Musical Interlude (“On the Path of Decent Groove”): Belshazzar’s Feast

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We are continuing with our occasional Friday musical feature, as suggested by Bob H. A general suggestion: if you are recommending works similar to the one featured (“If you enjoyed what you heard today, you might like this too”), please post that in comments. If you want to highlight something in a different vein, as the subject of a future post, please send it to yves-at-nakedcapitalism-dot-com with “Musical Interlude” in the subject line.

Disclosure: I like big bombastic choral pieces (think Carmina Burana). So I am subjecting you to a composition along those lines. Oddly this isn’t something I listen to regularly due to my weird habits (it’s long-ish and best heard at once, while operas and operettas are neatly chunked into scenes and songs, so you can enjoy short bits in isolation), but when I do listen to it, I think “Why don’t you play this more often? It’s both really good and unusual.”)

The reason you have likely not heard of Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is that this was Walton’s most celebrated work (as in he’s not a generally famous composer), and it’s utterly cray cray (as in costly!) to produce. It has a a double chorus (eight voices as opposed to four, so two soprano parts, two altos, etc.) and an over the top orchestra: a double brass choir, a sax, an organ, 2 harps. Oh, and piano optional. When I saw it performed in Carnegie Hall (back before the redesign ruined its acoustics), they had to put the double brass choir in the balcony boxes nearest the stage; it had no place else to go.

I find all the choral sound very moving; I got quite a few shivers up my spine while listening. And I am not alone. Per Wikipedia, “In 1947 Herbert von Karajan called it ‘the best choral music that’s been written in the last 50 years.'”

I like this version because the baritone is William White as opposed to Byrn Terfel (I do not understand why Terfel is popular; I find his voice disagreeable) and it’s done in Leeds Town Hall, where it was first performed (then and here with the Leeds Festival Chorus; I’m impressed that it’s such a durable group), this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Lyrics below. Enjoy!

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.

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  1. larry

    The Leeds Town Hall doesn’t have the best acoustics either. But they are better than they used to be.

      1. larry

        Leeds town Hall was known for having terrible acoustics. Even adding those ceiling mushrooms didn’t help much though they improved it a little. They certainly couldn’t have made it worse.

        The late Leo Beranek wrote a book comparing the acoutics of concert halls around the world. I interviewed him once in Boston and he had a lot to say that was negative about the politics surrounding the construction of the Lincoln Concert Hall in NY. It was difficult to get him to talk about anything else.He thought it affected the outcome of the acoustics of the building. He was initially involved in its design but apparently was replaced by someone else. I no longer remember the reason he gave for this. I do remember him saying that there seemed to be no good reason for him not being able to finish the project other than political. This interview took place in 1979.

        1. Terry Flynn

          It’s a long time since I researched it but Birmingham Symphony Hall is so brilliant because it copies a “revolutionary” concert hall somewhere in USA. Both, although superficially looking quite similar to the modern “multipurpose concert hall” (a piece of pie) are actually much more, in terms of sound, like the old “shoebox” design which is best for much classical music.

          Listening to and performing in Brum Symphony Hall is a revelation. Whoever designed that USA prototype was a genius. Sorry I don’t have time to look it up again…. on a tablet that is dying.

  2. NVT

    The 1986 renovation of Carnegie Hall ruined the acoustics for about 10 years. But in 1996 when they had to replace a warped stage, it was discovered that a layer of concrete which had been placed in 1986 to reinforce the stage when it had had scaffolding had not been removed as planned. The concrete dulled the sound and caused excess moisture which warped the floor of the stage. When an all-wood floor was installed in 1996, the sound greatly improved, according to conductors, musicians, and critics.

    So, Yves — you should consider revisiting Carnegie Hall!

  3. Terry Flynn

    Loved singing in that with the London Bach Choir (mid 90s). My love of classical (small c) music tends to end at end of Romantic period but there are a number of 20th century pieces I’ve come to adore, due to playing in the orchestra or singing in the choir. This was one of them.

    Sir David Willcocks was conductor at that time. One the one hand the choir was frightfully biased towards “the Establishment” – new blood each year tended to come in from him visiting his old grounds in Cambridge and we in the University Chorus who had London-based jobs secured after graduation were encouraged to audition. Once in the choir I found that the other 2nd Basses I tended to talk to were all middle ranking to senior Whitehall civil servants and tended not to say much about their day to day jobs! HRH the Duchess of Kent also sang in the choir but insisted we call her Katherine. Lovely lady.

    We once performed Rutter’s Gloria (amazing piece) in the Festival Hall, not realising he was in the audience and was called up to take a bow. 98% of the choir knew JS Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion (sung in English), which the choir sang at Easter every year. So newbies had to be good sight-singers or perish, since there were never more than 4 rehearsals before performing. The two in Festival Hall were scary enough but doing one in Symphony Hall Birmingham (best acoustics in UK) is terrifying – you honestly feel as if you individually can be heard by all the audience. Furthermore David had a trick he often played – he did it my year. It’s another piece for double chorus. I was 2nd Bass so Choir 2. BUT he would say “you’re meant to be the crowd so I’m mixing the sections up!” I had an alto one side, a soprano the other, and a tenor behind me. Nearest bass was in front (no help at all!) Now THAT is scary.

    So, If you enjoyed what you heard today, you might like this too (if you fancy something in English with double choir, and with similar “energy”). OK I’m biased towards a BChoir recording and I understand if you hate having the English translation but I personally don’t like singing in languages I never learnt (so English, Latin and French were my favourites).

  4. David

    Thanks for this, Yves. I have to confess I’m not usually one for large-scale choral works, (more Monteverdi actually) but I’ll happily give this recording a listen.
    Meanwhile this is obviously the time and place to recount yet again the famous Royal Albert Hall joke. For a century after it was constructed, the acoustics were so awful that the famous echo gave rise to the joke that the RAH was the only venue where a contemporary British composer could hear their work payed twice. In the late 1960s, so-called “mushrooms” were added to the roof, to absorb the echo. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it any easier for contemporary British composers to hear their work played twice.

    1. larry

      “contemporary British composers to hear their work played twice” — ho, ho. Very good, David. It ws once said that the RAH was such that a whisper on one side of the hall could be heard at the other opposite it. Difficult conveying secrets there, then.

  5. Felix_47

    Thank you. With this, which I never heard before, it seems one focuses more on the voices in comparison to St. Matthews Passion or the Weinachtsratorium.

  6. Psalamanazar

    They say Belshazzar’s Feast ended up with the ‘cray cray’ double brass chorus because Beecham was bringing many brass players to perform the Requiem of Berlioz at the same festival and suggested to Walton that, as he would never hear it again, he might as well throw in a couple of brass bands.

    1. Terry Flynn

      That’s a totally Beecham comment, whether or not he said it in reality! Whilst Beecham took pieces like Handel’s Messiah to their ultimate size, which bordered on ridiculous, he was closer to Handel’s desires than many “small forces” advocates.

      I like pieces that use period instruments and forces. Except when the composer didn’t like small forces. Handel had a reputation for wanting more forces all the time. IMHO The Huddersfield Choral Society recording with large but not excessive choir, using a slight modification of Mozart’s arrangement of Messiah is best. Mozart added trombones etc to beef up the sound – things that hadn’t been invented or weren’t yet commonly used in Handel’s time. I’m pretty sure Handel would have approved.

      1. norm de plume

        I wonder, if Mozart could come back and listen to a range of recordings of say the first movement of his D Minor Piano Concerto, whether he would prefer the period instrument versions (such as say the Bilson/Gardiner one) or those played on modern instruments (say Perahia/Abbado).

  7. urblintz

    “Seht die Sonne” from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

    This was before the composer’s turn to the “darkside” of dodecaphony and a stunning choral ending utilizing one of the largest orchestras ever assembled on one concert platform, including 25 woodwind, 25 brass, 11 percussion, three four-part male voice choirs, and a mixed eight-part choir.

    Walton is underrated. Here’s one of my my favorites, the weird and wacky Facade (poetry by Edith Sitwell). I and Leonard Bernstein’s daughter. Jamie, performed this at the Detroit Chamber Music Festival. What fun!!!

  8. Mike Smitka

    Thanks. Please keep sharing such pieces!

    My favorite (OK, I’m a Bass 2) is Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil, a capella and in church slavonic (which uses different pronunciations than modern Russian). I’m not sure it’s a good concert piece from an audience perspective, it’s long and probably blurs in the ear and mind. But it’s magical to sing, and I got to stand next to the two professional low basses hired as ringers, the end of the 6th pieces closes with only the low bass line moving, down stepwise a full octave to a low Bb. Unfortunately, the choir went flat and I bottomed out, but they kept going down with just a hint of fear in their eyes to what ended up an Ab or G.

    Anyway, thanks for this piece! It is indeed a spectacle and what voices! I will need to relisten a couple times to let the structure of the piece sink in. This is good. In contrast, I do not like Carmina Burana.

    Of course on a sadder note it’s been a year-plus since our last choral rehearsal, here in Rockbridge County VA. In the interim 2 members and our normal bass continuo have been felled by COVID. I’m sure every member of a community choir has experienced the same, a long hiatus and facing a return where chairs will be empty.

    Two favorite shorter pieces, Árstíðir – Heyr himna smiður sung in a train station, and Hymn of the Children with the Concordia choir. Then there’s Jonah’s Song by Peter Schickele with the UL Lafayette men. It’s a song where you actually get to growl out an “R” rather than get singled out for the conductor’s worst glare.

    1. norm de plume

      Hi Mike, I too am a Vespers fanatic. I own 4 versions including the legendary Sveshnikov Melodiya from 1965 which remains the benchmark. However, I recently stumbled across a sublime modern reading of the Bless the Lord, O My Soul on Youtube:

      It is a group of singers from the Warsaw University Choir; a much smaller group than is usual and so perhaps less overwhelming than some, but I enjoyed the opportunity to appreciate each individual voice more clearly, especially that of the leader, alto Irina Bogdanovich. That part needs both steel and silk and most versions feature singers who exhibit greater facility with one at the expense of the other, but here, at least for me, the blend is seamless.

      I was so taken with it (moved, to be honest) that I searched high and low for their recording the full work. I found it but was disappointed that while Ms B conducted the choir she didn’t sing the lead as she does in the clip. One of the Youtube commenters relayed the info that the clip was a practice performance for the full recording, for which external soloists were hired. This was unfortunate because the hired hand, while very good, was not in the same class as Ms B so far as I was concerned.

      I googled Ms B and found she had a website, where she described herself thus: ‘a conductor, pianist, composer and artistic director’. I couldn’t believe that the possessor of that wonderful voice had not included ‘singer’ as well. I emailed to say how much I loved the clip and she charmingly replied ‘Thank You so much for Your massage. I’m so happy to read Your such worm letter’.

      It so happened that when this occurred I was halfway thru a book called ‘Pieces of Time’ by Peter Bogdanovich. Those Bogdans certainly produced some talented children.

  9. Terry Flynn

    Just gotta say I love this addition to NC so much. Brilliant decision to include it.
    I hope, given my “reluctance” to explore c20th music that it will open my eyes further. I’m so Baroque/Medieval to Romantic! School choir I sang in (boys’ school) , we were convinced lost a competition due to fate being a git – “This is the Record of John” by Gibbons is divine – choir + countertenor. Our countertenor at school (year 9) had his voice complete breaking the weekend of competition time. We felt so sorry for him and us. He just couldn’t do it justice once his voice completed breaking.

    *Weird fact. I was an alto then. Went on school trip across Europe. Arrived back. First words from parents weren’t “hello” but “family blog your voice broke when you were away”. Thanks mum and dad.

    1. Terry Flynn

      In my (UK) secondary school (years 7 upwards) the first piece we had to sing on entering – and which acted as an informal test of who was worth considering for the school choir – was this. We had the English translated version. Those who made it into the school choir found us singing it at Xmas concert with the orchestra. It was amazing.

      I sang it again (as a bass) at university many years later. In the original German. Whilst I totally get that the “story is better told” and the “words fit better” in the original German, since German was not one of the two languages I learnt at school I spent a lot of time concentrating on proper pronunciation of the German, at the expense of “losing myself” in this glorious piece.

      This is one reason I tend to appreciate pieces in foreign languages (that I don’t know) less – I really like to understand the words so I can lose myself in the music. Latin/French – fine. German/Italian – ouch. I know it’s largely “me” but pieces like Haydn’s two oratorios – dual composed in English/German – always move me more in English, even though “the flexible tiger” is nonsense and maybe worthy of Carole Baskin…..

  10. Harold

    I am so glad choral music still has so many fans. It is the most sublime, IMO. (Though I like all vocal music.)

  11. Eustachedesaintpierre

    Thank you for the post although to be honest the music didn’t work for me, but I am glad that it works for you & judging by the introduction & the above informed comments, I guess if you continue I am going to learn something else worth knowing.

    I’m kind of a magpie with music, picking up treasures from all kinds of places as in Carl Orff from an aftershave Ad & Malick’s Badlands. In Trutina is just pure beauty & Ecce Gratum is like how I would like to get out of bed each morning & I always try at least, to play it on a sweet early Spring day.

    I have some pieces that I wonder why I don’t play them very often – maybe the mood needs to be right for them to be unwrapped again. I have one which is very beautiful to me, but after seeing a translation leading me to discover what was actually being sung, I have since felt slightly guilty in enjoying the experience of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

    As for acoustics Belfast Opera House is about to be renovated & unfortunately I missed out on some sculptural repairs work on the old girl, but hopefully they will go back to being a venue for all musical variants, hopefully with no need for mushrooms..

    Cuthbert Brodrick was the architect for Leeds City Hall so likely to blame for the acoustics. He also had a bit of a strange life, as described by Jonathon Meades in his own particular way.

  12. garbagecat

    Ms Smith, thank you for the Walton. Remarkable piece, of course, and the Beecham story recounted upthread is a gem.

    We’ve had a suggestion for the Rachmaninoff Vespers (the Russian title translates as “All-Night Vigil,” part of the Orthodox Easter ritual).

    I’m going to suggest “Les Cloches,” The Bells, written by Rachmaninoff at just about the same time, to texts by Edgar Allen Poe (!) in an idiomatic Russian translation. There are numerous recordings. An excellent one is by Charles Dutoit leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, with the great baritone Sergei Leiferkus. The chorus sound great, although their Russian diction isn’t all the way there…

    Another remarkable, though short, choral work is the Cantata Profana by Bartok, written around 1930, to an ancient Romanian legend about nine magic stags. There is a great recording by the Chicago Symphony and their inestimable Chorus, with Boulez on the podium.

    I’m a board member of an important semi-professional choral group in the US. It was my personal privilege to underwrite a production of the Rachmaninoff Vespers two years ago. There’s no recording (union rules are VERY strict here), but the performances were more successful than we had hoped. One of the most memorable experiences of my life.

    The singers had a hell of a time with the language, even though we had a couple of native Russian speakers in the group to help with diction coaching. As much as we all love Maestro Shaw, I think the best recordings are the ones by Russian groups.

    And by the way, the Vespers is musicologically unique. It’s already been noted upthread that the language isn’t quite exactly Russian. Rachmaninoff had in mind specifically to write a piece inspired by the “Old Believer” tradition in Russian Orthodoxy, which had been in bitter (and often bloody) schism since the late 17th Century.

    The musical texts which inspired the Vespers are nothing like the musical notation we know in the West. They are quite precise, but not in regard to meter and pitch! Rachmaninoff apparently engaged a professional musicologist at the time of writing (about 1910) to help him understand the texts and musical notation, which were already ancient by the late 17th, having been in continuous use nearly unchanged from the days of the Slavonic Fathers of the Russian church. The text and music are so unique and distinctive that our chorale had to put tremendous effort into the preparation. Listen to native Russian groups, and it sounds perfectly natural to them, perhaps because this music can still be heard in liturgical use in certain Russian churches.

    The schism in the Russian church was still an open wound when Rachmaninoff was writing in 1910, and traces of it remain today, despite the best efforts by the Bolsheviks to erase their own culture and history. We discovered that small and very secretive remnants of the Old Believers exist to this day in the New World! Specifically, in Oregon and near Washington DC. I wanted to invite some of them to our performances of the Vespers but we weren’t able to swing it. (“Old Believers” are “Raskolnikii” in Russian… and now you fans of Crime and Punishment know another layer to that story!)

    To the commenter upthread who mentioned the movement that ends with a long minor-mode scale down to low B-flat: This is the “Nunc dimittis.” Legend has it that Rachmaninoff hoped this movement would be sung in his memory. For those who aren’t familiar, go look up and read the Latin text. Rachmaninoff was famously preoccupied with death, of course, and you see that also in The Bells, the Paganini Variations, and many others.

    To bring this back to The Bells, the fourth movement (about funeral bells), ends in a quiet plagal cadence to C-sharp major. If you’re not listening carefully, you’ll miss that final paragraph in the music, it’s only a few seconds long, but it has a calm, valedictory quality that truly sums up all of this great and underrated composer’s work.

    All the best, thanks everyone…

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