The making of Façade
“Poetry is more like a crystal globe, with Truth imprisoned in it, like a fly in amber. The poet is the magician who fashions the crystal globe. But the reader is the magician who can find in these scintillating flaws, or translucent depths, some new undiscovered land.”
Osbert Sitwell, writing in 1921 (in his book of “remarks on poetry,” Who Killed Cock Robin?), accurately perceived the secret of the verses that his sister, Edith, was writing at that very time, and which, as they were produced, were being to set music by the Sitwell family’s young protégé, William Walton. By 1922 there were enough verses for Edith to publish in a small collection called Façade, and sufficient with music for an apparently unsuccessful private performance in the bitterly cold drawing room of the Sitwells’ London house. Walton conducted a small instrumental ensemble, Edith Sitwell declaimed through a special megaphone (a “Sengerphone”, its use suggested by the third Sitwell sibling, Sacheverell), and Osbert presided as master-of-ceremonies. The following year, with even more poems now set to music, the first public performance was given, on 12 June 1923, at London’s Aeolian Hall.
That public premiere became something of a succès de scandale, with the hostile press criticisms (“naggingly memorable,” conceded the Daily Express) simply encouraging Sitwell and Walton to further endeavours in verse and music. Walton refined the music and instrumentation, and various new numbers were admitted, discarded, and altered, but by the early 1940s the collection had settled: a “Fanfare,” followed by twenty-one verses “spoken” over a musical accompaniment for flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello, and percussion.
Walton’s publisher, Oxford University Press (OUP), had controlled the musical settings since 1926, but only published a score in 1951, almost thirty years after those contentious early performances—the score had a decorative front panel reproducing the back-curtain designed in 1942 by John Piper for performances of the work. That publication established Façade: An Entertainment as the definitive title for the collaborative work.
The composer and conductor Constant Lambert (who, after its premiere, had rapidly become a polished “narrator” of Façade), was very soon praising the “concentrated brevity” of the various numbers. Lambert labelled these as “satiric genre pieces, over in a flash, but unerringly pinning down some aspect of popular music, whether foxtrot, tango or tarantella.” Osbert Sitwell stated that his sister’s poems were experiments in sound, using words as musical rhythms to evoke the very dances named by Lambert. Some say that the “Entertainment” was simply making a jibe at the “modern music” of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire of 1912 (also 21 verses set for “a speaking singer” and ensemble), others that it was merely playful whimsy on the part of the Sitwells and Walton.
Façade was chosen in 1978 as one of OUP’s own special quincentenary publications. A deluxe edition of the score in a slipcase was issued that year, showing the John Piper curtain design in full colour as a frontispiece, and featuring essays by Edith Sitwell and Frederick Ashton—once enfant terrible, Façade had become a favoured child.
Now, the centenary in 2023 of Façade’s first public performance allows us to move away from issues of genesis and growing pains, and instead provides a moment to reflect on Façade’s hugely important achievement, and its legacy in terms of the way its music became used and has become loved.
Music and verse
Sitwell’s language is rich in alliteration, assonance, and imagery: “Melons dark as caves have for their fountain waves / Thickest gold honey” in “Tarantella”; in “Valse”, Daisy and Lily are “lazy and silly”—they “Walk by shore of the wan grassy sea”; and “spangles / Pelt down through the tangles / Of bell-flowers” in “Through Gilded Trellises”. There are dark, disembodied, and surreal moments too: Queen Victoria sits “shocked upon the rocking horse” in “Hornpipe”, while Sir Beelzebub, in his verse, calls for syllabub “in the hotel in Hell”. Rhythm and effect provide the façade behind which meaning and syntax sit. Walton, in his music, responds directly and deftly to Sitwell in kind: musical allusion and reference (and, in one case, direct quotation), fragmentary and fleeting melody, and quicksilver changes of mood—for these poems, it was William Walton, rather than any reader, who held the key to their translucent depths and undiscovered lands.
Music and verse, in Façade, work perfectly together, but at the same time do so in two curiously detached layers. Edith Sitwell’s words were not set by Walton in the conventional sense that they became songs; rather they were designed to be recited, or spoken, above the instrumental music, in rhythmic patterns determined by the composer. This immediately provided liberation for both the music and words, resulting in quite separate existences for each alongside their continued symbiosis as the “Entertainment.”
Sitwell had, as we have seen, published the then-small number of Façade items as poetry as early as 1922, with a complete edition following in 1950, and would often include selections in her celebrated poetry readings. The music (as both Walton and OUP quickly realized) was not, with a few exceptions, entirely dependent on Sitwell’s words for its effect, and mostly worked perfectly well without them—eventually resulting in a vast array of arrangements, adaptations, and new versions (all without words). Walton did, though, eventually set several of the Façade poems as songs: the now-lost Bucolic Comedies (voice and six instruments, 1923-4), and Three Songs (1931-2) for voice and piano (dedicated to Walton’s OUP publisher Hubert Foss and his wife Dora, who together recorded them for Decca in 1942). Of these three songs, the setting of “Daphne” is completely unrelated to its (eventually rejected) “Entertainment” version, while “Through Gilded Trellises” and “Old Sir Faulk” are broadly based on the originals.
Other composers, beyond Walton, have made musical settings of various Façade poems, but what was perhaps the ultimate tribute used neither Sitwell’s words nor Walton’s music at all. Noel Coward, who had walked out of the 1923 performance and afterwards perhaps read that early press review headlined “The Drivel They Paid to Hear,” included as a sketch in his first big revue, London Calling (1923), a merciless send-up of Edith Sitwell (now “Hernia” of the Swiss Family Whittlebot, the actress wearing clumps of fruit as earrings), her Whittlebot brothers, the poems, and Walton’s music. Even the venue of Façade’s first public performance was mocked: “the A-E-I-O-Ulian Hall,” Coward called it. Coward and the Sitwell family remained enemies for years as a result, especially after Coward, like Edith, had published his own skittish poems separately, under the title Chelsea Buns. But, as with all parodies, there was surely an element of respect on Coward’s part, and happily Noel and the Sitwells were eventually reconciled, in 1957, on the eve of Edith’s seventieth birthday.
Façade lives on…
It was Walton who, in 1926, decided to transcribe five dance-based numbers from the “Entertainment” for medium orchestra (no speaker). These items were first performed at London’s Lyceum Theatre on 3 December 1926, conducted by the composer, in an interlude as part of that theatre’s season of Russian Ballet. This group of pieces rapidly became immensely popular under the banner “Façade Suite for Orchestra”, showing that the music was already moving far from its original foundation in amiable, if esoteric, entertainment. The suite was renamed “No.1” when Suite No. 2 (with the majority of items orchestrated by Constant Lambert) appeared in 1936. It is through these two orchestral suites, rather than via the “Entertainment”, that Walton’s music rapidly became firmly embedded in concert programmes and record catalogues, and therefore in the mind of the public. In 1991, for a Walton recording project with Chandos Records, Christopher Palmer created a third suite, comprising six numbers (including “Daphne” in the version from Three Songs). And four popular numbers found yet another incarnation in a version for salon orchestra made by Walter Goehr, published in 1939.
The market for domestic piano music (solo and duet) was still healthy at the time of Façade’s inception: arrangement of the catchiest numbers for this medium was an obvious step for OUP, especially having seen the popularity of the two orchestral suites. Broadcast music in Britain (from what was then the British Broadcasting Company) was “born” in the same year as Façade’s own first appearance, and mechanically reproduced music (the gramophone) was developing rapidly, but neither mode of music consumption in the home was yet ubiquitous—the pianoforte (just) remained the domestic music provider par excellence through to the Second World War. Walton himself produced the first Façade piano solo arrangement (“Valse”) in 1926—this was designated “Concert Arrangement,” was championed by Artur Rubinstein, and was in the end too difficult and showy for the domestic market.
It was Roy Douglas’s later and simpler solo piano arrangements of the five top numbers from the two orchestral suites (including “Scotch Rhapsody” and “Popular Song”) that became the sure-fire sellers. Piano duet arrangements by Constant Lambert of the two suites were published in 1927 and 1938 respectively (more-or-less coinciding with the launch of their orchestral counterparts). Ethel Bartlett and Rae Roberts commissioned two-piano versions of “Swiss Jodelling Song” (Herbert Murrill) and “Popular Song” (Mátyás Seiber) for their extensive “Oxford Music for Two Piano Series”—a note by Bartlett and Roberts in Seiber’s 1939 “Popular Song” arrangement made it clear that “it is rather the cheerful atmosphere of the old-fashioned Music-hall which is called for than the moaning of present-day crooners.” All of these arrangements were based on the “Suites” rather than “Entertainment” iterations of Walton’s music.
A frightening interview with the “immensely tall” Edith Sitwell was, for the choreographer Frederick Ashton, the immediate result of the most colourful and what has become the best known of all the Façade incarnations: his eponymous ballet. That meeting with Edith “was just like going before the headmistress,” recalled Ashton. “Why wasn’t I given a credit for Façade?” she demanded, having noticed that her name had not appeared on the programme of the ballet’s first performance (which had been given, on 26 April 1931, by the Carmargo Society in London). Being based on the orchestral versions (numbers from the first suite, plus various newly orchestrated items, themselves eventually to find a place in the second suite), the words were not recited and therefore had not been credited. But Ashton immediately caved in, conceding to Edith that an acknowledgement to her would “add great lustre to the whole thing.” Thus, the ballet is now designated as “freely adapted to music originally written as a setting to poems by Edith Sitwell.”
It was, though, Walton’s music (much of it based on the popular dance forms of the day, and “sounding like” ballet in orchestral form) rather than Sitwell’s words that had intrigued Ashton all along. “I wanted to do it and I did do it,” he said. Ashton’s choreography, notes his biographer Julie Kavanagh, was “a perfect match for the mood, wit and rhythms of the poetry and music, preserving a Sitwellian sense of fantasy and fun, while, at the same time, adding a personal, totally new dimension.” The dancers, in “Swiss Jodelling Song,” configure to provide a fantastical human cow, complete with udders and tail, and a dropped skirt revealing a pair of enormous bloomers still shocks in “Polka.” “I’m very fond of Façade,” said Ashton, “because I think it seems to me to be a complete entity in itself.” Matters turned full circle in 1972 when, in an evening of music at Aldeburgh in honour of Walton’s seventieth birthday, adaptations of Ashton’s choreography were given to the music of the relevant numbers in the original “Entertainment” scoring, with Peter Pears reciting Sitwell’s verses. In truth, it was indeed both William Walton and Edith Sitwell who sat behind and were the true progenitors of the by-then huge array of works, both literary and musical, known familiarly and collectively as Façade. One hundred years on, the fly no longer sits in amber.
Featured image: A sketch from the OUP Archive of John Spicer’s curtain design for the first public performance of Façade.