Newsletter no 12: The London Piano Duo – Façade – Renishaw Hall and Gardens

by Elizabeth Mucha

“Shall we play piano duets?” asked pianist and London Song Festival director Nigel Foster after the successful premiere of ‘Art Sung – Clara Schumann’. This was at the end of 2019 so it took a while for us to get going as sitting next to someone at a piano keyboard wasn’t an option for quite some time! Scroll forward a couple of years and Nigel and I (as the ‘The London Piano Duo’) have performed in Colchester, Waltham Abbey, and at the stunning Reform Club in Pall Mall. Our next concert is in St John the Baptist Church, Peterborough on Tuesday, May 16th at 1pm with a lovely programme of early 20th century French and English music.

Which brings me neatly to our current project, Art Sung – Edith Sitwell.

Our piano duet programme ends with four very witty and clever pieces by William Walton from ‘Façade’, a unique and avant-garde ‘entertainment’ which he created with Edith Sitwell. Her exotic and colourful poetry was declaimed through a megaphone via a hole in a curtain over his jazz-inspired music. The public premiere took place 100 years ago in 1923 at the Aeolian Hall in London and caused quite a stir! It also put the then unknown young composer William Walton on the road to fame. It seemed like a fitting time to tell this amazing story and so, in collaboration with the London Song Festival, the research, scriptwriting and song exploration is well under way for the premiere on at the end of November (date to be confirmed). Meantime here is a link to a very short excerpt of us playing the opening of “Popular Song” from Façade – Some of you may recognise this as the theme tune for the BBC TV programme, ‘Face the Music’ which aired from 1967 to 1984!

At Easter, my research took me on the road north to the family seat of the Sitwells, Renishaw Hall and Gardens, just south of Sheffield in the beautiful Derbyshire countryside. The sun was shining, the daffodils and the magnolias were in full bloom and the lambs were gambolling in the fields – (oops, got a little carried away – but it was a perfect day!).

After an early morning’s exploration of the beautiful Italianate gardens, I eagerly dove into the small but fascinating Sitwell Museum where I found a treasure trove of Sitwellian memorabilia including photographs, heirlooms and literature extracts.

Especially exciting was an original programme from the premiere of Façade in 1923!

Also on display a handwritten copy of Edith’s poem, ‘Aubade’:

Jane, Jane,
Tall as a crane,
The morning light creaks down again;
Comb your cockscomb-ragged hair,
Jane, Jane, come down the stair.

To top this, we were extremely lucky to have Renishaw archivist, Chris Beevers, as our house tour guide. She regaled us with stories, past and present, about the Sitwell family as she led us through several extraordinary rooms packed with history and character! A must for anyone in the vicinity.

Incidentally the photo above of Constant Lambert’s arrangement of Walton’s Façade for piano duet, which I picked up in a second-hand music shop many years ago and is dated 1926, is the same edition that is under glass at the Sitwell Museum. When I got home, I put mine back in a very safe place!

In other news, as I mentioned previously Art Sung – Clara Schumann will be revived at the Buckingham Music Festival on July 10th. Our two wonderful soloists, soprano Lorena Paz Nieto and baritone Malachy Frame can be heard singing in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Nevill Holt opera in June –

Elizabeth MuchaNewsletter no 12: The London Piano Duo – Façade – Renishaw Hall and Gardens