Belshazzar's Feast (incidental music and orchestral suite)
[Op. 51] Belsazars gästabud (Belshazzar's Feast). Music for a play by Hjalmar Procopé of the same name: ten pieces. Completed in 1906; first public performance at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki, 7th November 1906 (conducted by Jean Sibelius). An arrangement of part 2b for voice and piano (Solitude) in 1907, rearranged 1939. (For arrangement of the incidental music as a suite, see below.)
Op. 51 Belsazars gästabud (Belshazzar's Feast), suite. From the music for Hjalmar Procopé's play of the same name: 1. Orientalisk marsch, 2. Solitude, 3. Nocturne, 4. Khadras dans. Completed in 1907; first performance in Helsinki, 25th September 1907 (Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Piano arrangement of the suite made in 1907.
The quality of Jean Sibelius's incidental music bore no relation to the text of the play. Hjalmar Procopé's Belshazzar's Feast took its subject matter from the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. The material contained dramatic elements similar to those in Oscar Wilde's Salome. Sibelius did not let this disturb him, and the lack of originality did not disturb the audience either. The play received 21 performances at the Swedish Theatre, November 1906 - January 1907.
The incidental music contained ten pieces. The first is the counterpart of the Oriental Procession in the orchestral suite. In the play the people in the procession must bow to an idol. The Jewish prophet Ben Oni does not bow down before the idol, and he is suspected of being part of an assassination plot. The king's favourite female slave, Khadra, falls in love with the Jew. At the same time, the real assassin, the beautiful Leschanah, meets the king.
The second piece depicts Leschanah in the king's palace. The splendid flute solo is also included in the second movement of the orchestral suite, as the Nocturne. In the same scene we hear The Jewish Girl’s Song. The instrumental version of this lovely melody ended up in the orchestral suite under the name of Solitude. Sibelius also prepared a separate song from it in 1907, and presented a new arrangement of it to Marian Anderson in 1939.
Leschanah becomes the king's favourite and demands the execution of Khadra. The third musical piece, Allegretto, is background music for the pantomime-like scene of the feast. The fourth and fifth pieces present Khadra's Dances of Life and Death – Khadra having now been sentenced to death. In the orchestral suite these are combined so that the Dance of Death is heard in the middle of the Dance of Life material.
During the Dance of Death, Khadra lets a snake bite her, but she drinks from the cup of Moses before her death. The very short sixth piece is based on the Dance of Life. During it Khadra dies.
A mysterious text appears on the wall, and the prophet Daniel is called to explain it. He prophesies that Belshazzar will die that same night. The seventh piece depicts Leschanah as she ponders the killing of the king. The music gains dramatic strength after some oriental dance figures, and one may wonder why the composer did not use this piece in his orchestral suite.
The eighth piece is soft music which is played in the background of the dialogue. Belshazzar is talking with his advisor. In the ninth piece we hear a short recollection of the Dance of Life, and the tenth piece is a recollection of the Dance of Death. During it Leschanah kills the king and Elesier kills Leschanah.
As mentioned above, Sibelius used only Oriental Procession, Solitude, Nocturne and Khadra's Dance in his orchestral suite, with suitable modifications. The first performance of the orchestral suite took place in the same concert as the first public performance of the third symphony. The suite was well received by the critics.
According to Erik Tawaststjerna and Erkki Salmenhaara, Sibelius "wasted" good ideas on Belshazzar's Feast. But Eija Kurki, who made a detailed study of Sibelius's incidental music, found good reason to question this view. Belshazzar's Feast was almost the only occasion on which Sibelius was inspired by orientalism. This inspiration produced the fascinating tone colours of the music and the unique charm of its sinuous melodies.