Pelham Humfrey (±1648 —1 674): By the waters of Babylon

Pelham Humfrey started his career as one of the ‘forwardest & brightest’ boys recruited for the Chapel Royal by  Henry Cooke who had been ordered by Charles II to restore English Church Music to its former glory. He was probably a Londoner but nobody really knows all that much about his origins. What we do know is that ‘forward and bright’ really only begins to describe his musical talent who already had written several anthems by the time his voice broke aged sixteen. Aged sixteen he was sent to Paris on full pay for two years to study music and on his return proved himself to be a master musician and composer who succeeded to the post of royal choirmaster when Cooke died in 1672. Sadly he only outlived his old master by two years but in that two years he produced some remarkably fine music including By the waters of Babylon. It’s a symphony anthem – one of fourteen that he composed, and clearly demonstrates his skill at crafting musical structures in in which the vocal and instrumental components are organically linked, rather than just tacked together which had been the norm up to then. It’s a somewhat unusual symphony anthem in that it opens with a short prelude rather than the full symphony which appears as a dance measure towards the end. Enjoy :-).


Text: By the waters of Babylon

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept:
when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up:
upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us a song, and melody in our heaviness:
sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song:
in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth:
yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.
Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem:
how they said, Down with it, down with it to the ground.
O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery:
happy shall he be that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones.
Psalm 137 – adapted

2 thoughts on “Pelham Humfrey (±1648 —1 674): By the waters of Babylon

  1. A really lovely piece. What a musical powerhouse England could have been if both Humfrey and Purcell had not died far too young. What we have is marvellous, but I always wonder whether there would have been another terrific outburst of creativity like the wonderful Elizabethan era. On the other hand, there might not have been that little musical hiatus that allowed a certain young German composer to make himself thoroughly at home in London while on extended leave from his job in Hanover…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *