far as I’m concerned, each incident in the following series (slight and
even apocryphal though it might appear at first glance) is quite worthy of
being remembered on its own merits. Even more so, therefore, when taken
together, since all of them played behind-the-scenes roles in the
preparation for and the consequences of a truly significant event in 20th
century music history.
William Turner Walton (1902-83) was invited by the BBC to
compose, for a fee of 50 guineas, a choral work for small
chorus, small orchestra of no more than 15 players, and a
vocal soloist. Walton accepted the commission, but having
worked on it for some months came to realise that his
subject demanded a much larger work.
work it became, though too massive apparently for a work written
specifically for broadcasting, so Walton and the BBC agreed that he would
later write something else for them. In actual fact, he never did, the
success of his big choral composition perhaps sweeping away from all minds
any thought of a radio commission.
it a large work, not because of its length, for it runs for a mere 35
minutes, but for the reason that it is massive in the forces it uses. It
is, of course, Belshazzar’s Feast, an oratorio for double mixed
choir, baritone voice and greatly enlarged orchestra.
1931 it was announced that it would have its first performance at the
Leeds Festival later that year. No doubt it became part of the Festival
because the programme already included Berlioz’ Requiem, a large
scale work requiring vast choral and orchestral resources — ideally 210
voices and an immense orchestra, including at one point four additional
brass bands. And it was this last fact that almost certainly gave rise to
the following memorable moment in the progress of Belshazzar’s Feast’s
Beecham was the Festival’s director, although instead of conducting it
himself he allocated the Walton piece to Malcolm Sargent. Nevertheless
Beecham had several discussions on the work with the composer during 1931.
According to an interview Walton gave to the Daily Mail in 1972,
Beecham had early in the proceedings become pessimistic about
Belshazzar’s Feast’s future, and
in his best seigneurial manner, “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my
boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” So thrown in they were,
and there they remain. (Quoted in Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Walton,
1989, ISBN 0 19 816705 9)
speaking, the two “brass bands” are two additional brass sections — each
of three trumpets, three trombones and tuba.)
Beecham’s cynical warning, Walton lived to hear his Belshazzar many
times, both in the concert hall and on record. He also conducted it
himself on several occasions, two of which performances were released on
vinyl. The last live performance of the work he attended was for his 80th
birthday celebrations in March 1982, about a year before he died, with
André Previn conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus.
audience’s reception for Belshazzar moved Walton to tears — and
there were tears, too, in the eyes of those who saw the frail,
white-haired, gaunt-faced old man and remembered the debonair figure of
the “white hope of English music” when it seemed he would never grow old.
composers of works about Belshazzar had included Handel, who wrote an
oratorio Belshazzar, first performed in 1745, and Sibelius, whose
orchestral suite was written in 1906.
complete familiarity with both, however, could have prepared that Leeds
audience for what they were about to experience as Malcolm Sargent,
turning to face the enormous ensemble gathered before him, raised his
baton for the opening bars of what is now a classic of choral music.
Oxford English Dictionary defines an oratorio as “a form of extended
musical composition, of a semi-dramatic character, usually founded on a
Scriptural theme, sung by solo voices and a chorus, to the accompaniment
of a full orchestra, without the assistance of action, scenery, or dress”.
oratorio certainly meets those dramatic and scriptural criteria, telling
as it does the Biblical story of King Belshazzar’s banquet during which a
ghostly hand writes on the palace wall condemning the Babylonian King and
his realm to destruction.
Belshazzar’s Feast isn’t a religious work at all. Michael Kennedy, who
describes Walton’s compositions based on religious subjects as “secular in
mood”, characterises it as “a human drama, not a religious experience”.
modern acceptance of its secular focus is at great variance with responses
in certain quarters in 1931, however. In that year The Times critic
wrote of the work that “it culminates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen
enemy, the utter negation of Christianity”, and this and similar
contemporary views had an irresistible effect on the ecclesiastics
associated with the Three Choirs Festival, who promptly barred
Belshazzar’s Feast from their cathedrals — a ban that lasted until
readers knowledgeable about ancient history will be well aware that,
notwithstanding claims in the Old Testament,
Belshazzar was not the king of Babylon, but the crown prince;
Belshazzar was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar — that was Amel-Marduk
(Evil-merodach in the Bible), Belshazzar being the son of Nabonidus;
Belshazzar was not slain at Babylon, but was killed on the western
bank of the Tigris fighting the army of Cyrus the Persian.
what a vivid tale the Biblical account makes! What a basis for an
oratorio! What images! What superb language! (Try to forget that the text
has given rise to household phrases that are now, alas, virtual clichés:
“the writing on the wall”, “the moving finger”, “weighed in the balance
and found wanting”. In their original form the words are magnificent.)
when his friend and patron Osbert Sitwell, who had actually been the
person who suggested the subject to Walton in 1929, came to prepare the
libretto, he knew instinctively what the source text should be. But how to
assemble it? What passages to select?
he chose and rearranged not only parts of the inevitable narrative in
Daniel (Chapter 5), but also verses from the Psalms (137 and
81). Additionally, he adapted the description of Babylon to be found in
Revelation, and prefaced the whole text with words which he based on
the language of the Bible — that of Isaiah, for instance.
decisions he was moving consciously and audaciously against what had
become trendy in oratorio (begun 30 years before with Elgar’s Dream of
Gerontius), namely to avoid sacred texts and substitute secular,
albeit religious, wording.
original manuscript was not entirely sacred in tone.
to a talk given by pianist Angus Morrison, reproduced in RCM Magazine
(80/3, 1984), Sitwell had been reckless enough to end the libretto with an
old nursery rhyme, which Walton very wisely expunged. Here is the text
that prompted that barely remembered but highly memorable moment:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
forced to wonder what possessed him to append this obscure old nonsense to
his otherwise glorious wording. Perhaps he was trying to outdo his sister
Edith’s style in Façade, that earlier outrageous and highly
successful Sitwell-Walton collaboration.
deliberate and daring was Walton’s decision to give full rein in
Belshazzar’s Feast to “the fertilising influence of twenties jazz”, as
Edward Greenfield called it in the liner notes to the 1972 Previn EMI
course, as Greenfield points out, while we still find its abrupt and
violent rhythms utterly exhilarating, we millennial listeners are no
longer disturbed by them. Jazz rhythms are by now so well integrated into
“classical” music that today we tend to forget their origins.
was not only in the vigorous, jagged syncopations he employed in
Belshazzar’s Feast that Walton revealed his love of jazz. There are
other signs, too, one being his use of a device heard in big-band jazz
from time to time — the sforzando-piano-crescendo articulation.
This effect is one of a suddenly loud chord which immediately drops in
volume then gradually gets louder again. Except that here Walton didn’t
have the orchestra performing this way, but the choir — brand new for any
choral group, let alone one singing “sacred” music.
at home with the jazz rhythms of Belshazzar’s Feast was Walton’s
harmonic language, which, while not so unfamiliar to orchestral players,
in 1931 seemed very demanding in some passages for choralists. Take the
first dozen or so bars of singing, for example
Thus spake Isaiah:
“Thy sons that thou shall beget
They shall be taken away
And be eunuchs
In the palace of the King of
Babylon . . .”
taxing harmony here (for male voices only, but in multiple parts) is
pungently dissonant and so very much in keeping with the portentous
content of the words. While this passage was once considered impossible to
sing in tune, today’s top-notch choirs have learned to take it in their
stride, and while always challenged they will tell you they are no longer
original choir at Leeds in 1931 can therefore be forgiven for having
trouble, not only with this section, but also with other passages of the
work — the harmony here, the irregular metres there, and at times both. If
truth be told, they began rehearsing parts of the score as early as March
1931, over six months before its première.
been sometimes noted that, despite its obvious exuberance, Walton’s music
can leave you wondering whether he composed with difficulty. The
Collins Encyclopedia of Music contends:
even when most successful, gives the impression of having been created
with effort, though this often gives an extra edge of excitement . . .
regards Belshazzar, progress was indeed slow at times. This was
particularly the case (and this memorable moment was certainly no instant)
when Walton came to set these lines:
Praise ye the God of Gold
Praise ye the God of Silver
Praise ye the God of Iron
Praise ye the God of Wood
Praise ye the God of Stone
Praise ye the God of Brass
Praise ye the Gods!
knew he had to separately adapt melody, harmony and orchestration to the
meaning of each line, while keeping a sense of homogeneity and yet
simultaneously building the intensity and passion of the passage.
trouble was, he bogged down in the first line. The story goes that he
cogitated and wrestled and agonised on what note to set the word “Gold” to
— for eight long months. As he wrote in a letter,
Belshazzar I got landed on the word “gold” — I was there from May
to December 1930, perched, unable to move either to right or left or up or
finally made his decision, things went easier for him, and the whole
section is dazzling in its barbaric effect. Especially splendid is the
“pomp and circumstance” march tune he eventually incorporated in this
would compose 14 other fanfares and marches, including Orb and Sceptre
— as well as the choral Te Deum — for the Coronation of Queen
Elizabeth II in 1953.)
preachers among you may appreciate the next unanticipated moment of
setback during the composition of Belshazzar’s Feast.
I quote from Kennedy’s biography:
. . . he
developed a mental block after reading a joke by the humorist
“Beachcomber” in the Daily Express that the Writing on the Wall was
not “Mene, mene, tekel Upharsin” [“Thou art weighed in the balance and
found wanting”] but “Aimée, Aimée, Semple McPherson”, who was an American
evangelist much in the news at the time.
general slow method of working was such that towards the end of his life
he could state that his most useful composition tool was an eraser:
an india-rubber, I was absolutely sunk. So I surrounded myself with them,
and I seem to have spent my entire life rubbing out what I’ve written.
As far as
Belshazzar’s Feast goes, then, William Walton is remembered today
as the composer who painstakingly but successfully brought the influence
of jazz to the oratorio. Not only did the work alter listeners’ conception
of what that sacred genre could be capable of (as well as liberate
other English composers — their grand choral tradition would never be
quite the same again), but it was also the single greatest factor in
Walton’s rise to fame as a major figure in music.
decade after the stunning and instantaneous acclaim of its première, few
outside the dedicated music-going public seemed to be acquainted with him
or his work — least of all the armed services, as our last memorable
feast-won moment shows.
Benjamin Britten, an ardent pacifist, spent the first three years of the
Second World War in the United States. In 1942 he decided to return to
England, and applied to the Tribunal of Conscientious Objectors to be
exempted from military duty. Walton agreed to speak on his behalf.
asserted that Britten’s gifts would be pointless on the battlefield, the
panel asked him what his credentials were to be making such a claim.
Walton came back with, “Well, if you don’t know who I am, there is no
point in going on.”
perverse mind it seems superbly appropriate to hear such swift and
unreserved self-assurance in the face of khaki Christian scepticism.
Especially from a composer who had taken the best part of a frustrating
year to set the word “Gold” in an exhilarating musical passage about pagan