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Cathy Berberian's philosophy was that any music (not just blind acceptance of the stereotypical 'great' composers and rejection of the 'lesser') could be good or bad. Words and their meaning(s) remain paramount and must be put before the beauty of the voice even at the cost of a perfect tone quality. 'After all, singing words implies that you have to portray their sense, not just glory in the top notes, aiming for them at the expense of what you are actually pronouncing as you sing! Not everything is or has to be beautiful!' she used to argue. As Julia MIgenes illustrates so well in her one-woman show, heroines dying of consumption whilst belting out top notes fortissimo are plain ridiculous. Diction, and logic, are so often cast to the winds!

For Cathy to have been a serious singer maintaining her own philosophy was tough. To have been a comedienne who switched from the Proust recital to an avant-garde marathon (Recital I for Cathy -- Berio) within the space of a year (1971/2), put her into yet another category as a versatility trailblazer. As such, she more or less filled a Guinness Book of Records by herself (or an 'encyclodictionalmanacapedia', of course).

'Recital I (for Cathy)' by Luciano Berio - the original LP cover for the present CD. Photo courtesy of Cristina Berio
'Recital I (for Cathy)' by Luciano Berio - the original LP cover for the present CD. Photo courtesy of Cristina Berio

Comedienne: A woman professional entertainer who tells jokes or performs various other comic acts. Cathy was just so much more!

Cathy Berberian laid claim to the title 'clown'. She became her own character, a subtle amalgam of the aristocratic distinction of the White Clown, and the clumsy, mislead naïveté of Coco. Through derision and auto-derision, she gently undermined the very foundations and convictions that had become establishmental straightjackets. Cathy Berberian's humour-bubbles effervesced to a multitude of nestling places. They were so light yet packed with meaning. Always seemingly effortless and off-the-cuff, her satire, radiating from inspired self-assurance without a trace of long-winded pretentiousness, became her signature. -- Marie Christine Vila, taken from the résumé of her lecture given at the ASCA International Conference; Cathy Berberian: Pioneer of Contemporary Vocality and Performance, University of Amsterdam, 26/7 April 2006, and translated by the author at the request of Mme Vila for the conference

Cathy allowed her razor sharp wit to creep into her performance in many unexpected ways. I am reminded of Tit-Willow (Proust recital), the very popular and utterly word-challenged aria from The Mikado, by that most British of braces, Gilbert and Sullivan (librettist W S Gilbert [1836-1911] and composer Arthur Sullivan [1842-1900] collaborated in fourteen such works between 1871 and 1896).

In her interpretation of Tit-Willow, Cathy sprinkled an overabundant quantity of 'shalls' (replacing several more grammatically correct 'wills') over the text in an attempt to sound upper crust British. She rounded off with the following poetic pearls,

He sobbed and he sighed, and a gurgle he gave
Then he plunged himself into the billowy wave
And an echo arose from the suicide's grave
'Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow'

pronouncing suicide's as 'see-oo-ee-cide's'. Her coup de grace was to actually sing a 'mountain echo' repeated syllable (hand cupped to ear listening for it in the hills at a shooting party after the 'glorious twelfth', no doubt). Cathy brought the literal sense of the word into being.

Cathy Berberian. Photo © 1971 Pavel Sticha. 'Oh WILLOW-willow, TIT-WILLOW-willow, TIT-WILLOW-willow'
Cathy Berberian. Photo © 1971 Pavel Sticha. 'Oh WILLOW-willow, TIT-WILLOW-willow, TIT-WILLOW-willow'

Anna Russell was born to an upper middle-class (posh) musical English family. Her father had been a great admirer of these British Operettas. (It is worth noting en passant that How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera is another of Russell's recorded gems). He had been an excellent pianist and her great-aunt, an opera singer. She it was who took the twelve-year-old Anna to the première of Walton's Façade in 1923. Anna instantly fell in love with Edith Sitwell's nonsense poems.

As Cathy was neither a product of the twin-set and pearls background of Anna Russell (or Joyce Grenfell), nor born to the former's very Mayfair accent, one has to admire her valiant attempts at capturing the entire British upper class in caricature. Her préambule to My Grandfather's Clock (Henry Clay Work 1832-1884) was a lamentation of the difficulties of finding reliable domestic staff. Cathy had been a houseguest of Lord Harewood (the Queen's cousin) at his home Harewood House near Harrogate, after all! I wonder if Cathy knew of Work's first song (1853) entitled We Are Coming, Sister Mary? She did know of a church anthem published by Novello (where Basil Ramsey and I were colleagues at the time she was compiling the Proust recital), but decided against arranging it. Just as we were trying to locate a possible copy for her, she changed her mind saying that she doubted (even) she would get away with it (Behold, the Bridegroom Commeth in The Middle of The Night).

Cathy, as Anna, adored the Sitwell nonsense poems and performed several (breaking the four-minute articulation mile), in Façade 2 (dedicated to her by its composer, William Walton). There is a stunning recording of her performance of this work, and a filmed television presentation by the Swiss Italian Television (TSI) [Details of all available recordings are at]. Walton died just forty-eight hours after Cathy in early March 1983. I feel they must be very busy.

Filming of 'Façade 2' at the TSI, Lugano. Photo courtesy of Cristina Berio
Filming of 'Façade 2' at the TSI, Lugano. Photo courtesy of Cristina Berio


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Copyright © 4 July 2006 Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland


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