Crown Imperial, composed by William Walton, was first performed at the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and was substantially revised in 1953. Walton originally composed the march for performance at the coronation of King Edward VIII, scheduled for 12 May 1937, but Edward abdicated in 1936. The coronation was held on the scheduled day, with Edward's brother being crowned instead. Crown Imperial was also performed at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, along with another Coronation March written by Walton, Orb and Sceptre. Although there was contemporary criticism of the march as "unrepresentative of the composer" and "frankly a pastiche" of the "pomp and circumstance" style, Crown Imperial is now one of the most popular of Walton's orchestral compositions. It was performed again as a recessional piece to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton on 29 April 2011. Walton derived the march's title from the line "In beawtie berying the crone imperiall" from William Dunbar's poem "In Honour of the City of London".
The march falls into an ABABC form: an exciting march in C major over Waltonesque long pedal points is followed by an Elgarian trio section in A-flat major. Then both march and trio reappear in C again and come to a conclusion in a small heroic coda. In keeping with the description of this work as "Elgarian," one past nickname for the march was "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6." It has been arranged for organ by Herbert Murrill and can be found as such in A Walton Organ Album. Christopher Palmer prepared a version of Crown Imperial for solo organ, brass, timpani and percussion specifically for the Laurence Olivier Memorial Service in October, 1989.
William Walton, 1938
Jocelyn Bergen, soprano; Jim Hillendahl, tenor
In 1938, William Walton (1902-83) composed an anthem to commemorate the wedding of the Honorable Ivor Guest and Lady Mabel Fox-Strangeways, the groom being the son of Walton’s close companion, Lady Alice Wimborne. Though usually cataloged with Walton’s sacred music, some scholars argue that the nature of the text, which Walton extracted from the sometimes erotic Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, places the piece more comfortably in the secular realm. However, the actual texts utilized are hardly erotic, and certainly suggest the kind of spiritual, transcendent love that presumably would have been celebrated in a church wedding. The words come from the sixth and seventh verses of chapter 8: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death...Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”
The music, which is scored for unaccompanied four-part choir, uses simple but poignant textural effects in declaiming the text. The opening lines take on a responsorial feel, with a solo tenor intoning each phrase before passing it over to the ensemble. One particularly effective moment comes near the very end, where, on the words “as a seal upon my arm,” a solo soprano voice emerges from the ensemble and leaps delicately and dramatically into the upper range. In addition to the skillful execution of voicing and texture, Set me as a seal also exhibits a surprising degree of harmonic ambition. Walton utilizes enharmonic voice leading to swerve progressions suddenly into unexpected realms that only retain a faint connection to the home tonality. This renders the reiterations of the short text in ever-changing tones, suggesting the multiple layers of meaning to be found in the verses’ metaphors. Complexity seems precisely Walton ‘s point and the depth of expression found in this work suggests the sincerity of the composer’s gift to his dedicatees.
In 1929, having already established himself as a fine orchestral composer, William Walton set about writing his first contribution to the redoubtable English choral tradition. Walton decided to work within the bounds of that tradition, but in a very positive sense he dealt a blow from which it never recovered. By doing so he created a dramatic cantata which not only revitalized this form, but also satisfied the needs of the 20th century. Not by any stretch of the imagination could Belshazzar’s Feast be described as ‘religious’, despite its Biblical text and inspiration; rather it should be termed—with appropriate cinematic overtones—a ‘Biblical epic’. The result is one of the finest achievements in the genre to date. Not the least remarkable feature of this masterpiece is the way in which every facet of the scenario is encompassed in the context of Walton’s personal style. No pseudo-judaisms, archaisms or orientalisms—everything he wants to say he says with perfect intelligibility in his own ‘mother-tongue.’
It was Edward Clark, Director of Music at the BBC, who had suggested that Walton might try his hand at composing a choral work (commissioning him to write for a “small chorus, small orchestra of no more than fifteen, and soloist”). As a boy, Walton received his technical foundation singing a wide range of church music and being trained at Christchurch, Oxford. As a Lancastrian, Walton had grown up against a background of massed voices and brass bands. Deciding on Belshazzar as his subject, Walton asked his friend Osbert Sitwell to provide the text. Sitwell made a skilled rearrangement and compression of passages drawn from the Bible: the Book of Daniel, Chapter V; Psalms 137 and 81; and Revelations. The result was a highly dramatized libretto originally entitled Nebuchadnezzar, or the Writing on the Wall. Once Walton had set to work he soon realized the enormous task that he had undertaken. His early version was for two soloists, small chorus and small orchestra—but he “got stuck on the word ‘gold’” --- he was stuck “from May to December 1930, perched, unable to move either to the right or the left or up or down.” It was not until April, 1931 that the renamed Belshazzar’s Feast was completed. The BBC released him from his contract because the work had grown so large (there had also been a dispute over the fee). Fortunately Sir Thomas Beecham came to the rescue and arranged for it to be featured at the forthcoming Leeds Triennial Festival.
Beecham allocated the new work to his assistant, Malcolm Sargent, and told Walton “Well, my boy, as you will probably never hear this work again, you might as well chuck in a couple of brass bands.” Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (incorporating offstage brass bands) was to be in the same program, so Walton decided to make good use of those two extra bands and incorporated them into his score.
The first performance took place on October 8, 1931 with Dr. Malcolm Sargent as conductor and Dennis Noble as the baritone soloist. Despite the technical and musical hurdles that had to be surmounted, its premiere was a tumultuous and critically unanimous success. The barbaric splendor and skillful use of jazz elements frightened the ecclesiastical authorities of the Three Choirs Festival, who refused to admit it into their cathedrals until 1957. Even with that delay, and the ever-present challenges of preparing Belshazzar’s Feast, it has become one of the most popular choral works to emerge during the 20th century.
To complement the dramatic possibilities of the text Walton produced a mammoth score which calls for a double chorus, baritone soloist, and huge orchestral forces which include an organ and an extensive percussion section. Though Belshazzar’s Feast is one continuous movement, the work falls into a natural triptych, each panel of which Walton subdivides in three again.
Part One commences with three trombones in unison, sternly announcing Isaiah’s dark prophecy. This is sung almost as a recitative by an unaccompanied four-part male voice (symbolically orthodox) chorus. They chill us with their harsh dissonance. Now the lower strings set the mood for the Jew’s lament and their expressive phrase is to become one of the most important themes in the entire work. An eight-part chorus slowly unfolds Psalm 137 (note the musical imagery: the hanging of the harps upon the willows; billowing effect on the word ‘waters’ and the stress on ‘wept’). The mood becomes restless as the chorus asks indignantly at first, then with sorrow “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Against the important theme heard earlier the baritone soloist enters, his phrases are echoed by a semi-chorus all underpinned by a funereal tread. Part of the opening section returns. As the music reaches its climax the Jews, remembering how they had been treated when the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, prophesy Babylon’s destruction. The first section then draws to its quiet close.
After a brief pause, Part Two commences with a recitative from the solo baritone: a sort of inventory of Babylon’s immense wealth. The orchestra bursts in with a recurrent fortissimo motif which was described as “tearing down through the score like a flash of forked lightning” hurls us right into its midst heralding the chorus who continue with the narrative “In Babylon Belshazzar the King made a great feast to a thousand of his lords.” The pleasures of the feast are then related and the full horror of the drinking from the sacred vessels is most effectively captured by the chorus’s angular, almost jazzy rhythms and constant changes of tempo which all add to the mounting tension. A fanfare of trumpets announces Belshazzar who then leads the throng in their praises to the heathen gods. This magnificent centerpiece—the hymn to the pagan deities—is the first of Walton’s many pomp-and-circumstance marches. Each one is audibly illustrated by the orchestra: first the god of gold who is given a proud energetic march. The praises to the god of silver are appropriately joined by the flute and piccolo, glockenspiel and triangle. The anvil and gong accompany the men in their praises to the god of iron. Here trumpet fanfares are given a suitable reply from the brass band. The praises to the god of wood are punctuated by the xylophone, woodblock and strings who play col legno. Cymbal and slapstick pay homage to the god of stone. The brass band then joins in to give the god of brass an appropriate tribute. Each of these phrases through which the march passes with impressively cumulative effect is generated by the blazing a cappella choral outburst which precedes it and brings it to its close. Following a sudden pause, there is the recapitulation of the ‘lightning’ motif and the chorus comments on the spectacle once more: “After they had praised their strange gods.” The Babylonians hail Belshazzar in the ultimate blasphemy “Thou, O King, art King of Kings”.
The third section opens with another pause. Acting as narrator, the baritone soloist relates the story of the writing on the wall. Walton creates a spine-chilling effect with his accompaniment which includes cymbals, drum and gong and flutes unaccustomedly low and bassoons unaccustomedly high. The translation of the handwriting on the wall is set to the declamatory music of the opening prophecy (the orthodox male voice chorus). The narrator then tells us “in that night was Belshazzar the King slain.” The chorus bursts forth and shouts ‘slain’ most terrifyingly! The news of the city’s fall is greeted with a joyous hymn of praise to the God of Israel to the words of Psalm 81: “Then sing aloud to God our strength” and full justice is done to “Blow up the trumpet in the new moon.” Momentarily this passes out of earshot as the chorus comments on the desolation and silence of the scene in a moving ‘memento mori’: a moving fugue-like passage marked molto espressivo: “While the Kings of the earth lament and the merchants of the Earth weep, wail and rend their raiment.” An unaccompanied chorus wistfully sings of the silence of the trumpeters and pipers. With even greater vengefully fierce glee the merry-making resumes “Then sing aloud to God”. A majestic apotheosis leads to a wild and precipitous choral and orchestral ‘blowout’ in 36/8 time (in old age, Walton still remembered “the excitement of getting near the end” every time he heard a performance). Against the antiphonal peal of “Alleluias” the music majestically broadens out and Belshazzar’s Feast comes to a thrilling close.
His allegiance to the English choral tradition is reflected in Mendelssohn’s Elijah (opening prophecy); Delius and Vaughan Williams (the lament) and among the most impressive passages for unaccompanied voices singing quietly. The strident chorus of praise suggests Mendelssohn’s Baal choruses of Elijah and also Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, a pagan demons’ chorus. And in the final shouts of triumph, the majesty of Handel is invoked. Walton assimilates all these influences into his own distinctive style. The three main sections of the text, linked by the baritone’s narration, are given the unity and continuity of symphonic movements in masterly fashion. The London premiere was conducted by Adrian Boult on 25 November 1931. The young Benjamin Britten was in the audience. In 1947 Herbert von Karajan called it “the best choral music that’s been written in the last 50 years”. Karajan only ever performed the work once, in 1948 in Vienna, but it was a performance that moved Walton to tears and he expressed amazement that he could ever have written such a wonderful work.