Dame Felicity Palmer cautioned, ‘Never underestimate Façade’, a work she has performed many times. It’s easy to think of Façade as nonsense poetry but in preparing the text for performance I was impressed how widely drawn Sitwell’s references are. When coupled with Walton’s music the sheer density and exoticism of her allusions transforms the voices into another percussive instrument as references fly past, particularly in the rapid-fire numbers such as Tarantella:
‘Trampling and sampling mazurkas, cachacas and turkas, Cracoviaks hid in the shade.’
(Polish dances, Spanish dances, Turkish dances and Natives of Kraków, Poland)
In this recording we wanted to particularly serve Sitwell’s poetry, given the often frenetic tempi set by Walton. I was thrilled when Carole Boyd agreed to take on the role of co-reciter; I had grown up hearing Carole’s voice on audio books and in later years as Lynda Snell in The Archers on BBC Radio 4 and I knew she would bring a Sitwellian quality to the project coupled with an actor’s approach to the text. Between us we went through the numbers, finding opportunities to share them wherever possible as new voices are introduced, which, in Sitwell’s somnambulistic imagination, isn’t always easy to discern. I think it makes this a very collaborative recitation.
Sitwell draws deeply on Greek and Roman mythology but real people also share her ethereal world with the nymphs and satyrs. Sir Joshua Jebb (En Famille) was the British Surveyor-General of prisons and helped to design Pentonville, Croesus (Tarantella) was a king, famous for his riches, hence the expression ‘as rich as Croesus’ and Baglioni and Grisi (Valse) were 19th Century Ballerinas - the original Sylphide and a noted Giselle. Valse is a veritable haberdashery of references to fabrics: tarlatine (muslin), balzarine (a blend of cotton and wool), barège (gauze), blond (silk lace) and her colours: retriever red, cassada green, bison black and elephantine grey read like a heritage colour chart three decades before Farrow & Ball started their paint business.
Sitwell described her poetry in a letter to Robert Graves,
‘You say that my ‘ass-ear grass’ and ‘hairy sky’ etc, terrify you, and you want to know what makes me do it. It is rather difficult to explain. I think it is that I have always been in two lives, - if you can understand what I mean. It’s a queer somnambulistic floating back from my own perilous life to other people’s safe one ... and waking up with a scream. Perhaps subconsciously I wish I could get on friendly terms with the safe kind of life I hate, and am never able to do it.’
Queer or not, I noted that her love of words has earned her immortality in the Oxford English Dictionary which adds this note to its definition of the word Ombrelles (parasols),
‘Only known in the work of Edith Sitwell.’
Zeb Soanes, November 2016
Download Façade: Allusions of Grandeur, a Glossary below: