WALTON: Belshazzar's Feast / Crown Imperial

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William Walton (1902-1983)

Belshazzar's Feast Crown Imperial Orb and Sceptre

William Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire, the second offour 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 atime, 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-makingand the great British choral tradition. He would have heard performances of thetwo pillars of the choral society repertoire, Handel's Messiah andMendelssohn's Elijah. Additionally, he would have been surrounded by the soundof brass bands, another flourishing amateur tradition particularly in the partof the country in which he was living. Both traditions were strongly toinfluence his composition later in life. His father, recognising in the boy anatural singer, decided he should try for a place in the choir of Christ ChurchCathedral, Oxford. William was successful and at the age of ten he moved southto take up a place as a chorister. There he would have encountered a whole newand more rarefied choral tradition and his musical development came on apace.Indeed, at the age of only fifteen, he composed one of his finest churchanthems, A Litany (Drop, drop slow tears), which shows a remarkably assuredhand and which gives more than a hint of the mature Walton to come. He returnedto Christ Church as an undergraduate, aged only sixteen, and pitched himselfinto the social life with characteristic zest. He left Oxford in 1920 without adegree but having made several influential and lifelong friends. He spent thenext decade intermittently living in London with two of these friends, Osbertand Sacheverell Sitwell, gradually expanding his social and professionalcircle, gaining more cultural experience and composing with increasingconfidence and brilliance (Fa?ºade, the Viola Concerto and the overturePortsmouth Point).

It was in 1929, having completed the Viola Concerto, thatWalton decided he would write an extended work for chorus and orchestra. OsbertSitwell suggested as a subject the scene from the Bible (Book of Daniel) inwhich, at King Belshazzar's feast in Babylon, a hand appears and propheticallywrites a doom-laden message on the wall. Sitwell himself put together thelibretto, drawing verses from Daniel, Psalms 81 and 137, and from the Book ofRevelations. It is clear from its early history that the concept grew from awork of relatively modest proportions to composition on a massive scale. In thelate 1920s and early 1930s, the BBC was emerging as a major patron of music,commissioning composers and establishing the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A BBC memodated 12th January 1930 discusses three contemporary composers having beenapproached to write works: Walton, Constant Lambert and Victor Hely-Hutchinson.Each work was to be scored for \small chorus, small orchestra of not exceedingfifteen and soloist". It seems Walton had agreed to these limitations. Walton'ssubject was to be "Nebuchadnezzar or the Writing on the Wall". A further BBCmemo dated 30th May revealed that Walton "has completed the composition ofBelshazzar ... for two soloists, small chorus and small orchestra". However, bythe beginning of September it had been generally agreed between the interestedparties that the work had "grown to such proportions" that it would not beconsidered under the original scheme. Work on Belshazzar's Feast continuedthrough 1930 and 1931 with varying degrees of success. At one time (from May toDecember) he was stuck on the word "gold", in the composer's words "unable tomove either to right or left or up or down". Yet by the early months of 1931 hewas "immensely happy ... doing a vast amount of work". It was around this timethat it was announced that the work was to be given its first performance atthat year's Leeds Festival. Although the Festival was being organized by SirThomas Beecham, it was to be Malcolm Sargent who would conduct the firstperformance. As the Berlioz Requiem with all its vast battery of brass was alsoto be played at the Festival, Beecham suggested that Walton add more brass tothe already heavily-scored orchestration, saying: "Well, my boy, as you willprobably never hear this work again, you might as well chuck in a couple ofbrass bands". "I've always liked brass bands, so I did" was Walton's subsequentcomment. The brass bands take the form of seven players in each group placedstage left and right of the orchestra. The first performance on 8th October1931 was a phenomenal success with performers, audience and critics alikehailing a triumph. Given that Walton had composed no choral music since histeenage works at Oxford, the achievement is that much more astonishing and itwas rightly welcomed as the finest large-scale choral work since Elgar's Dreamof Gerontius of 1900.

It was to Elgar, and specifically his five Pomp andCircumstance Marches, that Walton looked when he was commissioned by the BBC tocompose a Coronation March for the anticipated coronation of Edward VIII inNovember 1936. As it happened of course, that event never took place, so thenew work, Crown Imperial, was played at the coronation of George VI inWestminster Abbey on 12 May 1937 as Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, made her waydown the aisle.

Such was the success of Crown Imperial that Walton wascommissioned, some sixteen years later, to write another March for thecoronation of Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. Although the form of Orb and Sceptreis similar to his earlier march, the harmonic language has developeddramatically, the composer leaving the uncomplicated harmonies of CrownImperial behind him for the more boldly chromatic.

The Elgar influence can be seen most readily in thestructure of these two marches which both exude characteristic Waltonian joiede vivre and exuberance (albeit in a more formal and straightforward way inCrown Imperial) in the outer sections and both of which bring on the glorious,sweeping Big Tune as contrast in the trio sections.

Jeremy Backhouse

Belshazzar's Feast

[1]          Thusspake Isaiah:

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?

[2]          IfI 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

Disc: 1
Orb and Sceptre
1 Thus spake Isaiah
2 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem
3 Babylon was a great city
4 Praise
5 Thus in Babylon
6 And in that same hour
7 Then sing aloud to God
8 The trumpeters and pipers are silent
9 Then sing aloud to God
10 Crown Imperial
11 Orb and Sceptre
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