lord Byron, 1815

We sat down and wept by the waters
Of Babel, and thought of the day
When our foe, in the hue of his slaughters,
Made Salem's high places his prey;
And ye, oh her desolate daughters!
Were scattered all weeping away.

While sadly we gazed on the river
Which rolled on in freedom below,
They demanded the song; but, oh never
That triumph the stranger shall know!
May this right hand be withered for ever,
Ere it string our high harp for the foe!
On the willow that harp is suspended,
Oh Salem! its sound should be free;
And the hour when thy glories were ended
But left me that token of thee:
And ne'er shall its soft tones be blended
With the voice of the spoiler by me!

I: Psalm 137 — A hymn of national mourning    I    II: Psalm 137 in art and music


* A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern, with Appropriate Symphonies and Accompaniments, by J. Braham and I. Nathan; The Poetry Written expressly for the work by the Right Honorable Lord Byron.



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