EXPLORING MUSIC : ''Tonally Brilliant" - Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, conducted by Andre Previn
The MHS Review 377 VOL. 10, NO. 17 • 1986
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David M. Greene
The cliche about the handwriting on the wall is familiar to most people, but in an age in which the college educated recall dimly that Jehovah was "one of those guys in the Bible;' one wonders how many of them know that its source is Daniel V. The place and time are the neo-Babylonian Empire in the mid-sixth century B.C. In 586, King Nebuchadnezzar (properly Nebuchadrezzar II) conquered Jerusalem and deported the inhabitants to his capital. Whether or not the king really went mad and ate grass is uncertain, but in 555 he was succeeded by one Nabonidus. Around 550, for one reason or another, he left town, entrusting the kingdom to his eldest son Belshazzar (or Bel-Shar-Usur or Balthazar), who may have been Nebuchadnezzar's grandson maternally.
So much for history. In the Bible story, this deputy-king gives a big bash, and it occurs to him that it might be fun for him, "his princes, his wives, and his concubines" to have their drinks served in the sacred vessels looted from Solomon's Temple. No sooner have they hoisted them in the first toast than some decidedly spooky male fingers appear inscribing a graffito on the palace wall that reads "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin:' Belshazzar understandably can make nothing of the words, and, despite his offer of a scarlet garment, a gold chain, and third rank in the kingdom, neither can his advisers.
Then someone thinks to bring in the Hebrew prophet Daniel, who is reputedly good at this kind of thing. Daniel says yea, he can read the message, but will forego the rewards in return for being permitted to preach a hell-fire sermon against Babylonian wickedness. Having done so, he tells Belshazzar that it's all up with him and his kingdom, so delighting the ruler that he bestows the goodies on him anyhow. Sure enough, the Bible tells us, Belshazzar was assassinated that night and the city was captured by Darius the Mede, age 62. Historically, Belshazzar seems to have stepped down on Nabonidus' return, but Babylon was conquered by the armies of Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C.
So much for background. When Handel arrived in England in 1711, very few Englishmen could have distinguished between an oratorio and an oratory. Handel, who had written a couple of the Italian variety in Rome, was apparently disinclined to import the genre, having struck gold with his operas. In 1718 or there-abouts, however, he wrote Esther, a little opera or masque for his patron the duke of Chandos. In the early 1730s, Handel revised it for a staged public production featuring the boys of the Chapel Royal, only to have the plan quashed by the bishop of London on the grounds of sacrilege. So Handel did it in concert form instead. Later, a the public's appetite for Italian opera waned, he wrote more and more of these Biblical concert-operas, which, as "oratorios;' cam to be performed during Lent, giving them an odor of sanctity.
Sine such works were regarded as good for the soul, in England the Handelian oratorio (especially Messiah, which avoided overt drama entirely) became the mark of compositional success, and accounted for the British success of such as Mendelssohn, Spohr, Sullivan, and Elgar. It was probably no accident, then, that 26-year-old Billy Walton, enfant terrible, announced his musical maturity with Belshazzar, a huge and brilliant Handelian oratorio to a text cobbled up from the Bible by his pal Osbert Sitwell.
The work, calling for a baritone soloist, two choirs, a huge orchestra with augmented percussion, piano, organ, and two brass bands, is tonally brilliant (and is done justice by the recording, led by Andre Previn, a Walton specialist). The Henry V Suite was arranged by conductor Muir Mathiesen, with the composer's concurrence, from the music for the remarkable Olivier film.