Belshazzar’s Feast Program Notes

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – Belshazzar’s Feast
May 23, 2012 at Koerner Hall
Poulenc Gloria
Bernstein Chichester Psalms
Walton Belshazzar’s Feast
Concert notes by Rick Phillips

The Gloria by Francis Poulenc (1899 -1963) was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation and first performed in 1961 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch. It was dedicated to the memory of Nathalie and Serge Koussevitsky, a former Music Director of the BSO. To many, the work seemed irreverent – this ancient sacred text from the Mass being treated frivolously with wit and humour. But what they failed to catch was Poulenc’s interpretation of liturgical joy as a swirl of musical colour and dancing rhythms. To him, spirituality and faith were not exclusive of fun and lightheartedness. He explained after the premiere, “The Laudamus Te (2nd mvmt.) caused a scandal. I wonder why? I was simply thinking, in writing it, of the Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues. I was thinking also of the serious Benedictine monks whom I saw playing soccer one day.”

In composing the Gloria, Poulenc admitted that a line or two of the text would take hold of him and supply the tone, the rhythm and the key. He would then recite the words to himself over and over, listening for the difficult spots, the inner rhythms, and marking the breathing places. Only then did he begin to set it to music. The work is scored for a large chorus and orchestra, in six sections, with a soprano solo featured in the third, fifth and final parts.

By 1965, Leonard Bernstein (1918 -1990) was at the peak of his popularity. His Broadway musical West Side Story had taken the world by storm in 1957, and the following year he had been appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the first American-born and American-trained musician to ever head a major U.S. orchestra. But although he loved his conducting position, Bernstein needed to fuel his creative spark so he took a sabbatical year off from the Philharmonic in the 1964/65 season to return to composing. He tried his hand at the twelve-tone, serial technique and some experimental forms of composition, but eventually abandoned them, believing that such music was not his music. During the sabbatical year, Bernstein received a commission from the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in England for a new choral work. The commission mentioned that if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music, it would be welcomed. The result was the Chichester Psalms in which there is much more than a hint of West Side Story! Some of the music cut from the earlier Broadway musical was actually reworked into the Chichester Psalms. Scored for treble soloist, chorus and orchestra, the piece is in three movements. Bernstein wrote, “Each movement contains one complete psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification.” Chichester Cathedral was delighted with their new commission. The Dean wrote to the composer, “I shall be tremendously proud for them to go around in the world bearing the name of Chichester.”
Today, it remains one of Bernstein’s most popular works. Incidentally, when his sabbatical year was over, Bernstein summed up the experience in a long poem. The lines relating to the Chichester Psalms read,
“These psalms are a simple and modest affair,
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E-flat major.
But there it stands – the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering –
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”
Lancashire-born but Oxford-educated, Sir William Walton (1902 -1983) was fortunate to fall in early with the literary Sitwell family of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, who supported him for a decade and helped launch his career. Façade, composed in 1922 when he was just twenty, with poems by Edith Sitwell, caused quite a stir. A suave, jazzy entertainment for speaker and instrumental ensemble, it quickly gained Walton fame and notoriety. In 1929, the BBC commissioned the fast-rising young composer to write a small choral work. Walton’s friend and mentor Osbert Sitwell came up with the idea of Belshazzar as the subject and prepared a libretto, mostly drawn from the book of Daniel. But by 1931, the work had grown considerably into a spectacular cantata (or oratorio) for double chorus, baritone solo, organ and large orchestra. As a result, the BBC bowed out of the commission and the first performance passed to the Leeds Festival, headed by Sir Thomas Beecham. The work was premiered in Leeds in Oct. 1931 by conductor Malcolm Sargent. Beecham was not a fan of Belshazzar’s Feast, and, according to Walton, told him mockingly, “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?” The two brass ensembles placed on either side of the stage are the result. The story tells of a lavish feast thrown by the Babylonian king, Belshazzar, during which he offends the captive Jews by using their sacred vessels to praise his false idols. Belshazzar is killed miraculously, his kingdom falls and the Jews regain their freedom. Like Francis Poulenc and Leonard Bernstein, Walton was a master at assimilated a range of musical styles – from the rhythms and colours of the Jazz Age, to a cappella choral writing typical of the English choral tradition. His dramatic talents combined with his imaginative use of chorus and orchestra produced one of the pinnacles of the twentieth century choral repertoire, usually bringing audiences to their

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide.

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