Belshazzar's Feast
[ Issue 25 ]

'Belshazzar's Feast' delights Emily Bronto

Bikwil salutes 'Belshazzar's Feast'

Belshazzar's Feast

Tony Rogers here presents the third in our Memorable Moments in Music series.  This time the subject is William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, and the focus is on some behind-the-scenes events "in the preparation for and the consequences of a truly significant event in 20th century music history".

It was not only in the vigorous, jagged syncopations he employed in Belshazzar’s Feast that Walton revealed his love of jazz

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Writ Large
[ Memorable Moments in Music No. 3 ]
— Tony Rogers


As far as I’m concerned, each incident in the following series (slight and even apocryphal though it might appear at first glance) is quite worthy of being remembered on its own merits. Even more so, therefore, when taken together, since all of them played behind-the-scenes roles in the preparation for and the consequences of a truly significant event in 20th century music history.

In 1929 William Turner Walton (1902-83) was invited by the BBC to compose, for a fee of 50 guineas, a choral work for small chorus, small orchestra of no more than 15 players, and a vocal soloist. Walton accepted the commission, but having worked on it for some months came to realise that his subject demanded a much larger work.

A large work it became, though too massive apparently for a work written specifically for broadcasting, so Walton and the BBC agreed that he would later write something else for them. In actual fact, he never did, the success of his big choral composition perhaps sweeping away from all minds any thought of a radio commission.

We call it a large work, not because of its length, for it runs for a mere 35 minutes, but for the reason that it is massive in the forces it uses. It is, of course, Belshazzar’s Feast, an oratorio for double mixed choir, baritone voice and greatly enlarged orchestra.

Early in 1931 it was announced that it would have its first performance at the Leeds Festival later that year. No doubt it became part of the Festival because the programme already included Berlioz’ Requiem, a large scale work requiring vast choral and orchestral resources — ideally 210 voices and an immense orchestra, including at one point four additional brass bands. And it was this last fact that almost certainly gave rise to the following memorable moment in the progress of Belshazzar’s Feast’s composition.

Thomas Beecham was the Festival’s director, although instead of conducting it himself he allocated the Walton piece to Malcolm Sargent. Nevertheless Beecham had several discussions on the work with the composer during 1931. According to an interview Walton gave to the Daily Mail in 1972, Beecham had early in the proceedings become pessimistic about Belshazzar’s Feast’s future, and

declared in his best seigneurial manner, “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” So thrown in they were, and there they remain. (Quoted in Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Walton, 1989, ISBN 0 19 816705 9)

(Strictly speaking, the two “brass bands” are two additional brass sections — each of three trumpets, three trombones and tuba.)

Despite Beecham’s cynical warning, Walton lived to hear his Belshazzar many times, both in the concert hall and on record. He also conducted it himself on several occasions, two of which performances were released on vinyl. The last live performance of the work he attended was for his 80th birthday celebrations in March 1982, about a year before he died, with André Previn conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus.

The audience’s reception for Belshazzar moved Walton to tears — and there were tears, too, in the eyes of those who saw the frail, white-haired, gaunt-faced old man and remembered the debonair figure of the “white hope of English music” when it seemed he would never grow old. (Kennedy)

Other composers of works about Belshazzar had included Handel, who wrote an oratorio Belshazzar, first performed in 1745, and Sibelius, whose orchestral suite was written in 1906.

Not even complete familiarity with both, however, could have prepared that Leeds audience for what they were about to experience as Malcolm Sargent, turning to face the enormous ensemble gathered before him, raised his baton for the opening bars of what is now a classic of choral music.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an oratorio as “a form of extended musical composition, of a semi-dramatic character, usually founded on a Scriptural theme, sung by solo voices and a chorus, to the accompaniment of a full orchestra, without the assistance of action, scenery, or dress”.

Walton’s oratorio certainly meets those dramatic and scriptural criteria, telling as it does the Biblical story of King Belshazzar’s banquet during which a ghostly hand writes on the palace wall condemning the Babylonian King and his realm to destruction.

Yet Belshazzar’s Feast isn’t a religious work at all. Michael Kennedy, who describes Walton’s compositions based on religious subjects as “secular in mood”, characterises it as “a human drama, not a religious experience”.

Such modern acceptance of its secular focus is at great variance with responses in certain quarters in 1931, however. In that year The Times critic wrote of the work that “it culminates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity”, and this and similar contemporary views had an irresistible effect on the ecclesiastics associated with the Three Choirs Festival, who promptly barred Belshazzar’s Feast from their cathedrals — a ban that lasted until 1957.

Now, readers knowledgeable about ancient history will be well aware that, notwithstanding claims in the Old Testament,

Belshazzar was not the king of Babylon, but the crown prince;

Belshazzar was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar — that was Amel-Marduk (Evil-merodach in the Bible), Belshazzar being the son of Nabonidus;

Belshazzar was not slain at Babylon, but was killed on the western bank of the Tigris fighting the army of Cyrus the Persian.

Nonetheless, what a vivid tale the Biblical account makes! What a basis for an oratorio! What images! What superb language! (Try to forget that the text has given rise to household phrases that are now, alas, virtual clichés: “the writing on the wall”, “the moving finger”, “weighed in the balance and found wanting”. In their original form the words are magnificent.)

Therefore, when his friend and patron Osbert Sitwell, who had actually been the person who suggested the subject to Walton in 1929, came to prepare the libretto, he knew instinctively what the source text should be. But how to assemble it? What passages to select?

Ultimately he chose and rearranged not only parts of the inevitable narrative in Daniel (Chapter 5), but also verses from the Psalms (137 and 81). Additionally, he adapted the description of Babylon to be found in Revelation, and prefaced the whole text with words which he based on the language of the Bible — that of Isaiah, for instance.

In these decisions he was moving consciously and audaciously against what had become trendy in oratorio (begun 30 years before with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius), namely to avoid sacred texts and substitute secular, albeit religious, wording.

Yet his original manuscript was not entirely sacred in tone.

According to a talk given by pianist Angus Morrison, reproduced in RCM Magazine (80/3, 1984), Sitwell had been reckless enough to end the libretto with an old nursery rhyme, which Walton very wisely expunged. Here is the text that prompted that barely remembered but highly memorable moment:

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.

One is forced to wonder what possessed him to append this obscure old nonsense to his otherwise glorious wording. Perhaps he was trying to outdo his sister Edith’s style in Façade, that earlier outrageous and highly successful Sitwell-Walton collaboration.

No less deliberate and daring was Walton’s decision to give full rein in Belshazzar’s Feast to “the fertilising influence of twenties jazz”, as Edward Greenfield called it in the liner notes to the 1972 Previn EMI recording.

Of course, as Greenfield points out, while we still find its abrupt and violent rhythms utterly exhilarating, we millennial listeners are no longer disturbed by them. Jazz rhythms are by now so well integrated into “classical” music that today we tend to forget their origins.

And it was not only in the vigorous, jagged syncopations he employed in Belshazzar’s Feast that Walton revealed his love of jazz. There are other signs, too, one being his use of a device heard in big-band jazz from time to time — the sforzando-piano-crescendo articulation. This effect is one of a suddenly loud chord which immediately drops in volume then gradually gets louder again. Except that here Walton didn’t have the orchestra performing this way, but the choir — brand new for any choral group, let alone one singing “sacred” music.

Equally at home with the jazz rhythms of Belshazzar’s Feast was Walton’s harmonic language, which, while not so unfamiliar to orchestral players, in 1931 seemed very demanding in some passages for choralists. Take the first dozen or so bars of singing, for example

Thus spake Isaiah:
“Thy sons that thou shall beget
They shall be taken away
And be eunuchs
In the palace of the King of
Babylon . . .”

The taxing harmony here (for male voices only, but in multiple parts) is pungently dissonant and so very much in keeping with the portentous content of the words. While this passage was once considered impossible to sing in tune, today’s top-notch choirs have learned to take it in their stride, and while always challenged they will tell you they are no longer terrified.

The original choir at Leeds in 1931 can therefore be forgiven for having trouble, not only with this section, but also with other passages of the work — the harmony here, the irregular metres there, and at times both. If truth be told, they began rehearsing parts of the score as early as March 1931, over six months before its première.

It has been sometimes noted that, despite its obvious exuberance, Walton’s music can leave you wondering whether he composed with difficulty. The Collins Encyclopedia of Music contends:

His work, even when most successful, gives the impression of having been created with effort, though this often gives an extra edge of excitement . . .

As regards Belshazzar, progress was indeed slow at times. This was particularly the case (and this memorable moment was certainly no instant) when Walton came to set these lines:

Praise ye the God of Gold
Praise ye the God of Silver
Praise ye the God of Iron
Praise ye the God of Wood
Praise ye the God of Stone
Praise ye the God of Brass
Praise ye the Gods!

Walton knew he had to separately adapt melody, harmony and orchestration to the meaning of each line, while keeping a sense of homogeneity and yet simultaneously building the intensity and passion of the passage.

The trouble was, he bogged down in the first line. The story goes that he cogitated and wrestled and agonised on what note to set the word “Gold” to — for eight long months. As he wrote in a letter,

In Belshazzar I got landed on the word “gold” — I was there from May to December 1930, perched, unable to move either to right or left or up or down.

When he finally made his decision, things went easier for him, and the whole section is dazzling in its barbaric effect. Especially splendid is the “pomp and circumstance” march tune he eventually incorporated in this passage.

(Walton would compose 14 other fanfares and marches, including Orb and Sceptre — as well as the choral Te Deum — for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.)

Lay preachers among you may appreciate the next unanticipated moment of setback during the composition of Belshazzar’s Feast.

Once more I quote from Kennedy’s biography:

. . . he developed a mental block after reading a joke by the humorist “Beachcomber” in the Daily Express that the Writing on the Wall was not “Mene, mene, tekel Upharsin” [“Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting”] but “Aimée, Aimée, Semple McPherson”, who was an American evangelist much in the news at the time.

Walton’s general slow method of working was such that towards the end of his life he could state that his most useful composition tool was an eraser:

Without an india-rubber, I was absolutely sunk. So I surrounded myself with them, and I seem to have spent my entire life rubbing out what I’ve written.

As far as Belshazzar’s Feast goes, then, William Walton is remembered today as the composer who painstakingly but successfully brought the influence of jazz to the oratorio. Not only did the work alter listeners’ conception of what that sacred genre could be capable of (as well as liberate other English composers — their grand choral tradition would never be quite the same again), but it was also the single greatest factor in Walton’s rise to fame as a major figure in music.

Yet a decade after the stunning and instantaneous acclaim of its première, few outside the dedicated music-going public seemed to be acquainted with him or his work — least of all the armed services, as our last memorable feast-won moment shows.

Composer Benjamin Britten, an ardent pacifist, spent the first three years of the Second World War in the United States. In 1942 he decided to return to England, and applied to the Tribunal of Conscientious Objectors to be exempted from military duty. Walton agreed to speak on his behalf.

When he asserted that Britten’s gifts would be pointless on the battlefield, the panel asked him what his credentials were to be making such a claim. Walton came back with, “Well, if you don’t know who I am, there is no point in going on.”

To my perverse mind it seems superbly appropriate to hear such swift and unreserved self-assurance in the face of khaki Christian scepticism. Especially from a composer who had taken the best part of a frustrating year to set the word “Gold” in an exhilarating musical passage about pagan worship.

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