Tuesday 20 September 2022

By the waters of Babylon, a timeless round


This is part of a series of reflections as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, a non-religious English speaking choir in the heart of Madrid.

What is this music?

By the waters of Babylon takes its text from Psalm 137, which connects it to Va, pensiero and, more distantly, to People get Ready, and I have written about both of these on recent posts.

You will find different accounts for the song’s origin: some editions describe is Traditional, others as a Jewish melody, while others credit Philip Hayes 1738-1797. 

By the waters of Babylon is a 3 part round. The minor key reflects the melancholy thoughts of the Hebrew slaves who were in captivity in Babylon:

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept for thee Zion. We remember thee, Zion.”

Bars 1 to 3 are set to a weeping falling musical figure with a strong emotional pull, and the sense of sadness is reinforced because the same figure is repeated in each bar starting a tone lower each time, a sequence. Bars 5 to 8 continue the falling phrase shape. The last phrase, bars 9 to 12 is another sequence, the melody in bar 9 repeated one note higher in the following two bars. The rising four-note figure seems at first hearing to be optimistic, but each repeat falls and falls in imitation of weeping and the final bar is a fall of a 5th, a very final sound, almost a death knell.

Why are we singing it?

It’s a beautiful melody line. Sung as a round the beauty of the line and the emotional power is amplified. As I have explained in an earlier post on Dona nobis pacem, a round is a simple but effective musical form, and there is a strong connection between the singers.  

This round is timeless: it can be harmonised in different ways, and the most simple way makes it sound modern rather than classical. 

You might recognise it from a version called Babylon on the 1971 American Pie album by Don Maclean, where it sound very much like contemporary folk songs by Pete Seeger. 

Is it relevant to us today?

The comments I made regarding the text of Va, pensiero apply very much also to By the waters of Babylon.

Connecting is a crucial part of singing in a choir: after all, if we simply want to sing we can just stay at home and sing in the shower/wardrobe/loft. The very act of joining a choir says that we want to connect with other human beings through singing.

As a round we connect with our fellow singers, but there is another dimension of connecting: this piece brings to mind far away friends and places. We are connecting with our memories.

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