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William Walton, Belshazzar's Feast

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2023–24 subscription concert "Elgar's Cello Concerto."

English composer William Walton

When the British Broadcasting Company commissioned a new choral work from William Walton in 1929, the programmer provided specific parameters to accommodate the intimacy of the BBC's studios. The composition was to employ a small choir, one vocal soloist, and no more than 15 orchestral musicians—modest guidelines the young English composer obliterated in epic fashion.

The completed score Walton submitted for Belshazzar's Feast revealed a sprawling oratorio for baritone soloist, double choir, and a massive orchestra requiring two antiphonal brass bands, a convoy of colorful percussion, military band instruments such as alto saxophone and piccolo clarinet, and both piano and pipe organ. The new work proved so expansive that its 1931 premiere was transferred to the Leeds Festival, where the London Symphony Orchestra and the festival's large amateur choir filled the vast environs of the 1,500-seat Leeds Town Hall.

Delivering an unconventional work that ignored established guidelines was the latest display of cheek from the precocious Walton, who by the time of the BBC commission had been considered the enfant terrible of English music in the decade following World War I. He achieved notoriety in 1923 for his cabaret-style collaboration with the writer Edith Sitwell, Façade—An Entertainment, and his Viola Concerto, premiered in 1929 by the German composer and violist Paul Hindemith, displayed Walton's avant-garde approach to working with classical forms.

Not yet 30 years old, Walton now had the chance to make his mark on the English choral tradition—one he knew well from his chorister days as a teenager at Oxford's Christ Church Cathedral School, where he sang the major oratorios of Handel, Bach, and Mendelssohn. But the composer's first major choral work didn't use any of those revered works as a blueprint. Instead, Walton walked a path inspired by his two primary influences: the kaleidoscopic orchestral writing of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel—and the driving, jagged pulse of jazz. We can trace Walton's unbridled interest in the new musical style throughout the 1920s, not only in Façade, but in the foxtrots he composed for London's Savoy Orpheus Band and an incomplete concerto for two pianos, jazz band, and orchestra.

For the oratorio's text, Walton used a libretto Edith Sitwell's brother Osbert had assembled for the occasion—a collection of passages drawn from the Old Testament depicting a lavish feast of the Babylonian King Belshazzar, who blasphemes during the event by using holy golden vessels plundered from the First Temple in Jerusalem to praise his pagan gods. As 1,000 guests drink from these sacred cups, a mysterious hand writes a message on the palace wall foretelling doom for the king. Belshazzar, refusing to repent for his actions, is killed that night, and the enslaved Israelites celebrate their newfound freedom.

Composing a work of this vast scale and musical complexity—one teeming with constant meter changes, dissonant harmonies, and shocking syncopations—was a monumental undertaking for Walton, whose perfectionism often got in the way of his becoming a more prolific composer. (When sketching the section in which the king and his subjects extol their gods, Walton spent seven months frozen in place, obsessing over how to set the word "gold.") Adding to these challenges was the fact that Belshazzar's Feast forced Walton to break new ground in his vocal writing. Although he had previously set to music Edith Sitwell's abstract poetry in Façade, those words were recited through a megaphone from behind a decorative screen, a performance technique more akin to the radical theater of Bertold Brecht than the sacred reverence of Bach's passions.

Despite needing to apply a more traditional approach to text setting, Walton engineers an innovative architecture for his oratorio. Rather than advancing the storytelling through a series of distinct movements alternating among solo arias, orchestral interludes, and large choral numbers, as composers of the 17th through the 19th centuries had done, Walton casts Belshazzar's Feast in three major sections united as one continuous movement of sweeping music that offers a cinematic realization of the Biblical scene.

A blast of trombones establishes the opening's mournful mood, as a chorus of exiled Israelites lament their imprisonment and loss of their homeland. A shadowy theme emerges in the depths of the orchestra, and icy dissonances abound as the choir sings of their weeping by the shores of Babylon, asking "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" The solo baritone enters, and in declamatory style portrays the decadence of Babylon through the "merchandise" in which the city trades—from precious stones and marble to fine linens, gold, and most chillingly, "the souls of men."

Spiky, angular themes begin darting across the orchestra like lightning bolts as Walton plunges us directly into Belshazzar's bacchanal. The double choir recounts the opulent celebration, during which the king calls for the golden vessels of Jerusalem so that his princes, wives, and concubines can celebrate their pagan gods, each one evoked in a dazzling feat of Walton's orchestration: The metallic twinkling of glockenspiel, flutes, and piccolo praise the God of Silver; anvil strikes pay tribute to the God of Iron; and in honor of the God of Brass, the antiphonal brass bands volley a series of pompous military fanfares. The cataclysm of sound intensifies throughout the roll call of praise, reaching its peak as the chorus erupts over heavy ominous chords from brass and organ: "O King, live forever!"

Then—silence. Against a spinetingling assortment of hushed cymbal strokes, trembling strings, and the death rattle of castanets, the baritone recounts the surreal sight of a floating hand writing on the palace wall behind the king. "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin (Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting)," the message reveals before the soloist announces Belshazzar's death, punctuated by a thunderclap from the chorus with the shouted word "Slain!" Babylon has fallen, and the Israelites celebrate freedom in a final chorale of unquenchable joy. The music races forward with relentless fervor into a series of high-voltage climaxes as the double choir invites one and all to "Make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob, for Babylon the Great is fallen. Alleluia!"


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