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The first line in latin of Psalm 137: “Super flumina Babylonis” – By the rivers of Babylon – the beautiful lament of the Hebrews in exile.

In 1583-84 the psalm was set to music by …

Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) and William Byrd (1540-1623).

Two composers – one Flemish, one English, both catholic.

I’ve written about Byrd in other posts, so I’ll focus on de Monte. During Queen Mary’s reign de Monte spent a brief period in England, where he sang in the choir of the queen’s consort, Phillip II. De Monte disliked the experience because, as he said, the rest of the choir were Spanish.

His first published music dates from 1554, when he was 33 years of age. He became prolific and achieved the greatest renown of any composer in Europe when he was appointed court composer to the Holy Roman Emperor at Prague. And yet he has been described in character as, “a quiet, unassuming man, gentle as a girl”.*

Here’s the result of the collaboration between the composers, English responding to Flemish, catholic to catholic: a Byrd-call of faith across the continent – performed by The Sixteen

De Monte calls out to Byrd in the first part of the psalm:

The words are in latin, but here’s the King James version (well after the date of composition):

1. By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down, yea,
we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4. How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

The arrangement of the lines is quite different – I don’t know why – but verse 4 poses the crucial question to Byrd: “quomodo cantabimus …?”

Byrd’s response, in the second part of the psalm:

4. How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?
5. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget her cunning.
6. If I do not remember thee,
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

I think that’s as far as Byrd goes, omitting the final vengeful verses of the bible text …

7. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom
in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Rase it, rase it,
even to the foundation thereof.
8. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
thy little ones against the stones.

And that is the conundrum of the catholic in Tudor England – tyranny may be recognised, but how should a christian respond to it? Byrd’s audience must have agonised over what came next. Perhaps the omission was an unspoken threat?

I draw no conclusion. Helpful exegesis from America at this link.


* The quote is from wikipedia. I can’t source it.

ps. My introduction to Psalm 137 was through … Boney M. Yes, a complete plod of a song, but something surprising in the lyrics: the King James version mixed up with some reggae [link broken – google “the gatherers words of my mouth”] – the faith of the persecuted passes down the generations.