"As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?"
Belshazzar's Feast is a cantata written by William Walton in 1931. It was originally a commission for the BBC, but eventually outgrew its original purpose as a simple piece for broadcast. Its final form requires a large double-choir, a full symphony orchestra, an organ, piano, saxophone, timpani, gong, glockenspiel, xylophone, slapsticks, anvil, castanets and various drums. In addition to the orchestra's brass section, two extra 7-part brass bands are also scored, one to the left and right of the conductor. It is dedicated to Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners.
It tells the biblical story of how God dictated the assassination of Belshazzar, King of Babylon by writting a judgement of him on a wall. (The biblical account is in Daniel Chapter 5). The text was selected and arranged by the poet and friend of Walton's, Osbert Sitwell.
It was premiered at the Leeds Festival in october 1931. It is a measure of how challenging the work is, that the choir required 6 months of rehearsals. Inspite of the complexity, it is stiring stuff:- tremendous fun to perform and hear. It is considered as one of the triumphs of English choral composition.
It is refreshing for a religiously themed work that the setting of Belshazzar's praise of the Babylonian gods of gold, silver, iron, wood, stone and brass is exciting, upbeat, dynamic, somehow descriptive of the god in question and without a hint of judgement. In particular, if "shining" could be said to have a sound, it's the sound of the choral chords that praise the god of gold.
Likewise, God's intervention is scored unflatteringly. When the words "MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN", "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting"1 appear on the wall of Belshazzar's palace, the baritone soloist makes an especially grim interval with the creepy and discordant string playing.
Walton relishes the description of Babylon, and even offers a baritone fanfare on the death of Belshazzar. That said, his treatment of the Israelites lament at being taken into slavery (A setting of Waters of Babylon, Psalm 137) and joy at their eventual freedom is sympathetic. Although, for me, the hilight of the peice is the prayer to the material gods of Babylon.
- This is the origin of the phrase "The writing's on the wall