Belshazzar's Feast (Sibelius)

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Belshazzar's Feast, oil on canvas by Rembrandt (1635).

Belshazzar's Feast (Belsazars gästabud), Op. 51, is incidental music by Jean Sibelius to a play of the same name by the journalist, poet and playwright Hjalmar Fredrik Eugen Procopé (sv) (1868−1927). Sibelius composed in 1906 ten movements, scored for orchestra, with singers also being required in some numbers. In 1907 Sibelius extracted a purely orchestral suite of four numbers, which is much better known than the original score.

The first performance of the play and its incidental music was at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki on 7 November 1906, conducted by the composer. It had 21 performances through to January 1907.[1]

Extracts from the longer work form a popular suite, which also has the opus number 51, and consists of:

  1. Oriental March (originally Alla marcia)
  2. Solitude (originally The Jewish Girl's Song)
  3. Nocturne (originally Prelude: Notturno)
  4. Khadra's Dance (originally Dance of Life and Dance of Death).[2]

The suite was scored for solo flute, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle) and strings.[2] It had its first performance in Helsinki on 25 September 1907, in the same concert as the premiere of the Third Symphony; the Orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society was again conducted by the composer. He also made a piano arrangement of the suite in 1907.[1]

The Jewish Girl's Song (Den judiska flickans sång), Number 2b of the original score, existed in a number of versions. It was originally written for flute and orchestra. In 1907 it became the second movement, Solitude, of the orchestral suite. In the same year Sibelius arranged it as a song for voice and piano. In 1939, he arranged it for voice and orchestra for the American contralto Marian Anderson, under the title "Solitude".[1][3]

The suite has had a number of recordings, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Neeme Järvi, Pietari Inkinen and others.

The full original score had its world premiere recording by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Petri Lehto (tenor), Sauli Tiilikainen (baritone), Lahti Chamber Choir, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, as part of BIS Records' Complete Sibelius Edition.

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