William Walton Composer
Belshazzar's Feast, for baritone, double chorus and orchestra
Musicology:In 1929, Walton received the first commission ever offered by the BBC to a British composer, for a work "scored for small chorus, small orchestra not exceeding fifteen [players], and soloist." For the work's subject, Walton chose the biblical fall of Belshazzar (better known as Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the despotic conqueror of Jerusalem), as dramatized by his friend and benefactor, Sir Osbert Sitwell. By the end of 1930, a member of the BBC's music staff nervously reported that Walton's effort had "grown to such proportions that it cannot be considered a work specially written for broadcasting."
Belshazzar's Feast, for baritone, double chorus and orchestraYear: 1931-57
Genre: Other Choral
Pr. Instrument: Baritone
- 1.Thus spake Isaiah
- 2.If I forget thee, O Jerusalem
- 3.Babylon was a great city
- 4.In Babylon Belshazzar the King
- 5.Praise ye the god of gold
- 6.Thus in Babylon, the mighty city
- 7.And in that same hour
- 8.Then sing aloud to God our strength No.1
- 9.The trumpeters and pipers are silent
- 10.Then sing aloud to God our strength No.2
Nevertheless, the composer completed it, and on a grand scale, including two brass bands. Before the premiere in October 1931, the chorus called a strike, saying that the work was impossibly difficult to perform. The composer deflected the complaint thus: "I know it is difficult...but naturally it isn't written for a church choir." The sweep and drama of the work, which was described by the critic Compton Mackenzie as "like a great explosive sunset," has since proved irresistible to audiences. The eminent British conductor Henry Wood considered it "truly marvelous, like the world coming to an end."
The scene is set with a description of the material wealth of Babylon (a substantial section which Thomas Beecham irreverently called "the shopping list"), including "the souls of men." The raw energy as the oppressors praise their gods of silver, brass, gold and other precious possessions is followed by a chorus of profound lamentation as the Israelites contemplate their fate and affirm their belief in God. As the feasting at Belshazzar's palace becomes wilder and more abandoned, a mysterious Hebrew message appears on the wall: "mene mene tekel uparsin" (You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting). Nemesis is swift: "that night was the king Belshazzar slain and his kingdom divided."
Walton worte music in the grand manner with utmost confidence, and his orchestration, brilliant and evocative, stands in sharp contrast to that of the works that, from Handel onward, formed the major part of the English choral tradition.
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