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William Walton


(1922, rev. 1947 – 48)

Façade marked the entry upon the English musical scene of a young man who might be thought an unlikely candidate to become one of the foremost twentieth-century British composers. The heavily jazz-influenced music and often incomprehensible spoken words fell as a cacophony on the ears of those present, like nothing they had heard before.

William Turner Walton, the second of four children, was born on March 29, 1902, to a Lancashire choirmaster and singing teacher and his wife, also a singer. Young Willie sang in local choirs but had very little formal musical training. His mother somehow managed to secure him a place in the Christ Church Cathedral choir at Oxford, borrowing money for the train journey to Oxford from the local greengrocer. He began scribbling tunes for the choir from age eleven, even trying some part-songs. He became an undergraduate at Oxford's Christ Church College, but was admittedly an undistinguished student whose efforts to learn musical instruments were generally in vain. He said of himself (in Tony Palmer's film, At the Haunted End of Day, made the year before Walton's death in 1983) that after his voice broke he decided that if he wanted to stay at school perhaps he had better write something, so at sixteen he began writing his Piano Quartet.

The greatest benefit of his Oxford years was meeting the Sitwells: Sacheverell, Osbert, and Edith. Walton met Sacheverell first, who shortly brought his brother Osbert to hear the Piano Quartet (badly played), and the two men (themselves undergraduates) decided young Walton was a genius. After failing his exams and wondering what to do next, Walton was invited to spend a few days with the Sitwells in London, where he stayed for fifteen years. Tall and gangly, the shy northerner "adopted" by the wealthy Sitwells must have found his golden opportunity finally to lose his hated accent and become a sophisticated Londoner.

"Edith Sitwell wrote her Façade poems as studies in word-rhythms and onomatopoeia," writes Michael Kennedy, Walton's biographer. Each of the Sitwells claimed the inspiration of setting the poems to music for a sort of drawing room entertainment but it was a natural idea, as they had a house composer. The poems, abstract, with references from Queen Victoria to Greek goddesses to English music halls and Spanish lovers, are full of "dissonances and assonances" with some allusions to the poet's unhappy childhood as well as to her birth by wild seas (at Scarborough). The witty music takes its tone from the poems, following the idea that Sitwell was writing primarily for sound, rather than meaning, and echoing those sounds. Osbert Sitwell claimed the idea of having the poems spoken into a Sengerphone (a megaphone-like device invented by Herr Senger to magnify the voice of the bass singing the dragon Fafner in Wagner's Siegfried) thrust through a painted curtain. The first performance in 1922, called by Osbert Sitwell "an entertainment for artists and people of imagination," featured eighteen poems spoken by Edith Sitwell, accompanied by four musicians (clarinet, cello, trumpet, percussion) conducted by the composer, before an audience of about twenty people.

The reception was, naturally, mixed, but another private performance was arranged in two weeks' time and the first public performance took place in 1923. For this event there were ten new numbers and two more musicians (one playing flute and piccolo, the other alto saxophone). The press was hostile but the audience enthusiastic and performances continued. In 1926 the second version of Façade was performed, with Walton's friend and fellow composer Constant Lambert replacing Sitwell as narrator and the accompaniments arranged more simply. (The early clarinet part was called unplayable and prompted the clarinetist to ask Walton if a clarinet player had ever done him any harm.) Further changes were made until 1942, when the definitive version of twenty-one poems was presented, containing only six of the original poems. In 1947 – 48 Walton took back the score, changed the order of the songs, and made various musical amendments; the score was finally published in 1951. Kennedy says that "in 1977 some previously unpublished numbers were performed to mark Walton's seventy-fifth birthday. … For the 1979 Aldeburgh Festival the composer reworked some of these (poems which had been dropped earlier) and other numbers as Façade 2."

Façade has been performed as a ballet, two orchestral suites (by the composer), and songs and continues to be presented as an entertainment for narrator(s) and musicians. Several suites and songs have been arranged by other composers. Not necessarily music typical of later Walton, it nevertheless displays his characteristic sense of rhythm and elegant style and remains one of his most popular compositions.

Façade, described by Constant Lambert in Music Ho as having one good tune after another, begins with a brief fanfare which sets the tone, then moves quickly into the Hornpipe, for which Walton used a jaunty sea shanty. (The music, except for the Hornpipe, is mostly original although the Tango – Pasodoble, which Walton considered one of the best of the pieces, is a parody of a popular music hall song: I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside.) En Famille, like Through Gilded Trellises and other pieces sprinkled throughout, is languid, evoking birdsong and the summer walks. Edith Sitwell wrote, in Last Years of a Rebel: "Long Steel Grass is in fact called Trio for two cats and a Trombone. It is about a couple of cats, do you see, having a love affair." The sinuous music is suggestive of cats in the nighttime.

Lambert praises the tarantella and the waltz (Numbers 9 and 16) as excellent examples of each type of music. Polka is a lively polka, with the sound of a hurdy-gurdy heard as the lyrics mention that instrument beloved of the Victorians, and the Jodelling Song's reference to William Tell could hardly be more deliberately Alpine.

Our attention is demanded by the trumpet and clarinet beginning Something Lies Beyond the Scene, which shortly turns into a jazzy romp. Others in which the music clearly carries out lyrics and title include Popular Song and Scotch Rhapsody, with a definite Scotch snap and the clear sound of bagpipes when they are mentioned in the poem. The popular Fox-Trot 'Old Sir Falk' refers to the father of Edith's childhood friends who was tall and stork-like (but who may not have danced a fox trot!).

References to the sea abound throughout, both in the poems in which water is mentioned and generally. These poems and music are meant to be savored as sound – meanings unclear or abstract, but beautifully integrated.

Copyright © 2002 by Jane Erb