Belshazzar’s Feast

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            William Walton was the most important British musician in the generation immediately after that of Vaughan Williams.   His artistic orientation was quite different from that of the older man, and while certainly not an adherent of the revolution in musical style wrought by Schoenberg and his students, Walton was nevertheless a true child of the new currents in music of the 1920s.  The music of Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and Bartók were influential, but it must be said that he directed more attention to the big traditional forms of concerto and symphony than did those luminaries.  Today, he is appreciated, not only for his two symphonies and three important concertos for viola, violin, and violoncello, respectively, but also for his contributions in the great English choir tradition.   While he could be devastating in his trenchant musical commentaries on the inflated excesses of Edwardian English culture, he was equally capable of composing magnificent ceremonial music for the royal coronations of 1937 and 1953, as well as miscellaneous royal weddings in Westminster Abby.   Those august occasions would not be the same without the soaring choral works with large organ, trumpets, and the like that have almost come to define them in our imaginations.  Throw in his magisterial, grand processional marches, Orb and Scepter and Crown Imperial and that picture is complete.

            He did not begin this way, however.  Born to a poor, but musical family, he was fortunate to be taken in as a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, where he received an excellent musical education.  Later, he entered university there, continuing his studies, and establishing his complete mastery of the great English choral tradition.   But after that, the road takes a completely different twist.  He fell in with one of the most distinguished, controversial—and eccentric, it must be said—literary families in the British arts of the time:  Edith Sitwell, and her brothers, Osbert and Sacherverell.  He moved in with them, and they took him on as a kind of project, shepherding him around Europe, introducing him to every important person in the continental arts scene and exposing him to all the latest trends. 

            Taking somewhat of an inspiration from Schoenberg’s experimentation with the spoken or recited voice with musical accompaniment, Walton and Edith Sitwell collaborated to create Façade (1923). In it, Sitwell recited her acerbic and somewhat obscure poems through a megaphone, accompanied by Walton’s rather French, neo-classic music.   Decidedly avant-garde, it was a mixed success, to say the least—fiercely debated on all sides.   But, it became a lasting classic. Other important works ensued that brought him recognition.  He soon rather turned his reputation as a bad boy in music on its head with his widely acclaimed viola concerto (1929), which took its place in the standard repertoire. That leads us to Beshazzar’s Feast.

            His growing reputation led in the same year to a commission by the BBC for a broadcast of a work for chorus, vocal soloist, and very small orchestra.  That did not immediately pan out, but Walton labored assiduously, as, like Topsy, the project just grew.   Walton enlarged the orchestra to a very imposing one, including saxophone, organ, piano, and a formidable percussion section replete with a whip and a large anvil.  His friend, Osbert Sitwell provided the libretto, taking sections from the Bible:  the book of Daniel, Psalms, and Revelations.  It is, of course, the familiar story of Belshazzar, King of Babylon, the captivity of the Jews, and the familiar path from hubris to downfall—predicted by the moving finger of fate.  The première eventually occurred in October of 1931, conducted by Malcolm Sargent.  It was a smash hit.  Its clever combination of jazzy elements of popular music, mastery of orchestral color, and splashy dramatic music matched to an equally dramatic story has secured its place in the genre.

            After a blast from unison trombones—evoking ancient horns—the unaccompanied chorus opens the work with Isaiah’s dour narrative of Israel’s sons’ conscription as eunuchs at Belshazzar’s court.  There follows the chorus of Israelites bemoaning their captivity, so familiar from musical settings from Palestrina to Verdi.  The chorus’ narrative briefly turns lyrical when reminiscing about hanging their “harps upon the willows,” but turns rhythmic and vengeful when singing of their cruel captors’ demand for “mirth” in their crushing captivity.   The baritone narrator then swears an oath for them, should they forget Jerusalem, followed by a brief reprise of the opening lament.

            Walton’s gift for choral drama comes to the fore in the following fierce denunciation of Babylon and her sordid riches, and the prediction of her ultimate doom.   An inventory of all her largess follows—the narrator ending it dolefully by including “the souls of men.”  The incensed chorus then rages—with the full force of the colorful orchestra at their disposal—at Belshazzar’s idolatrous feast, made outrageous by his wives and concubines using the sacred vessels of the Jewish temple as a table setting. A march follows; mastery of the genre was one of Walton’s gifts as a composer.  The virtuosic scoring for orchestra sarcastically enhances the Babylonians’ insolent praise of the various gods of their wealth.  Walton’s penchant for striking, choral gestures and orchestral genius is on full display—it will surface again in his remarkable coronation music in later years.  A recap of the feast follows.

            The narrator then intones the eerie scene of the disembodied hand, the mood set by dark, low strings, piano and the death rattle of the castenets.   The writing is on the wall, and the king is slain.  “Slain,” the chorus screams, the death throes depicted by knife-like brass, and a general celebration by the Israelites ensues—a rip-roaring affair  “à la Walton.”  The moral triumph is complete, interrupted only by a brief, tranquil reflection on the fate of the heathen feasters.   The ending builds to the kind of thrilling, sonic conclusion familiar from the composer’s later Westminster Abby glories.   One of the great choral experiences of the twentieth century concludes with a paroxysm of sound—literally pulling out all of the stops.    It never fails to please, and for good reason.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2015 William E. Runyan