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Feasting Vicariously on Walton


Sir William Turner Walton

The stellar Yale Schola Cantorum (founded 2003 by Simon Carrington at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music) was to have visited Boston’s Symphony Hall today on a quick tour of New England, accompanied by the Yale Philharmonia, an orchestra made up of graduate students at the Yale School of Music. But that event is not to be.

The Yale Philharmonia is the largest performing ensemble at the YSM, founded in 1894 by composition professor Horatio Parker. During my and my husband’s time in New Haven, it was led by Otto Werner Mueller (1973-1987) and Eleazar di Carvahlo (1987-1994); since 2015, Peter Oundjian has directed it.

The New Haven groups of (mostly) graduate music students were to be joined by the world-renowned London Bach Choir in a program including William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and the lavish motets Song to the Soul by Stanford and Mater ora filium by Bax. The soloist for the Walton was to be David Pershall (MM’10, AD’11), who made his Boston Lyric Opera debut as Count Almaviva in the recent 2018 Marriage of Figaro reviewed HERE.

But you can nevertheless hear them…

For those who have not had the chance to hear the Yale Schola Cantorum recently under their new director David Hill, the choir of two dozen voices has just released two choral CDs on Hyperion. “Schütz: The Christmas Story” recreates part of a 1660 Christmas day vespers in Dresden. It includes the fully orchestrated Historia der Geburt Christi, a Magnificat, and other motets. Soloists with local connections include ISM and YSM graduates Emilia Donato (MM’19, who studied for a year at NEC); mezzo-soprano Ashley Mulcahy (MM’19, who nows sings in Marsh Chapel and works at BU); and baritone Edward Vogel (MM’19, soloist at the Tanglewood Music Center during summer 2018). You can listen and read more HERE.

“New England Choirworks,” the other new release, presents the Elm City Girls’ Choir singing a new Magnificat in “the style of Bulgarian women’s chorus” by Tawnie Olson (AD’00 from the ISM and YSM). Conducted by Rebecca Rosenbaum (DMA’07), Olson’s music juxtaposes the Magnificat text with that of the Ave Maria, sung by Yale Schola Cantorum. Other new works include This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity by Reena Esmail (b. 1983, DMA’18) with texts from Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam. You can listen and read more HERE.

David Hill, MBE is also the Principal Conductor of the London Bach Choir, which is in residence in Royal Albert Hall. Their President is the composer John Rutter, OBE, and their Patron is HRH The Prince of Wales. Their extensive website includes a list of publications and dozens of recent online recordings 

As for the masterwork at the heart of the now-cancelled tour, Belshazzar’s Feast is a Boston chorister’s favorite, last sung at Tanglewood with Ryan Speedo Green in Summer 2017

[reviewed HERE] and in Symphony Hall by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver in April 2004.

The work and its response

In 1929, William Turner Walton (1902-1983) was invited by the BBC to compose, for a fee of 50 guineas, a choral work for small chorus, small orchestra (15 players at most), and a vocal soloist. Walton accepted the commission, but it grew into an oratorio for double mixed choir, baritone solist and massive orchestra, premiering at the Leeds Festival in 1931 instead.

Thomas Beecham was the Festival’s director, and assigned Walton’s piece to Malcolm Sargent. Since the Berlioz Requiem was being performed at the same festival, Beecham declared to the composer, “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” The chorus wrestled with the jazz- influenced score for six months before the premiere.

Walton’s oratorio tells the Biblical story of King Belshazzar’s banquet during which a ghostly hand writes on the palace wall condemning the Babylonian ruler and his realm to destruction (a virus?). In assembling the oratorio, Walton went against the fashion of the time (à la Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius) and kept most of the original Biblical text from the Belshazzar story in the Book of Daniel (Chapter 5), adding parts of Psalms 137 and 81, and even adapting the description of Babylon from Revelation.

In spite of this, Walton’s biographer Michael Kennedy describes it as “secular in mood” and “a human drama, not a religious experience.” The Times critic in 1931 said of the work that “it culminates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity,” and this and similar contemporary views resulted in a ban on the work from many English cathedrals lasting until 1957.

Who was Belshazzar?

Historically, Babylon was located south of the present-day site of Baghdad. Belshazzar was not the king of Babylon, but the crown prince (the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabucco to you opera buffs). In 1853-1854, Sir Henry Rowlinson found Babylonian clay cylinders documenting the historical (Bilsharuzzer) Belshazzar for the first time. This is why B. offers to reward anyone who can decipher the mysterious “writing on the wall” by making them the third ruler in the kingdom — he was only second in line for the Mesopotamian throne. The story of Daniel in the Bible reports an adaptation of the final years of the “Babylonian captivity” of the Jewish people (597-538 BCE).

Cyrus of Persia (now mostly Iran) was gradually advancing toward Babylon, and slew Belshazzar not in Babylon (as in the Biblical story), but in battle on the western bank of the Tigris. A year later, Cyrus made his triumphal entry into a conquered Babylon. This marked the only time in history that a capital city in this region was invaded/occupied without buildings being razed, citizens killed, or private property destroyed. Cyrus advocated religious tolerance, and even allowed the Jewish people to return to the ruined city of Jerusalem.

The first section of Walton’s work describes the plight of the Jewish people; the second portrays a great feast using sacred artifacts from the Temple of Jerusalem, at which various blasphemies are described. The baritone soloist describes the scene and the death of the King. The last section is a long hymn of praise, interrupted by a haunting description of the silence of the ruined city (Jerusalem, not Babylon, which was ruined seventy years before by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies) – and just such silence will be heard in Boston’s Symphony Hall on Monday.

Belshazzar in the arts.

Other artists, such as Handel (in his 1745 oratorio Belshazzar, partly funded by a group of Jewish ladies), Sibelius (in his incidental music for Hjalmar Procopé’s play of 1908), and Rembrandt van Rijn have treated the Biblical story of Belshazzar. Rembrandt’s The Feast of Belshazzar (1635) depicts Daniel deciphering a Semitic text predicting the king’s murder. The work, hanging in the National Gallery in London, is infused with originality and dynamism. Rembrandt places the few cowering courtiers in modern (Renaissance) dress, and the new context gives the work both visual richness and a strong sense of social awareness.

Some details seem to be historically based: the Aramaic text written on the wall is being written from right to left, in an unconventional vertical form (they read “mene, mene, tekel, upharsim” meaning “it has been counted and counted, weighed, and divided”). Unlike other areas of Europe, Jews enjoyed relative freedom in Rembrandt’s native Amsterdam: his use of Jewish models is unusual for the time and gives the scene a valuable cultural accuracy. His choice of iconography adds exposition and plausibility to the bare bones of the original text (i.e. why could Daniel read and solve the riddle when no one else in the court could?).

What was served at Belshazzar’s Feast?

The Sumerians cultivated date palms as early as 5000 BCE, and today Iraq grows 80% of the world’s dates. Figs and almonds, originally from Turkey, were traded in public markets. Grapes probably first came from the Caspian Sea area of Iran and then spread both south: familiar to the Sumerians of ancient Iraq – they are mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, about 3000 BC. Primary meats included fish and goat: the conquering Persians introduced many lamb preparations such as Kufteh Tabriz. Olives and the tall white leek were first mentioned 4000 years ago, noted by a scribe in the Mesopotamian city of Ur. Lentils probably first appeared in northeastern Iraq. At Qalat Jarmo, Iraq, archaeologists have found lentils nearly 9000 years old. The Sumerians, writing in about 3000 BC, first mentioned the onion; paired with barley and honey in a bread called Bappir.

Other delights of the ancient Babylonian table included purple and white carrots (from Afghanistan), garlic, pomegranates, peaches (named after Persia), and spinach (from northern Iran). A popular marinade was the Greek-style Garum, a salty, aromatic, fish-based sauce. It is mentioned in both Roman and Mesopotamian sources. The oldest walnut remains have turned up in the Shanidar Caves of Iraq, home to people living about 50,000 BC.

Barley was the chief grain of both the ancient Mesopotamians and Romans: sources describe the brewing of beer in Babylon as early as 2500B.C.E. Beer parlor brawls are given special mention in the Code of Hammurabi, an early stone legal document from eighteenth century B.C.E. Sumeria. The most well-known Persian and Roman dessert drink was Muslum, a mixture of wine and honey.

King Belshazzar of Babylon takes sacred golden and silver vessels from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. Using these holy items,
the King and his court praise ‘the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone’. Immediately, the disembodied fingers of a human hand appear
and write on the wall of the royal palace the words “MENE”, “MENE”, “TEKEL”, “UPHARSIN”

Bappir Beer from Ancient Sumeria

The Anchor Steam Brewery in San Francisco has documented their recreation of Sumerian beer HERE and HERE (with pictures and clay carvings) and (with translations of Sumerian beer recipes)

Warm 1/2 cup clear honey and add it to a bottle of medium-dry white wine. Chill before serving.

Garum Sauce
Cook a quart of grape juice, reducing it 1/10th of its volume. Add two tablespoons of anchovy paste and a pinch of oregano or coriander. [PBS reports that the original recipe involved leaving a crate of fish and wine in the sun for 27 days: “after that, it becomes a liquid.”]

Kufteh Tabriz (Persian Giant Meatball, Prichard family Recipe, after Julia Child)

  1. Separately cook one cup split peas and one cup rice in salted water until very soft.
    Grind together (twice) one 2 1/2 lb. shoulder of lamb and one onion.
    Stew herbs (1 tbsp. each of dill, scallions, chives, parsley) in four tbsp. of butter until bright green.
    Mix all of the above with 1/8 tsp. ground cloves and 1/2 tsp. saffron that has been water-soaked.
  2. Simmer six cups water, lamb bone, one chopped onion, 1/2 tsp. turmeric, salt and pepper for one hour.
    Take finished meat mixture from part one and pack half in a cooled, rounded bowl.
    Cover with 1/4 cup currants, 6 chopped prunes, 2 chopped eggs, 2 tbsp. shredded orange or tangerine peel, 1/4 cup walnuts, and 1/4 cup pistachios.
    Add one fried, chopped onion.
    Cover with remaining meat and roll into a large round meatball.
    Tie in cheesecloth and immerse in simmering pot, adding water if necessary to cover.
    Add 1/4 cup rice that has been pounded to a powder or broken in a blender. Simmer for one hour.
  3. Add 1/2 cup lemon juice, 2 tsp. brown sugar, and dash of curry powder to broth.
    Simmer for 10 minutes.
    Remove from cheesecloth and put on serving platter.
    Pour on a ladle or two of broth and garnish with fresh mint.
    Slice like a melon.
    Serve broth as separately as a sauce after removing lamb bones.
    Serves 8. 
Laura Stanfield Prichard (Yale BA’90, MM’91) wrote her Senior Essay on Babylonian harp tunings under William Hallo and Eleazar di Carvahlo and studied choral conducting (esp. Walton and Britten) under Marguerite Brooks, who just received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Choral Arts New England. She is an active musicologist and performer in the Boston area.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I Can’t wait to try making – and eating – that giant meatball, Laura!

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — March 10, 2020 at 9:22 pm

  2. You can hear the BSO and Chorus pro Musical perform Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” in Symphony Hall [recording from November 5, 1960, Richard Burgin conducting]:

    Comment by Laura Stanfield Prichard — March 11, 2020 at 9:56 am

  3. Sing with David Hill this summer in New Hamsphire at Camp Ogontz. See for details.

    Comment by Mary Dill — March 15, 2020 at 8:29 am

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