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Walton-I

Belshazzar's Feast (Walton)

Belshazzar's Feast is an oratorio by the English composer William Walton. It was first performed at the Leeds Festival on 8 October 1931. The work has remained one of Walton's most celebrated compositions and one of the most popular works in the English choral repertoire. Osbert Sitwell selected the text from the Bible, primarily the Book of Daniel.

Synopsis

In the story of Belshazzar's Feast, the Jews are in exile in Babylon. After a feast at which Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, commits sacrilege by using the Jews' sacred vessels to praise the heathen gods, he is miraculously killed, the kingdom falls, and the Jews regain their freedom.

List of movements

Although they are not specified in the published score, there is a clear delineation between sections, as follows:

  1. Thus spake Isaiah
  2. If I forget thee O Jerusalem
  3. Babylon was a great city
  4. In Babylon Belshazzar the King made a great feast
  5. Praise ye the god of gold
  6. Thus in Babylon, the mighty city, Belshazzar the King made a great feast
  7. And in that same hour as they feasted, came forth fingers of a man's hand
  8. Then sing aloud to God our strength
  9. The trumpeters and pipers were silent
  10. Then sing aloud to God our strength

Musical structure

The music throughout is strongly rhythmic, and richly orchestrated. The rhythms and harmonies reflect Walton’s interest in jazz and other popular music, pressed into service to tell a religious story.

Scoring

Story-line

The oratorio is in ten distinct sections, played continuously. After a brief, recited introduction, the chorus and baritone sing of their homeland Zion, in an emotional setting of Psalm 137 (By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and wept), and angrily express their bitterness toward their captors. The narrative then begins, and in a prolonged sequence we hear their horror, and then outrage, at the profanities of the king, followed by an exuberant march section depicting the king and his court praising their gods. The section is framed by a descending figure of four notes that, through repetition, passes down through the orchestra, immediately establishing a jazz influence with a flattened first note and marked syncopation.

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.

History and commentary

Walton struggled with the setting for several years, and it grew from its original conception as a short work for small forces, as commissioned by the BBC, to its eventual form. Fortunately, this was an age of gifted amateur choruses, and conductors and institutions dedicated to bringing forward new music, and the Leeds Festival took on the first performance.

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!".

The work was used for the 1990 competitive program of the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps, placing 3rd at the 1990 Drum Corps International World Championships.

Notes

References

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