Belshazzar's Feast (Walton)

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painting of a biblical banquet interrupted by divine intervention
Rembrandt's depiction of "Belshazzar's Feast" is used on the cover of the vocal score and of many recordings of the cantata

Belshazzar's Feast is a cantata by the English composer William Walton.[1] It was first performed at the Leeds Festival on 8 October 1931, with the baritone Dennis Noble, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Leeds Festival Chorus, conducted by Malcolm Sargent.[2] The work has remained one of Walton's most celebrated compositions.[3] Osbert Sitwell selected the text from the Bible, primarily the Book of Daniel, and Psalm 137. The work is dedicated to Walton's friend and benefactor, Gerald Berners.[4]


In the story of Belshazzar's Feast, the Jews are in exile in Babylon. After a feast at which Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, commits sacrilege by using the Jews' sacred vessels to praise the heathen gods, he is miraculously killed, the kingdom falls, and the Jews regain their freedom.

List of movements[edit]

Although they are not specified in the published score, there is a clear delineation between sections,[5] as follows:

  1. Thus spake Isaiah
  2. If I forget thee O Jerusalem
  3. Babylon was a great city
  4. In Babylon, Belshazzar the King made a great feast
  5. Praise ye
  6. Thus in Babylon, the mighty city
  7. And in that same hour
  8. Then sing aloud to God our strength
  9. The trumpeters and pipers were silent
  10. Then sing aloud to God our strength

The full text is as follows:

Thus spake 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,
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?

If 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 Babylon be thrown down
And shall be found no more at all.

Babylon 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 vessels 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.

In Babylon
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, which 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:

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!

Thus in Babylon, the mighty city,
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
That his Princes, his wives and his concubines
Might rejoice and drink therein.

After they had praised 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…

And 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:
In that night was Belshazzar the King slain
And his Kingdom divided.

Then 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.

The trumpeters and pipers are silent,
And the harpers have ceased to harp,
And the light of a candle shall shine no more.

Then sing aloud to God our strength.
Make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob.
For Babylon the Great is fallen.

Musical structure[edit]

The music throughout is strongly rhythmic, and richly orchestrated. The rhythms and harmonies reflect Walton’s interest in jazz and other popular music, pressed into service to tell a religious story. Despite its jagged rhythms and strident orchestral effects, the work is essentially conventional in its tonality. Walton's biographer Michael Kennedy writes, "diatonicism is at the root of the matter ... string tremolandi, brass fanfares, and masterly use of unaccompanied declaration work their customary spell."[6] Kennedy adds that the chilling orchestral sounds which introduce the writing on the wall derive from Richard Strauss's Salome.[6]



The cantata is in ten distinct sections, played continuously. After a brief, recited introduction, the chorus and baritone sing of their homeland Zion, in an emotional setting of Psalm 137 (By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down: yea, we wept), and angrily express their bitterness toward their captors. The narrative then begins, and in a prolonged sequence we hear their horror, and then outrage, at the profanities of the king, followed by an exuberant march section depicting the king and his court praising their gods. The section is framed by a descending figure of four notes that, through repetition, passes down through the orchestra, immediately establishing a jazz influence with a flattened first note and marked syncopation.

This leads to an eerie, and economically orchestrated, depiction of the writing on the wall, and the death that night of Belshazzar (the story of Daniel interpreting the writing is omitted). The people celebrate their freedom, in a joyous song of praise interrupted by a lament over the fall of a great city (derived from Psalm 81 and the Book of Revelation).

The chorus represents the Jewish people throughout, although they adopt the tone of the Babylonians when telling the story of the feast. The baritone soloist has the role of narrator.

History and commentary[edit]

Walton struggled with the setting for several years, and it grew from its original conception as a short work for small forces, as commissioned by the BBC, to its eventual form. The invitation came in a letter of 21 August 1929 from the BBC programme planner Edward Clark, who asked Walton for a work suitable for broadcasting, written for a small choir, soloist, and an orchestra not exceeding 15 players.[8] Walton and Clark knew each other, as they had had dealings in relation to the Viola Concerto, which was premiered only six weeks later with Paul Hindemith as soloist, an idea that been Edward Clark's brain-child.

Fortunately, this was an age of gifted amateur choruses, and conductors and institutions dedicated to bringing forward new music, and the Leeds Festival took on the first performance.[9] The baritone soloist was Dennis Noble, who recorded the work twice (including its premiere recording) and came to be particularly associated with it.

At first the work seemed avant-garde because of its extrovert writing and musical complexity; it is however always firmly tonal although it is scored without a key signature[7] and with many accidentals. The addition of the brass bands was suggested by the festival director, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham; the bands were on hand anyway for a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem, and Beecham said to the young Walton: "As you'll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?".[10] However, under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, an outstanding choral conductor, it was an immediate success, despite its severe challenges to the chorus.[11]

The London premiere was conducted by Adrian Boult on 25 November 1931. The young Benjamin Britten was in the audience.[12][13] The work was performed at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam in 1933. Leopold Stokowski conducted two performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra in January 1934.[12] Sargent regularly programmed it throughout the rest of his career, and took it as far afield as Australia, Brussels, Vienna and Boston. Not only British conductors from Sargent to Simon Rattle, but also Eugene Ormandy, Maurice Abravanel, André Previn, Robert Shaw, Leonard Slatkin and Andrew Litton have recorded the work.[5] In 1947 Herbert von Karajan called it "the best choral music that's been written in the last 50 years".[14] Karajan only ever performed the work once, in 1948 in Vienna, but it was a performance that moved Walton to tears and he expressed amazement that he could ever have written such a wonderful work.[12]

It may have been partly because of The Times's first review that, despite an impeccably biblical text, Belshazzar's Feast was not at first accepted by the Church of England as a work suitable for performance in cathedrals.[15] It was banned from the Three Choirs Festival until 1957.[15] It did not have its premiere at the Worcester Festival until as late as 1975.[12] The Times reviewer urged such a ban; though calling Belshazzar's Feast "a work of intense energy and complete sincerity", he declared the work, "stark Judaism from first to last", adding, "it cumulates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity ... no more a 'sacred' oratorio than is Handel's on the same subject."[16] Some have maintained that Walton saw no moral distinction between the Jews and the Babylonians, as the music for both groups is equally exuberant.[17] However, a distinction can be found in the words. Although there is an early sequence where the Jews vow revenge in particularly violent terms, their eventual victory is conveyed in praise and thanksgiving, the words "Alleluia, for great Babylon's fallen" mixed with regret "while the kings of the earth weep, wail" for the fallen city.

Walton revised the work in 1948, and Roy Douglas had a hand in this.[12] Sargent conducted the premiere of the revised score at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 8 March 1950.[1]

Walton did not take his work with the greatest seriousness. He called the baritone solo about the wealth of Babylon (section 3 above) "the shopping list" and at a Hoffnung festival concert, he conducted a large choir and orchestra in "an excerpt from Belshazzar's Feast": Walton raised his baton, and the chorus bellowed the single word "slain" (from section 7). He then put down his baton, shook hands with the baritone soloist, who had not sung a note, and they both bowed and left the platform to gales of applause.[18]


Solo baritone Chorus Orchestra Conductor Year recorded CD cat no
Dennis Noble Huddersfield Choral Society Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra William Walton 1943 EMI 7 63381 2
Nelson Leonard Illinois University Choir Chicago Symphony Orchestra Rafael Kubelík 1952 CSO CD02-2
Dennis Noble London Philharmonic Choir London Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Adrian Boult 1953 SOMM094
James Milligan Huddersfield Choral Society Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Malcolm Sargent 1958 EMI CfP 7243 5 85904 2 5
Donald Bell Philharmonia Chorus Philharmonia Orchestra Sir William Walton 1959 EMI 5 65004 2
Walter Cassel Rutgers University Choir Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy 1961 Sony Classical 63039
John Cameron Roger Wagner Chorale Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Roger Wagner 1961 Pristine Audio PACO 074
Donald McIntyre BBC Chorus, BBC Choral Society, Christ Church Harmonic Choir BBC Symphony Orchestra Sir William Walton 1965[19] BBC Legends 4097-2
Robert Peterson University of Utah Civic Chorale Utah Symphony Orchestra Maurice Abravanel 1971 Vox 8153
John Shirley-Quirk London Symphony Chorus London Symphony Orchestra André Previn 1972 EMI 7 64723 4
Michael Rippon Hallé Choir Hallé Orchestra James Loughran 1973 EMI 7243 5 75764 2
Benjamin Luxon London Philharmonic Choir London Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Georg Solti 1977 Decca 425154-2
Sherrill Milnes Scottish National Chorus Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish Festival Brass Bands Sir Alexander Gibson 1977 Chandos CHAN 6547
Benjamin Luxon Brighton Festival Chorus, Collegium Musicum of London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra André Previn 1986 RPO MCAD-6187
David Wilson-Johnson London Symphony Chorus London Symphony Orchestra Richard Hickox 1988 EMI Eminence 5 65235 2
William Stone Atlanta Symphony Chorus Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Robert Shaw 1988 Telarc 80181
Gwynne Howell The Bach Choir Philharmonia Orchestra Sir David Willcocks 1989 Chandos CHAN 8760
Thomas Allen London Philharmonic Choir London Philharmonic Orchestra Leonard Slatkin 1990 RCA Victor 60813-2
Bryn Terfel Waynflete Singers, L'Inviti, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Andrew Litton 1995 Decca 448 134-2
Thomas Hampson Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Sir Simon Rattle 1997 EMI 5 56592 2
Christopher Purves Huddersfield Choral Society, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Laudibus English Northern Philharmonia Paul Daniel 2001 Naxos 8.555869
Peter Coleman-Wright London Symphony Chorus London Symphony Orchestra Sir Colin Davis 2005 LSO 0681


  1. ^ a b Kennedy, p. 302
  2. ^
  3. ^ David Ward, "The six greatest works of William Walton". The Guardian, 15 July 2002.
  4. ^ Kennedy, p. 61
  5. ^ a b, accessed 30 June 2007
  6. ^ a b Kennedy, p. 60
  7. ^ a b Full score, Oxford University Press
  8. ^ Stephen Lloyd, William Walton: Muse of Fire
  9. ^ David Ward, "Oldham's tribute for composer and most reluctant son". The Guardian, 15 July 2002
  10. ^ Kennedy, p. 58
  11. ^ Aldous, p. 97
  12. ^ a b c d e Stephen Lloyd, William Walton: Muse of Fire
  13. ^ Kennedy, p. 61
  14. ^ Osborne, p. 225
  15. ^ a b Kennedy, p. 59
  16. ^ The Times, 10 October 1931, p. 10
  17. ^ Halsey, A. H., "The Writing on the Wall".Oxford Review of Education, 19(1), pp. 3–7 (1993)
  18. ^ Ayre, pp. 88–89
  19. ^ Live recording, taped in 1965, released 2002


  • Aldous, Richard (2001). Tunes of glory: the life of Malcolm Sargent. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-180131-1. 
  • Ayre, Leslie (1966). The Wit of Music. London: Leslie Frewin. OCLC 857354. 
  • Kennedy, Michael (1989). Portrait of Walton. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816705-9. 
  • Osborne, Richard (1998). Herbert von Karajan. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 1-85619-763-8. 

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