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ClassicsOnline Home » WALTON: Belshazzar's Feast / Crown Imperial
By Matthew Rye
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
"This might not be the first recording of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast to return to the site of its premiere, Leeds Town Hall, but it is certainly the most successful. ...the singing itself is excellent throughout, and Christopher Purves is an expressive soloist. Paul Daniel shapes the work expertly, and his control is as masterly as it was on his earlier acclaimed releases on Naxos's Walton series."
William Walton (1902-1983)
Belshazzar’s Feast • Crown Imperial • Orb and Sceptre
William Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire, the second of
four children of musical parents. His father, Charles, was a singing teacher,
and the organist and choirmaster of St John’s Church in Oldham, where, for a
time, the young William sang; his mother, Louisa, was a fine amateur singer.
From an early age Walton would have been exposed to amateur choral music-making
and the great British choral tradition. He would have heard performances of the
two pillars of the choral society repertoire, Handel’s Messiah and
Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Additionally, he would have been surrounded by the sound
of brass bands, another flourishing amateur tradition particularly in the part
of the country in which he was living. Both traditions were strongly to
influence his composition later in life. His father, recognising in the boy a
natural singer, decided he should try for a place in the choir of Christ Church
Cathedral, Oxford. William was successful and at the age of ten he moved south
to take up a place as a chorister. There he would have encountered a whole new
and more rarefied choral tradition and his musical development came on apace.
Indeed, at the age of only fifteen, he composed one of his finest church
anthems, A Litany (Drop, drop slow tears), which shows a remarkably assured
hand and which gives more than a hint of the mature Walton to come. He returned
to Christ Church as an undergraduate, aged only sixteen, and pitched himself
into the social life with characteristic zest. He left Oxford in 1920 without a
degree but having made several influential and lifelong friends. He spent the
next decade intermittently living in London with two of these friends, Osbert
and Sacheverell Sitwell, gradually expanding his social and professional
circle, gaining more cultural experience and composing with increasing
confidence and brilliance (Façade, the Viola Concerto and the overture
It was in 1929, having completed the Viola Concerto, that
Walton decided he would write an extended work for chorus and orchestra. Osbert
Sitwell suggested as a subject the scene from the Bible (Book of Daniel) in
which, at King Belshazzar’s feast in Babylon, a hand appears and prophetically
writes a doom-laden message on the wall. Sitwell himself put together the
libretto, drawing verses from Daniel, Psalms 81 and 137, and from the Book of
Revelations. It is clear from its early history that the concept grew from a
work of relatively modest proportions to composition on a massive scale. In the
late 1920s and early 1930s, the BBC was emerging as a major patron of music,
commissioning composers and establishing the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A BBC memo
dated 12th January 1930 discusses three contemporary composers having been
approached to write works: Walton, Constant Lambert and Victor Hely-Hutchinson.
Each work was to be scored for “small chorus, small orchestra of not exceeding
fifteen and soloist”. It seems Walton had agreed to these limitations. Walton’s
subject was to be “Nebuchadnezzar or the Writing on the Wall”. A further BBC
memo dated 30th May revealed that Walton “has completed the composition of
Belshazzar ... for two soloists, small chorus and small orchestra”. However, by
the beginning of September it had been generally agreed between the interested
parties that the work had “grown to such proportions” that it would not be
considered under the original scheme. Work on Belshazzar’s Feast continued
through 1930 and 1931 with varying degrees of success. At one time (from May to
December) he was stuck on the word “gold”, in the composer’s words “unable to
move either to right or left or up or down”. Yet by the early months of 1931 he
was “immensely happy … doing a vast amount of work”. It was around this time
that it was announced that the work was to be given its first performance at
that year’s Leeds Festival. Although the Festival was being organized by Sir
Thomas Beecham, it was to be Malcolm Sargent who would conduct the first
performance. As the Berlioz Requiem with all its vast battery of brass was also
to be played at the Festival, Beecham suggested that Walton add more brass to
the already heavily-scored orchestration, saying: “Well, my boy, as you will
probably never hear this work again, you might as well chuck in a couple of
brass bands”. “I’ve always liked brass bands, so I did” was Walton’s subsequent
comment. The brass bands take the form of seven players in each group placed
stage left and right of the orchestra. The first performance on 8th October
1931 was a phenomenal success with performers, audience and critics alike
hailing a triumph. Given that Walton had composed no choral music since his
teenage works at Oxford, the achievement is that much more astonishing and it
was rightly welcomed as the finest large-scale choral work since Elgar’s Dream
of Gerontius of 1900.
It was to Elgar, and specifically his five Pomp and
Circumstance Marches, that Walton looked when he was commissioned by the BBC to
compose a Coronation March for the anticipated coronation of Edward VIII in
November 1936. As it happened of course, that event never took place, so the
new work, Crown Imperial, was played at the coronation of George VI in
Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937 as Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, made her way
down the aisle.
Such was the success of Crown Imperial that Walton was
commissioned, some sixteen years later, to write another March for the
coronation of Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. Although the form of Orb and Sceptre
is similar to his earlier march, the harmonic language has developed
dramatically, the composer leaving the uncomplicated harmonies of Crown
Imperial behind him for the more boldly chromatic.
The Elgar influence can be seen most readily in the
structure of these two marches which both exude characteristic Waltonian joie
de vivre and exuberance (albeit in a more formal and straightforward way in
Crown Imperial) in the outer sections and both of which bring on the glorious,
sweeping Big Tune as contrast in the trio sections.
Thy sons that thou shalt beget,
They shall be taken away
And be eunuchs
In the palace of the King of Babylon.
Howl ye, howl ye, therefore:
For the day of the Lord is at hand!
By the waters of Babylon,
There we sat down: yea, we wept
And hanged our harps upon the willows.
For they that wasted us
Required of us mirth;
They that carried us away captive
Required of us a song.
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
In a strange land?
I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.
Yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
By the waters of Babylon
There we sat down: yea, we wept.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed,
Happy shall he be that taketh thy children
And dasheth them against a stone,
For with violence shall that great city
be thrown down
And shall be found no more at all.
was a great city,
Her merchandise was of gold and silver,
Of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,
Of purple, silk and scarlet,
All manner vessels of ivory,
All manner vessles of most precious wood,
Of brass, iron and marble,
Cinnamon, odours and ointments,
Of frankincense, wine and oil,
Fine flour, wheat and beasts,
Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves,
And the souls of men.
Belshazzar the King made a great feast,
Made a feast to a thousand of his lords,
And drank wine before the thousand.
Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine,
Commanded us to bring the gold and silver vessels:
Yea! the golden vessels,
his father, Nebuchadnezzar,
Had taken out of the temple that was in Jerusalem.
He commanded us to bring the golden vessels
Of the temple of the house of God,
That the King, his Princes, his wives,
And his concubines might drink therein.
Then the King commanded us:
Bring ye the cornet, flute, sackbut, psaltery
And all kinds of music: they drank wine again,
Yea, drank from the sacred vessels,
And then spake the King:
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!
in Babylon, the mighty city,
Made a feast to a thousand of his lords
Belshazzar whiles he tasted the wine
Commanded us to bring the gold and silver vessels
That his Princes, his wives and his concubines
Might rejoice and drink therein.
After they had praise their strange gods,
The idols and the devils,
False gods who can neither see nor hear,
Called they for the timbrel and the pleasant harp
To extol the glory of the King.
Then they pledged the King before the people,
Crying, Thou, O King, art King of Kings:
O King, live for ever. . .
in that same hour, as they feasted,
Came forth fingers of a man’s hand
And the King saw
The part of the hand that wrote.
And this was the writing that was written:
“MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN”
“Thou art weighed in the balance
In that night was Belshazzar the King slain
And his Kingdom divided.
sing aloud to God our strength:
Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.
Take a psalm, bring hither the timbrel,
Blow up the trumpet in the new moon,
Blow up the trumpet in Zion
For Babylon the Great is fallen, fallen.
Then sing aloud to God our strength:
Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob,
While the Kings of the Earth lament
And the merchants of the Earth
Weep, wail and rend their raiment.
They cry, Alas, Alas, that great city,
In one hour is her judgement come.
trumpeters and pipers are silent,
And the harpers have ceased to harp,
And the light of a candle shall shine no more.
sing aloud to God our strength:
Make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob,
For Babylon the Great is fallen. Alleluia!
Words selected from biblical sources by
Osbert Sitwell and reprinted by permission
of Oxford University Press.
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WALTON: Belshazzar's Feast / Crown Imperial