Edith Sitwell wrote the poems that became Façade. These are nearly nonsense rhymes meant for a laugh. Walton set the poems to jaunty, jazzy music. In order to hear the poems over the music, the Sitwells decided to use Sengerphones, which were large paper mâché megaphones to magnify the spoken voices.
The first public
performance of the piece was held in June 1923. Walton conducted the music. Edith and one of her brothers stood on stage behind a
curtain to read the poems through the Sengerphones. There were friends, critics, and others in the
audience. Virginia Woolf was
there. Woolf wrote soon to a
friend, “Though I paid 3/6 to hear Edith Sitwell vociferate her poems
accompanied by a small and nimble orchestra, through a megaphone, I understood
so little that I could not judge.”
Critics hated the performance.
Of course, it became famous, and Façade
gained in popularity.
We drove over to the University of Idaho this week for a performance of Façade. Like Virginia Woolf, I understood little of the poems, although they were declaimed well and without the use of megaphones. One simply surrendered to the rhythms of the poetry, offset as it was by flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello, and rackety percussion, and listened for the few instances of comprehensible lines. I hear the male reader begin “Sailors come / To the drum / Out of Babylon;” and understand nothing of the rest of the poem. And when the second poem begins, I hear the woman reader say “In the early spring-time, after their tea,” and I begin to think about the tea I haven’t had this evening, and my thought drifts through the line “Through the young fields of the springing Bohea,” and Bohea . . . gathers my concentration as I try to conjure an image of the plant when the alliteration of the poem’s “Jemima, Jocasta, Dinah, Deb / Walked with their father Sir Joshua Jebb –” sends my head and foot to bob. I listen to the flow of the music and allow the words to flow as well over me through the poems “Country Dance,” “Polka,” to “Jodelling Song” (but what is jodelling I wondered till I heard the poem’s lines about William Tell and “And the mountain streams / Like cowbells sound”), “Scotch Rhapsody,” and “Popular Song.” My eyelids and shoulders were sagging by this time, for the evening was late, and I looked forward to the final poem, “Sir Beelzebub.” The Sitwells wanted it to be “fun,” and Façade was fun. In 1923, Façade was avant garde, and it still, this week, had the ‘feel’ of a modernist event—a little surreal but also beautiful and fun.
* * *Notes: Lines of poetry are from Edith Sitwell’s Façade (1987, Duckworth). The Virginia Woolf quotation is from p. 78 in Victoria Glendenning’s Edith Sitwell (1981, Knopf).