Zavel Zilberts’s concert setting of Psalm 137, Al naharot bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon), was composed originally in Łódz in 1905 as a mixed-chorus work and was performed there in 1906 by the Hazomir chorus. It was, however, never published in that form, and the manuscript has not been found. In 1923 in New York he reworked the piece for its present männerchor (TTBB) version for a Carnegie Hall performance by the chorus of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association, and he published it in this form shortly thereafter. It is representative of his many male-voice concert works written expressly for concerts by that large ensemble of New York–area cantors.
On the whole, this piece illustrates the degree to which Zilberts’s artistic sophistication and his craft far exceeded that of most of the other synagogue, secular Hebrew, or Yiddish choral composers in America at that time. It shows his ability to construct a work along traditional lines—with dramatic cantorial gestures and rich choral effects—that nonetheless exhibits classical musical development, form, structural and tonal arch, and facility with counterpoint. It also typifies his affinity for grandeur and his refined choral writing technique—especially with respect to his skill in composing and arranging for men’s voices.
Psalm 137 describes, in dramatically poignant as well as naturally indignant terms, the human torment and national catastrophe of the Babylonian Captivity and Exile (586 B.C.E.). It proclaims the victims’ (Israel’s) determination for eventual justice (including the candidly instinctive and graphic, if unrestrained and unchecked, call for retribution as a natural emotional response) and for restoration of their homeland and sovereignty. This is, of course, one of the Psalms that could not possibly be assigned to David, who died centuries before the incident it relates, and it generally falls into the category of Psalms concerned with Jewish national history and its formative mythologies.
The work is filled with emotionally driven tone painting and harmonic as well as contrapuntal depiction of the drama of the Psalm. The opening chords of the instrumental introduction and the mournful choral entrance establish the atmosphere of collective suffering and national tragedy. The anguished, almost dissonant flavor at the words al ad’mat nekhar (on alien soil) calls forth vividly the plight of an entire people forced from its home as captives in a strange land. “One can certainly feel the silent protest of an entire people,” wrote the learned cantor Pinchas Jassinowsky in his review of the premiere, “whose destiny has been sealed, and there remains only the pouring out of its bitter heart and weeping....” The second section finds the Jews swearing that they will never forget or abandon hope for their sacred land, as the vow is taken up by each of the four voices—with particular resoluteness in the second basses. The third section, marked “Andante Pastorale,” amounts to a fervent prayer that God never forget what has befallen His people. The fourth section, “Allegro,” is developed polyphonically and suggests the beginning of a fugue that never actually proceeds as such. A brief solo tenor quasi-recitative passage leads directly to the coda as the work concludes with a steady crescendo. “The walls of Carnegie Hall,” wrote Jassinowsky, “shook from the sounds of our exiled and embittered brothers in Babylon.”
Zilberts’s programmatic treatment of the text seems to reinforce musically its confirmation of the centrality of Zion and Jerusalem to Jewish national and spiritual identity and existence. A subsequent 1942 performance was also reviewed by Jassinowsky, who noted its added wartime significance:
It was a sad evening with our thoughts wandering to the other side of the ocean, where so much blood was being spilt, and especially where we Jews, the people of the [137th] Psalm...suffer bitterly from the old and new black forces at all times and all generations....The soloist pleads, “Remember, God!” and the chorus answers aru, aru—Destroy, crush [our enemies].
Sung in Hebrew
By Babylon’s streams, there we sat, oh we wept, when we recalled Zion.
On the poplars there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors had asked of us words of song, and our plunderers—rejoicing:
“Sing us from Zion’s songs.”
How can we sing a song of the Lord on foreign soil?
Should I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not recall you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Recall, O Lord, the Edomites, on the day of Jerusalem, saying:
“Raze it, raze it, to its foundation!”
Daughter of Babylon the despoiler, happy who pays you back in kind, for what you did to us.
Happy who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock.
Translation: Robert Alter