Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Edith Sitwell's Carnivalesque Song: The Hybrid Music of Facade

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Edith Sitwell's Carnivalesque Song: The Hybrid Music of Facade

Article excerpt

On 12 March 1927, the front page of London's self-proclaimed "Most Interesting Literary Paper in the World," T.P.'s and Cassell's Weekly, featured a large photograph of Edith Sitwell. Underneath it was a caption that read: "Miss Sitwell has been described as the pioneer for her two brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell. She is a brilliant musician, and her interest in musical rhythms has inspired many of the metrical experiments in 'Bucolic Comedies' and 'Troy Park.'" Appearing only a couple of months after a series of performances of Sitwell's controversial poetry cycle Facade, which had been premiered at London's Aeolian Hall four years earlier, the label "musician" will hardly have come as a surprise to the weekly's readers. Not only is Facade written for recitation to a musical accompaniment composed by William Walton, nearly half of the sequence's poems have a title connected to music. In many of them, Sitwell uses rhythms based on recognizably musical patterns such as those of the polka and the waltz, and the poems' sound effects are so dense as to turn the cycle into a clear example of what Stephen Paul Scher calls "word-music" (149).

Since its public premiere in 1923, for which it was advertised as a "New and Original Musical Entertainment" (Craggs, Walton 20), Facade has provoked a variety of reactions, ranging from bewilderment to snubbing, from wild enthusiasm to disregard and, finally, rediscovery. Surprisingly, few of those responses have devoted more than cursory attention to the cycle's relationship with music (Phillips, Bernhart, and Parsons), while this seems to me one of the vantage points its audience is most keenly invited to adopt. An exploration of the manifold ways Facade draws on, and seeks association with, music is not only germane to an understanding of the experimentalist poetics underlying its lyrics, it also helps to estimate part of the rationale motivating Sitwell's decision to introduce the cycle as an "entertainment." Although the term an sich does not demand such a correlation, entertainment was more readily associated, by Sitwell as well as by many of her contemporaries, with popular than with "high" culture. In the eyes of the majority, Sitwell sighs in the introduction to her Collected Poems, gaiety, amusement, and vitality are not the province of "masterpieces": true "Art" is not expected to entertain, but to be "serious," "dull," and "heavy" (xvii). Calling Facade a "musical entertainment," then, Sitwell incontestably teases her audience into comparing and contrasting the cycle with musical creations belonging to the other side of the so-called "Great Divide," the more so because Facade contains plentiful allusions to past and contemporary forms of popular music and musical performance. Now intimating the cycle's affinity with these entertainments, then again emphatically underlining its difference from them, Facade's hybrid musical entanglements inscribe it in the wave of ambiguous fascination with the popular that swept through all the arts of the early decades of the twentieth century, making its mark on works as varied and as momentous as Picasso's cubist Landscape with Posters, Debussy and Satie's Chat Noir pieces, Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel, Joyce's Ulysses, and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

With poems written by Edith and a performance mode that was, in part, thought out by her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, Facade not only indicates the onset of the Sitwells' renown as a fanciful and flamboyant artistic trio (see Glendinning and Pearson), it also marks a pivotal stage in Edith Sitwell's writing career. After her fairly conventional poetry debut in 1915, Sitwell gradually started to experiment with poetic form in a search for alternatives to what she called the "rhythmical flaccidity," "verbal deadness," and "dead and expected patterns" of the highly popular Georgian verse appearing in an eponymous series of anthologies published by Edward Marsh and J. …

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