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Inside The Music: Belshazzar’s Feast

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

Walton and Elgar both epitomise the very essence of English music – and you’ll hear that essence in all its brilliant facets during this concert.

The youthful energy of Walton’s Portsmouth Point gives way to the more mature, Romantic style of his Coronation Te Deum before the sheer breadth and imagination on show in his oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast show just what a trailblazer he really was. Meanwhile, Elgar’s affectionate portrait of London, written 30 years earlier, shows the great composer’s orchestral skills at their height. It’s a whirlwind tour of the capital that Elgar suggested was ‘honest, healthy, humorous and strong.’

10 things you didn’t know about… Walton

  • Although William Walton went up to Oxford to study music, he left without a degree in 1920, having failed his exams three times.
  • His early choral masterpiece, A Litany, was written when the composer was just 15.
  • Walton befriended the war poet Siegfried Sassoon at Oxford, and dedicated his Portsmouth Point overture to him.
  • In 1948, Walton met the 22-year-old Susana Gil Passo in Buenos Aires while on a business trip. After dinner one evening, Walton is said to have told her ‘You will be very surprised, Miss Gil, to hear that I am going to marry you.’
  • La Mortella, the Waltons’ home in Ischia, is open to the public – tours were conducted by his wife, Susana, up until her death in 2007.
  • Walton received the Order of Merit in 1967, the fourth composer to be awarded the honour. There can be only 24 recipients of the award at any one time.
  • William Walton wrote the music for the 1969 film Battle of Britain but it only on reading a copy of the Daily Telegraph that Walton discovered his music had been rejected in favour of a score by Ron Goodwin.
  • When Elgar died in 1934, the British authorities asked Walton to write a piece for the coronation of George VI. Crown Imperial was unashamedly populist, and many of Walton’s admirers, who believed the composer to be an avant-garde musician, were disappointed.
  • Benjamin Britten and Walton were close friends – Walton considered Britten a genius, but the compliment wasn’t reciprocated.
  • Walton wrote the music for the opening sequence of the BBC’s television adaptations of Shakespeare plays which were broadcast between 1978 and 1985, by which time the composer had died.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy

VIDEO: Jonathan James

Listen out for… 5 key moments

  1. Walton: Portsmouth Point

At just over three and a half minutes into this wild orchestral miniature, Walton inserts the rhythms of the Spanish sardana dance, a nod to the Mediterranean sailors who came in and out of the English port.

  1. Walton: Coronation Te Deum

A moment of calm amid the pomp at a minute and a half in, as the sopranos sing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy: Lord God of Sabaoth’ in the style of a chorus of angels. Magical.

  1. Elgar: Cockaigne Overture

Our loved-up couple, on their stroll through London, suddenly stumble across a brass band, which strikes up at around seven minutes in. Elgar was no doubt grinning from ear-to-ear as he scored this brief passage.

  1. Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast, ‘And in that same hour’

Listen to the chorus shout out the word ‘slain’, a sudden, dramatic echo during the eerie baritone recitative that tells of the death of Belshazzar.

  1. Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast, closing bars

The tension at last released, the final few minutes of Walton’s masterpiece are joyful and irrepressible.

Walton – a new, vivid musical style

Alongside the Viola Concerto, the Overture Portsmouth Point, written in 1925, made Walton’s name, establishing the 23-year-old composer as one of the great names in 20th-century British music. It’s a vivacious, irrepressible piece, based on the early 19th-century etching of the busy port by Thomas Rowlandson. Although its musical language doesn’t break any significant barriers, the music set the tone for the composer’s often irreverent, witty writing, with its earthy, folky harmonies and spikiness reminiscent of his direct Russian contemporary Shostakovich.

Just six years later, Walton’s vivid musical style was showcased in the work that would come to define him. Belshazzar’s Feast, originally commissioned by the BBC but premiered at the Leeds Festival, is scored for baritone solo, huge orchestra and full choir. Set to words by Osbert Sitwell – part of the family who encouraged, nurtured and funded Walton’s composing from his university days – the oratorio tells the Old Testament story of the Babylonian king’s lavish, decadent feast during which he uses sacred Jewish vessels to give praise to heathen gods. Walton’s music creates a vivid sense of theatre, and a driving energy not unlike that of Carl Orff’s choral work Carmina Burana. But it took a while for Walton’s masterpiece to enter the regular repertoire – the Church of England took exception to its pagan themes and violent imagery, and forbade its performance in its cathedrals, while the Three Choirs Festival refused to programme it until 1957.

By then, however, Walton was the toast of the establishment, and his Coronation Te Deum was commissioned in 1953, along with the orchestral march Orb and Sceptre, for the coronation of our present queen. Walton’s musical language is much more straightforward here – Elgarian even – but it’s no less thrilling, with the choir and orchestra echoing each other antiphonally; the effect would have been spectacular, no doubt, in the enormous acoustics of Westminster Abbey.

Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture ‘In London Town’, written in 1901, just after the completion of the ‘Enigma’ Variations, is a 15-minute love letter to the British capital, as experienced by a young couple strolling through its streets (Cockaigne is a fictitious ‘land of delights’). Elgar paints a secluded park and a brass band into the music, but the overture should be enjoyed as a riotous and affectionate celebration rather than a detailed picture of a city. And it’s one of the composer’s most lavishly orchestrated works, too, making its brevity all the more astonishing.

Further listening

Elgar – In the South

Elgar’s South isn’t a coastal English retreat but the Italian Riviera where he went on holiday with his wife. It’s one of the composer’s most colourful and dramatic short orchestral pieces. Well worth exploring.

The Hallé/Sir Mark Elder (Hallé CDHLL7500)

Walton Symphony No. 1

Written around the same time as Belshazzar’s Feast, Walton is on dazzling form once again, with a heart-melting slow movement that pays homage to Elgar and a finale that features a daring, helter-skelter fugue. Huge fun.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton (Decca 478 8350)

Words: Oliver Condy