Ashcroft/Scofield/Walton Facade LP (Argo, 1972)

In 1923, William Walton, at the age of 21, presented Facade, "an entertainment for speaking voice and six instrumental players." Facade is a series of poems by Edith Sitwell set to music. The oddness of the poems (they read/sound like a mating of Edward Lear and e.e. cummings, i.e. part nonsense verse, part punnery & word play, very inventive, surreal and rhythmic) and the juxtaposition of the music caused an uproar and cemented the notoriety of Walton. The music and verse wasn't the only thing somewhat hinky in the minds of the British public. Walton's association with Edith Sitwell caused a bit of chatter; Edith being a member of the Sitwell clan, a family of English writers known as eccentrics and cranks.

This album is of a 1972 recording of Walton's work, the voices supplied by Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scofield, the music performed by the London Sinfonietta. Upon listening to this version, two references came to mind: Erik Satie's Relache, a piece which caused riots when it was first performed (in 1924, a year after Facade's debut), and album of nursery songs Julie Andrews did with New York composer/street person Moondog. The voices skitter across the music never getting too heavy or too light and always bringing out the rhythm of Sitwell's verse. Some times Ashcroft sounds like she would fit in as a member of the Inflatable Boy Clams. The music doesn't overwhelm, complimenting the words without distracting. Of poetry/music albums this is one of the best that I've heard.

Does this piece work today? Certainly. In fact, it would be great to hear a contemporary version of this, the music assembled from samples. Facade is the kind of record that transcends genre, winding up classified as simply a great record.

I love this genre. There is a weekly radio program in syndication on classical & public radio called the The Romantic Hour with Mona Golabek, she assembles poetry readings and classical music, sometimes with truely amazing results. I think there are narrators in Stravinsky's The Soldiers Tale & others, and Frank Zappa also explored this combination often, most noteably on The Yellow Shark, which was I think his last release while he still walked among us.
FYI, there's a 1950 RCA recording of "Facade" featuring Dame Edith Sitwell herself on the vocals. She must have been in her 70s by then. The first track ("Hornpipe") sounds like orchestral proto-rap.

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