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<<  -- 4 --  Jennifer I Paull    HIGH JINX AND HAUTE COUTURE


As well as her appreciation of Edith Sitwell's poems, I can find two further links between Sitwell and Berberian. One was their mutual penchant for long, striking gowns (worn during the day as well as the evening [and presumably, the night]). Another was the size of the rings they both favoured. To quote Sylvano Bussotti [interviewed in Music is the Air I Breathe], Cathy adored the quote of the French actress Edwige Feuillère telling her maid to 'Bring me my jewel -- not the big one, the enormous one!' Edith Sitwell's can be seen in the jewellery galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The trouble with most Englishwomen is that they will dress as if they had been a mouse in a previous incarnation. They do not want to attract attention. -- Edith Sitwell

Neither Edith nor Cathy was incarnationally-challenged.

Cathy Berberian. Photo © Lufti Özkök
Cathy Berberian. Photo © Lufti Özkök

Like Edith Sitwell, Cathy's hands were often covered with gem mines. Her own jeweller, Carlo Zini (in Milan), both designed for her and brought her sketches into being. The diagonal sparkling strap and asymmetrical 'breastplate' of a dress she wore for social occasions (her décolleté was always prudishly concealed on stage) inspired her to ask him to create a 'ring-to-necklace-sleeve'.

Illustration courtesy of Cristina Berio
Illustration courtesy of Cristina Berio


Jewelled 'sleeve' Cathy Berberian/Carlo Zini. Photo courtesy of Cristina Berio
Jewelled 'sleeve' Cathy Berberian/Carlo Zini. Photo courtesy of Cristina Berio

By parody and caricature, satire and irony of (for example) Tom der Reime by Johann Karl Gottfried Loewe, Op 135, (Proust recital), Cathy (like Anna Russell before her) cooled some blindly-accepted hot Teutonic air by revealing the ridiculous. This continues to be a much-sung lied by many famous recitalists. Touching its reverence then was a bit like drinking Coca-Cola from the pre-Dan Brown Holy Grail. Anna Russell had excelled in unravelling the complexities (and incest) of Wagner's (week long) Ring Cycle of operas in an amazing 22 minutes; no tie-break. Cathy slayed any one text in the time it took to raise an eyebrow or change her facial expression, thereby inserting enough double entendres to give the 'this-poetry-is-serious-stuff' lobby no footing whatsoever.

Er küßte sie, sie küßte ihn,
Ein Vogel sang im Eschenbaum.

'He kissed her' -- piano arpeggio (rolling of eyes to heaven),
'She kissed him' -- yet more piano arpeggio (politely hidden yawn),
'A bird sang in an ash-tree' -- ('big deal' expression -- audience in hysterics).

The original text for this particular lied, is an old Scottish ballad, Thomas The Rhymer. Loewe set Theodor Fontane's (1819-1898) German and hugely abridged, (32 mini-line) 'translation' (slaughter) of the original Scots (20, voluptuous verses). Fontane bypassed much, including the pompous message of moral virtue. Oh, what fun Cathy would have had with the following from the original!

O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briars?
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

And see ye not that braid, braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Though some call it the road to heaven.

And see not ye that bonny road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

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


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