This leads to an eerie, and economically orchestrated, depiction of the writing on the wall, and the death that night of Belshazzar (the story of Daniel interpreting the writing is omitted). The people celebrate their freedom, in a joyous song of praise interrupted by a lament over the fall of a great city (derived from Psalm 81 and Revelations).
The chorus represents the Jewish people throughout, although they adopt the tone of the Babylonians when telling the story of the feast.
At first the work seemed avant-garde because of its extrovert writing and musical complexity; it is however always firmly tonal although it is scored without a key signature and with many accidentals. The addition of the brass bands was suggested by the festival director, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham; the bands were on hand anyway for a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem, and Beecham said to the young Walton: "As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?. However, under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, an outstanding choral conductor, it was an immediate success, despite its severe challenges to the chorus.
The London première was conducted by Adrian Boult in November 1931. The work was performed at the I.S.C.M. Festival in Amsterdam in 1933. Sargent regularly programmed it throughout the rest of his career, and took it as far afield as Australia, Brussels, Vienna and Boston. Not only British conductors from Sargent to Simon Rattle, but also Eugene Ormandy, Maurice Abravanel, André Previn, Robert Shaw, Leonard Slatkin and Andrew Litton have recorded the work. In 1947 Herbert von Karajan called it "the best choral music that's been written in the last 50 years".
It may have been partly because of The Times’s first review, that despite an impeccably biblical text, Belshazzar’s Feast was not at first accepted by the Church of England as a work suitable for performance in cathedrals. It was banned from the Three Choirs Festival until 1957. The Times reviewer urged such a ban; though calling Belshazzar's Feast "a work of intense energy and complete sincerity", he declared the work, "stark Judaism for first to last", adding, "it cumulates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity...no more a 'sacred' oratorio than is Handel's on the same subject." Some have maintained that Walton saw no moral distinction between the Jews and the Babylonians, as the music for both groups is equally exuberant. However, a distinction can be found in the words. Although there is an early sequence where the Jews vow revenge in particularly violent terms, their eventual victory is conveyed in praise and thanksgiving, the words "Alleluia, for great Babylon’s fallen" mixed with regret "while the kings of the earth weep, wail" for the fallen city.
Walton did not take his work with the greatest seriousness. He called the baritone solo about the wealth of Babylon (#3 above) "the shopping list" and at a Hoffunng festival concert, he conducted a large choir and orchestra in "an excerpt from Belshazzar's Feast" with a flyswat. The excerpt (from #7 above) proved to be the one shouted word "Slain!".
Adam WALTON: I'm as Cool as Gordon with Chilli; with the Pan Sizzling like Jackie Collins' Imagination, Open a Bottle of Sol Beer, and Tip It In
Sep 23, 2005; Byline: adam WALTON I AM a new man, I am. Remember us? We're the ones who bought Loaded, but hid it under the bed. We have wives...