Belshazzar's Feast - William Walton (1902 - 1983)
William Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire. He was a chorister at Christchurch, Oxford, and later as an undergraduate became very friendly with Sacheverell Sitwell, who then introduced him to his siblings, Edith and Osbert. After leaving Oxford Walton went to live with the Sitwells, where the exhilarating artistic environment provided exactly the kind of stimulus he needed for his creative development and greatly assisted in the promotion of his career. He had just turned twenty when he acquired fame and some notoriety with the outrageous Façade, a collaboration with Edith Sitwell in which her eccentric poems were recited through a megaphone from behind a screen, to the accompaniment of Walton’s witty, sophisticated music.
In 1929 the BBC commissioned Walton, who by now was widely regarded as the young star of English music, to write a small choral work. Osbert Sitwell suggested a cantata on the Biblical story concerning the lavish feast thrown by the Babylonian king, Belshazzar. The libretto that Sitwell compiled is almost entirely from the Bible - mainly from Daniel, with extracts from Isaiah, Psalm 137 and the Book of Revelations.
Quite apart from the fact that the BBC’s commission was very welcome both financially and professionally, Walton’s motivation for the composition of Belshazzar’s Feast was twofold. He had been living as part of the Sitwell family for ten years and was by now very aware of the need to become independent and not known simply as their talented acolyte. He was also prompted by the great success of Constant Lambert’s jazz-inspired cantata Rio Grande, composed in 1929 to words by Sacheverell Sitwell. Progress on Belshazzar was slow and arduous, and Walton struggled with it throughout 1930, experiencing frequent blocks. ‘I got landed on the word ‘gold’, he said later. ‘I was there from May to December, perched, unable to move either right or left or up or down.’
The BBC had asked for a short work requiring no more than fifteen or so instruments, but by the time Walton eventually completed Belshazzar it had become a fully-fledged oratorio scored for huge forces comprising a very large orchestra, including a battery of percussion needing four players, a big chorus frequently divided into eight parts, a baritone soloist and an organ. Such an undertaking was beyond the BBC’s resources and so it was passed to the Leeds Festival, whose Musical Director was Sir Thomas Beecham. He casually remarked to Walton, ‘As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?’ Brass players happened to be available for a festival performance of the Berlioz Requiem so Walton wrote into the score additional parts for two bands, each of seven players. Beecham showed little interest in the new work and gave it to his younger colleague, Malcolm Sargent, to conduct.
Though the Leeds Festival Chorus had considerable experience of performing large works, the choir found Walton’s unfamiliar, dissonant harmony and jazzy cross-rhythms exceptionally demanding, and some of the sopranos and altos objected to singing the word ‘concubines’, much to the composer’s amusement. However, the first performance in 1931 caused a sensation and was a huge critical and public success. Not everyone viewed it favourably, though. Despite its impeccable biblical credentials, the Church of England considered it unsuitable for performance in cathedrals, and The Times music critic declared that it ‘culminates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy - the utter negation of Christianity’. The organizers of the Three Choirs Festival forbade it until 1957 and it was not performed at Worcester until 1975. Elsewhere it enjoyed enthusiastic popular acclaim and quickly became an established feature of the choral repertoire. It provided a further boost to Walton’s already glittering career. During the next few years he produced his remarkable First Symphony, the Violin Concerto and several major film scores.
Belshazzar’s Feast is cast in one continuous movement divided into three sections, each linked by an unaccompanied solo baritone recitative. The first section deals with Elijah’s prophecy concerning the enslavement of the Jews, and laments the loss of Jerusalem. A baritone recitative then describes the splendour of Babylon, whilst hinting also at its decadence. The second section is a wonderfully colourful portrayal of the lavish feast and parade of gods, and the outrage of the Jews at the desecration of their holy vessels. The second recitative is one of the most dramatic parts of the whole work, with a spine-chilling depiction of the writing on the wall, which is followed by the sudden death of Belshazzar, reinforced by the famous choral shout, ‘Slain!’ – a Walton masterstroke. The final section is a song of praise celebrating the fall of Babylon, with nevertheless a brief lament for its passing. The work culminates in a triumphant final ‘Alleluia’.
Belshazzar’s Feast deals with several important socio-political themes: the tribulations of a nation in exile, the impermanence of civilisation, and the downfall of a decadent empire. Musically, it follows in the tradition of the great 18th and 19th century English oratorios. Like them it employs a classic Old Testament story, it features the chorus in a major role, and it uses that trusted oratorio technique - recitative. It also takes from Elgar’s oratorios the Wagnerian model of a continuous music drama rather than the separate recitatives, arias and choruses of earlier works. But what gives Belshazzar’s Feast such an overwhelming impact is its earthy portrayal of pagan revels, violent retribution and triumphant jubilation, realised with astonishing vividness through the colourful choral and orchestral writing, edgy rhythms and sparkling harmony. All this was something completely new in 1931, and it is no wonder that the work quickly established itself as one of the pinnacles of the twentieth century choral repertoire.
John Bawden 2014
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