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Walton’s Façade with Peter Pears and Joan Cross

1953. Royal Festival Hall, London
Walton's Façade from a concert in London in 1953 with Joan Cross and Peter Pears
Composer Walton
Conductor Paul Sacher
Singers Joan Cross, Peter Pears
Ensemble English Opera Group
Genre Symphonic concert

The 18-year-old Walton had just left Christ Church, Oxford in 1920 without a
degree and was facing an uncertain future, when he was invited to join the Sitwell
family in their Chelsea home. He stayed there for most of the next decade as an
adopted member of the family. In a critical moment in Walton’s career, Edith Sitwell
asked him to collaborate with her on an innovative, revolutionary new work. It was
to feature verses as abstract poems or patterns in sound involving experiments of
rhythm, tempo and texture. Façade was designed primarily as an entertainment.
The verses, apparently absurd, uncannily conjure up the world of bourgeois late-
Victorian England with its music halls, trips to the seaside, references to deities
and Tennyson. Though the satire is sharp and unsentimental, it is offset by poignant
moods of nostalgia and wistful melancholy as some poems clearly reflect an
unhappy childhood. Edith continued to write poetry and prose until her death
in 1964, but this remains the work for which she is best remembered.

Walton showed what Edith’s brother Sacheverell described as ‘an instinctive
understanding’ of the poems. His settings unfailingly enhance and enrich the texts,
creating a rare instance of a work where words and music are unquestionably of
equal importance. The final scoring of Façade for flute doubling piccolo, clarinet
doubling bass clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, percussion and cello, shows a
canny awareness of contemporary Continental models range from Schoenberg
(Pierrot Lunaire) to Satie (Parade), as well as Stravinsky (The Soldier’s Tale) and dance
band music, especially jazz. There are brief quotations of satirical intent, including
‘I do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ in ‘Tango-Pasodoblé’ and Rossini’s William Tell
Overture in ‘Jodelling Song’.

To aid comprehension of the recitation during the quicker passages, the Sitwells
used an improvised megaphone, known as a sengerphone. Façade was first given a
private performance, with the composer conducting and Edith reciting the texts,
before an invited audience on 24 January 1922 in the drawing-room of the
Sitwells’ home in Carlyle Square. The programme presented ‘Miss Edith Sitwell on
her Sengerphone with accompaniments, overture and interlude by W.T.Walton.’ In
order to achieve the desired distancing effect, the performers were concealed
behind an elaborate painted curtain designed by Frank Dobson. Its centre was an
enormous mask, with an open mouth filled by the cone of the sengerphone. A
public performance was given at the Aeolian Hall on 12 June 1923.Walton’s music
received a puzzled reception. There were some good notices, but the Daily Graphic’s
headline ‘Drivel They Paid to Hear’ was not an entirely untypical reaction.

Over the next few years at each successive performance Façade was subject to a
steady process of revision and polishing. Certain poems were rejected, new ones
added. The definitive version includes 21 poems arranged in seven groups of three:
an obvious allusion (or homage) to the identically ordered structure of Pierrot
Lunaire; perhaps not surprisingly, the suggestion had come from Constant Lambert.

This final version was first heard in 1942, at the Aeolian Hall. Façade was not
actually published until 1951; before then, numerous versions appeared, including
ballet scores, two suites for orchestra and reductions for piano. A ballet based on
the First Orchestral Suite was choreographed by Frederick Ashton. In 1929 Decca
recorded eleven numbers with Edith and Lambert reciting. Edith made two further
recordings: the first for Columbia in 1949 with Frederick Prausnitz conducting and
the second for Decca in the summer of 1954, with Peter Pears as co-reciter and
Anthony Collins conducting players from the English Opera Group.

In the minutes of the English Opera Group’s Board of Directors meeting on
27 November 1953, the concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 November was
reported as follows: ‘On this occasion, the Group presented Façade, with our own
curtain designed by John Piper, and the first English performance of Stravinsky’s
Cantata (1952).The audience was disappointingly small (threats of fog in the press
during the day did not help the takings at the doors)…but the Group managed to
show a profit.’ This performance, which predates the celebrated 1954 Decca
recording featuring Peter Pears, allows us to hear his stylish but subtle
interpretation of the following numbers recited by Edith Sitwell on the recording:
‘Mariner Man’, ‘Through Gilded Trellises’, ‘By the Lake’, ‘Polka’ and ‘Scotch
Rhapsody’, the last greeted by spontaneous applause. Edith Sitwell is inimitable
in her three recordings of the work and Joan Cross wisely avoids any attempt to
emulate her. Instead, her readings are refreshingly straightforward, avoiding too
much obtrusive characterisation. Cross and Pears both avoid funny voices or
accents, and their clear, ‘straight’ rendition puts the emphasis rightly on the words.
These exercises in sound and rhythm benefit enormously from having singers
bring them to life, demonstrating a natural sense of the dramatic without
becoming overblown.

Although one might single out among its English antecedents the patter songs of
Gilbert and Sullivan, and in particular ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-
General’ from Pirates of Penzance, Façade is unique. Its peerless combination of a
peculiarly English dry wit, genuine pathos and technical skill is an extraordinary
achievement. It had no imitators, though it arguably stands in relation to Walton’s
other pieces as John Tavener’s The Whale (1968) does to that composer’s output.
Both were early works, considered by many as the last word in modernism at the
time of their first performances, which effectively launched their respective
careers. Both use words for their sound as much as their meaning (and employ a
form of megaphone). Neither composer chose to proceed much further down the
path of modernism or specialise in works for chamber forces, generally preferring
large-scale forms. In the case of Walton, however, it would not be true to say Façade
was entirely unrepresentative of his later work, embracing as it does a
characteristic mood of poetic nostalgia.

© Paul Conway, 2009

William Walton 1902-1983

Facade

  1. Fanfare
  2. Hornpipe
  3. En famille
  4. Mariner Man
  5. Long steel grass
  6. Through gilded trellises
  7. Tango-Pasodoble
  8. Lullaby for Jumbo
  9. Black Mrs Behemoth
  10. Tarantella
  11. A man from the countree
  12. By the lake
  13. Countrydance
  14. Polka
  15. Four in the morning
  16. Something lies beyond the scene
  17. Valse
  18. Jodelling song
  19. Scotch rhapsody
  20. Fox-trot “Old Sir Faulk”
  21. Beelzebub

Remastering engineer’s note:
The introduction to the triptych 14,15 & 16 is missing from the recording – it comes at a side-change.

Recorded: 17 November 1953, Royal Festival Hall, London

From the Music Preserved Collection.

  • Joan Cross
    Soprano
  • Peter Pears
    Tenor
  • English Opera Group Orchestra
  • Paul Sacher
    Conductor

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