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8.555869 - WALTON: Belshazzar's Feast / Crown Imperial
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William Walton (1902-1983)

William Walton (1902-1983)

Belshazzar’s Feast • Crown Imperial • Orb and Sceptre


William Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire, the second of four 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 a time, 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-making and the great British choral tradition. He would have heard performances of the two pillars of the choral society repertoire, Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Additionally, he would have been surrounded by the sound of brass bands, another flourishing amateur tradition particularly in the part of the country in which he was living. Both traditions were strongly to influence his composition later in life. His father, recognising in the boy a natural singer, decided he should try for a place in the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. William was successful and at the age of ten he moved south to take up a place as a chorister. There he would have encountered a whole new and more rarefied choral tradition and his musical development came on apace. Indeed, at the age of only fifteen, he composed one of his finest church anthems, A Litany (Drop, drop slow tears), which shows a remarkably assured hand and which gives more than a hint of the mature Walton to come. He returned to Christ Church as an undergraduate, aged only sixteen, and pitched himself into the social life with characteristic zest. He left Oxford in 1920 without a degree but having made several influential and lifelong friends. He spent the next decade intermittently living in London with two of these friends, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, gradually expanding his social and professional circle, gaining more cultural experience and composing with increasing confidence and brilliance (Façade, the Viola Concerto and the overture Portsmouth Point).


It was in 1929, having completed the Viola Concerto, that Walton decided he would write an extended work for chorus and orchestra. Osbert Sitwell suggested as a subject the scene from the Bible (Book of Daniel) in which, at King Belshazzar’s feast in Babylon, a hand appears and prophetically writes a doom-laden message on the wall. Sitwell himself put together the libretto, drawing verses from Daniel, Psalms 81 and 137, and from the Book of Revelations. It is clear from its early history that the concept grew from a work of relatively modest proportions to composition on a massive scale. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the BBC was emerging as a major patron of music, commissioning composers and establishing the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A BBC memo dated 12th January 1930 discusses three contemporary composers having been approached to write works: Walton, Constant Lambert and Victor Hely-Hutchinson. Each work was to be scored for “small chorus, small orchestra of not exceeding fifteen and soloist”. It seems Walton had agreed to these limitations. Walton’s subject was to be “Nebuchadnezzar or the Writing on the Wall”. A further BBC memo dated 30th May revealed that Walton “has completed the composition of Belshazzar ... for two soloists, small chorus and small orchestra”. However, by the beginning of September it had been generally agreed between the interested parties that the work had “grown to such proportions” that it would not be considered under the original scheme. Work on Belshazzar’s Feast continued through 1930 and 1931 with varying degrees of success. At one time (from May to December) he was stuck on the word “gold”, in the composer’s words “unable to move either to right or left or up or down”. Yet by the early months of 1931 he was “immensely happy … doing a vast amount of work”. It was around this time that it was announced that the work was to be given its first performance at that year’s Leeds Festival. Although the Festival was being organized by Sir Thomas Beecham, it was to be Malcolm Sargent who would conduct the first performance. As the Berlioz Requiem with all its vast battery of brass was also to be played at the Festival, Beecham suggested that Walton add more brass to the already heavily-scored orchestration, saying: “Well, my boy, as you will probably never hear this work again, you might as well chuck in a couple of brass bands”. “I’ve always liked brass bands, so I did” was Walton’s subsequent comment. The brass bands take the form of seven players in each group placed stage left and right of the orchestra. The first performance on 8th October 1931 was a phenomenal success with performers, audience and critics alike hailing a triumph. Given that Walton had composed no choral music since his teenage works at Oxford, the achievement is that much more astonishing and it was rightly welcomed as the finest large-scale choral work since Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius of 1900.


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


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


The Elgar influence can be seen most readily in the structure of these two marches which both exude characteristic Waltonian joie de vivre and exuberance (albeit in a more formal and straightforward way in Crown 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]          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,

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]          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.


[3]          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 vessles 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:

[4]          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!


[5]          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 praise 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. . .


[6]          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:


“Thou art weighed in the balance

               and found wanting.”

In that night was Belshazzar the King slain

And his Kingdom divided.


[7]          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.


[8]          The trumpeters and pipers are silent,

And the harpers have ceased to harp,

And the light of a candle shall shine no more.


[9]          Then sing aloud to God our strength:

Make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob,

For Babylon the Great is fallen. Alleluia!



Words selected from biblical sources by

Osbert Sitwell and reprinted by permission

of Oxford University Press.

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