Composer Herbert Howells is most widely known for the church music he wrote toward the later part of his career, though his secular works are undoing a much-deserved revaluation. But this work for baritone Voice, Violin, Cello and Organ dates from a much earlier stage of his life. Howells had suffered severe ill health in 1917, just at the time Babylon was written, and had withdrawn from his first appointment at Salisbury Cathedral. It was also the time he wrote his Elegy, full of loss and transience, composed in memory of a friend killed in the First World War.
The dramatic, even operatic scale of emotion in By the Waters of Babylon brings the anguish of the piece right to the fore. It is definitely a Howells composition, underpinned by solid structure and displaying chromatic sensuousness. The words are one of the great lamentations and Howells has enhanced their effect in this mighty work.