Music of Time

The BBC has undertaken a review of classical music composed in the years 1918-2018. This is entitled “Our Classical Century” and includes recorded performances and commentary on both television (BBC4) and radio (BBC Radio 3). Selections will also be featured in next year’s edition of the BBC Proms. In the program announcement for the Radio 3 portion, there are links to five musical pieces considered of particular “popular” interest. Among these is the composition Facade in which William Walton set to music some poems of Edith Sitwell:

The first [public] performance of Façade, by William Walton and Edith Sitwell, took place on 12 June 1923 in the grand setting of London’s Aeolian Hall. Unusually, the event wasn’t billed as a concert, but as an “entertainment” for six instruments and reciter. Walton, a gifted composer, was a hit with the bright young things of 1920s London. He had been all but adopted by the aristocratic Edith Sitwell and her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, who persuaded the reluctant Walton to set Edith’s poems to music.

On the night of the first performance, Sitwell spoke her lines through a “sengerfone”, a decorated megaphone that protruded through a monstrous face painted on a screen (a staging decision that was as practical as it was dramatic; it meant that she could be heard above the instruments). The music itself was a fizzing mix of sophisticated jazzy modernism and music hall parody, with masses of quotations thrown in.

Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf were among the first dazed audience members, while Noel Coward was so disgusted that he walked out in the middle. The reviews were mixed. While one headline denounced Façade as “drivel that they paid to hear”, a more thoughtful critic wrote:”As a musical joker, [Walton] is a jewel of the first water’.

Waugh was still a student at Oxford at the time of this performance to which he was taken (if memory serves) by his friend Harold Acton. It is unlikely that he enjoyed it because, as he later explained, he found music (or at least classical music) painful to listen to. He said as much to Igor Stravinsky when declining a personal invitation to the premiere of that composer’s Requiem in the late 1940s. He does, however, appear to have enjoyed musical comedies and went to repeat performances of both The Beggar’s Opera in the 1920s and Kiss Me Kate (music and lyrics by Cole Porter based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew) in the 1950s. Whether either of those will appear in the BBC’s musical series is not known.

The Daily Mail has published a brief article by Patricia Nicol on what to read in the current season of party going:

Evelyn Waugh’s pitch-black inter-war ‘party novel’ Vile Bodies chronicled the debauched antics of Britain’s aristocratic Bright Young Things. Wild child Agatha Runcible dies after hosting a cocktail party in the nursery home where she has been sent to rest and recuperate. Therein lies a warning. Partying, like everything else, is best in season. Out of season, rest up.

The other recommended novel is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City set in the 1980s.

Finally, in a recent review of the US edition of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Waugh’s friend and fellow novelist Anthony Powell, author Christopher Sandford writes this in Modern Age: A Conservative Journal:

…Apart from turning out a stream of increasingly free-form reviews and memoirs, Powell found himself at the age of eighty-four at the center of one of those explosive literary feuds the English seem to do almost as well as their  national genius for the political sex scandal. His adversary was Evelyn Waugh’s eldest son, Auberon, who published a damning review of Powell’s latest volume of memoirs in the Sunday Telegraph, a paper to which they were both long-time contributors. Running as a subplot there was also the fact that Powell seemed to some to have lived his professional life in Evelyn Waugh’s shadow: never quite attaining the same level of success that Brideshead Revisited, in particular, brought to Waugh in the U.S., although by the same token scrupulously avoiding that book’s prevalent tone of narcissism and Roman Catholic proselytizing. Powell was simply too honorable to be a publicist for himself or indeed any other cause. His diaries cannot be read, as the elder Waugh’s can be, for their joyful cascade of indiscretions. When Waugh died at the age of sixty-three in 1966, Powell wrote merely that his friend had made a “great performance” of his life. By contrast, “I have absolutely no picture of myself,” Powell said. “Never have had.”

Spurling glides over the whole Sunday Telegraph incident by taking what could be called the psychological approach. The younger Waugh, she writes, had himself published an autobiography, “contain[ing] a scary portrait of Evelyn as a monstrous egoist who regarded all his sons, and this one in particular, as rivals to be snubbed, derided and put down. Even in his own distress, Powell regarded young Auberon’s response as essentially vicarious, the vengeful product of a largely loveless childhood.”

Be that as it may, Powell went ballistic over Auberon’s review, severing his relations with the Telegraph, which rather bizarrely commissioned a bust of their departing éminence grise but then found they had nowhere to put it. It perched for a while on an office filing cabinet. The Powells and the Waughs never spoke again. It all could have been a scene from one of those darkly funny contemplations of the London literary world taken from Books Do Furnish a Room, the best individual installment of the Dance to the Music of Time.

It was a collection of Powell’s literary reviews, Miscellaneous Verdicts, not his memoirs that Auberon reviewed unfavorably in the Sunday Telegraph, and Powell reviewed for the weekday edition, not the Sunday. Whether the Powells and “the Waughs” never spoke again seems rather a moot point since both Evelyn Waugh and his wife Laura were dead by the time this dispute took place, although it does seem unlikely that they ever spoke again to Auberon who outlived Anthony Powell by a few months. The feud, such as it was, has not been carried into younger generations, as witnessed by Alexander Waugh’s lecture to the Anthony Powell Society last year.

UPDATE (11 December 2018): Sentence added to final paragraph.

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