Psalm 137 doesn’t appear in the Revised Common Lectionary this year, though it was in the Anglican Lectionary for Evening Prayer in early March. Everyone knows the first half of it, mostly because of Boney M or Don McLean, or maybe they sang the round in primary school.
A lot of settings stick to the first half, because things get pretty grim in the second half, where the psalmist starts envisaging revenge on the Babylonians. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s setting goes all the way to the end and leans right into the anger of the psalmist, and it’s quite unsettling both to sing and to listen to. Coleridge-Taylor was a composer of English and Creole descent, who was born in 1875 and died shortly before the Great War. He sought to draw from traditional African music and integrate it into the Western classical tradition. I’m not knowledgeable enough about African music to be able to tell whether he does that here, but it’s a dramatic and beautiful piece, so I wanted to share it in my collection of Lenten favourites.
(Horrible and funny story: one of my choirs used to sing this at the start of Lent each year, until the year when someone had a baptism and nobody told the music director, and it was spectacularly inappropriate, especially because our diction was really good that year. The utter, stark silence at the end of the anthem is something I will remember for a long time. We have not sung it since.)