The work has remained one of Walton's most celebrated compositions. Osbert Sitwell selected the text from the Bible, primarily the Book of Daniel, and Psalm 137. The work is dedicated to Walton's friend and benefactor, Gerald Berners. In the story of Belshazzar's Feast, the Jews are in exile in Babylon. After a feast at which Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, commits sacrilege by using the Jews' sacred vessels to praise the heathen gods, he is miraculously killed, the kingdom falls, and the Jews regain their freedom.
Walton struggled with the setting for several years, and it grew from its original conception as a short work for small forces, as commissioned by the BBC, to its eventual form. The invitation came in a letter of 21 August 1929 from the BBC programme planner Edward Clark, who asked Walton for a work suitable for broadcasting, written for a small choir, soloist, and an orchestra not exceeding 15 players. Walton and Clark knew each other, as they had had dealings in relation to the Viola Concerto, which was premiered only six weeks later with Paul Hindemith as soloist, an idea that been Edward Clark's brain-child.
Fortunately, this was an age of gifted amateur choruses, and conductors and institutions dedicated to bringing forward new music, and the Leeds Festival took on the first performance. The baritone soloist was Dennis Noble, who recorded the work twice (including its premiere recording) and came to be particularly associated with it.
At first the work seemed avant-garde because of its extrovert writing and musical complexity; it is however always firmly tonal although it is scored without a key signature and with many accidentals. The addition of the brass bands was suggested by the festival director, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham; the bands were on hand anyway for a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem, and Beecham said to the young Walton: "As you'll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?". However, under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, an outstanding choral conductor, it was an immediate success, despite its severe challenges to the chorus.
The London premiere was conducted by Adrian Boult on 25 November 1931. The young Benjamin Britten was in the audience. The work was performed at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam in 1933. Leopold Stokowski conducted two performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra in January 1934. Sargent regularly programmed it throughout the rest of his career, and took it as far afield as Australia, Brussels, Vienna and Boston. Not only British conductors from Sargent to Simon Rattle, but also Eugene Ormandy, Maurice Abravanel, André Previn, Robert Shaw, Leonard Slatkin and Andrew Litton have recorded the work. 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.
It may have been partly because of The Times's first review that, despite an impeccably biblical text, Belshazzar's Feast was not at first accepted by the Church of England as a work suitable for performance in cathedrals. It was banned from the Three Choirs Festival until 1957. It did not have its premiere at the Worcester Festival until as late as 1975. The Times reviewer urged such a ban; though calling Belshazzar's Feast "a work of intense energy and complete sincerity", he declared the work, "stark Judaism from first to last", adding, "it cumulates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity ... no more a 'sacred' oratorio than is Handel's on the same subject." Some have maintained that Walton saw no moral distinction between the Jews and the Babylonians, as the music for both groups is equally exuberant. However, a distinction can be found in the words. Although there is an early sequence where the Jews vow revenge in particularly violent terms, their eventual victory is conveyed in praise and thanksgiving, the words "Alleluia, for great Babylon's fallen" mixed with regret "while the kings of the earth weep, wail" for the fallen city. Walton revised the work in 1948, and Roy Douglas had a hand in this. Sargent conducted the premiere of the revised score at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 8 March 1950.
Walton did not take his work with the greatest seriousness. He called the baritone solo about the wealth of Babylon "the shopping list" and at a Hoffnung festival concert, he conducted a large choir and orchestra in "an excerpt from Belshazzar's Feast": Walton raised his baton, and the chorus bellowed the single word "slain" (from section 7). He then put down his baton, shook hands with the baritone soloist, who had not sung a note, and they both bowed and left the platform to gales of applause.