27 November 2007

Belshazzar’s Feast

Last weekend saw the first major outing of the RSNO Chorus for the 2007–08 season. We performed William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in Dundee and Glasgow under the baton of Richard Hickox. There are good reviews of the Glasgow performance in the Scotsman and The Herald. Ironically, I felt the Dundee performance was the better of the two (perhaps helped by the fact that the Caird Hall is a much better place to sing in than the Royal Concert Hall). It was certainly an exhilarating (if, sometimes, scary) experience to take part in the piece.

Apparently, the piece was banned from English cathedrals and the Three Choirs Festival for a quarter of a century. The original review in The Times complained that it was starkly Jewish and culminated ‘in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity’. Had the reviewer known his Bible even a little, he would have realized that the passages he was complaining about come not from Daniel but from Revelation 18.

The point, of course, is that Belshazzar’s Feast is no more a hymn of praise for the destruction of historical Babylon than is Revelation 18. The Babylon depicted in both Revelation and Belshazzar’s Feast is a symbol for any society founded upon what Walter Wink has called the myth of redemptive violence. In short, it is a celebration of the inevitable destruction of any society that believes social order can be maintained by violence or coercive force (whether against its own citizens or against rival societies). To be fair to The Times’ reviewer this is a profoundly Jewish insight (in Genesis 1 order is achieved by the divine word of promise and blessing in contrast to the murder of the old gods in the Enuma Elish), but it is just as much a profoundly Christian insight.

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