by Len Mullenger

It may not be listed in the New Oxford Companion to Music but the Sengerphone does exist.

In 1919, whilst a very young undergraduate, William Walton met Sacheverell Sitwell, the youngest of the three Sitwells. Having decided that Walton was a genius Sacheverall introduced him to his brother, Osbert and eventually the Sitwell family more or less adopted Walton. He had such a resemblance to the family, especially Edith, that they could well have presented him as one of the family. Financial support for Walton was forthcoming from Dr Strong, Dean of Christchurch, Lord Berners and Siegfried Sassoon. They also provided him with an entrée to society, contemporary classical music and Jazz.

Edith Sitwell was writing poems which were concerned with word-play, rhythms and onomatopoeia. They had started out as technical exercises - she was attempting to obtain, purely through the written word, the rhythm of the waltz, polka and fox-trot. When Edith was told that this was very clever - but just a façade, the name stuck. It was then decided that they would sound better if they were set to music - and who else should do this but Walton?

The music and words were to have an equal contribution. To attain this, and to eliminate the personalities of the speaker and instrumentalists, Osbert decided the whole performance should be screened from the audience by a curtain designed and painted by Frank Dobson. In order to amplify the volume of the speaker to equal that of the instruments, the speaker used a type of megaphone called a Sengerphone, which jutted through the curtain.

It is not so much Façade as the Sengerphone which is the subject of this article. Osbert Sitwell, in his autobiography Laughter in the NextRoom Volume 4 entitled Left Hand, Right Hand has this to say:-

"Senger sang for several seasons with the Metropolitan Company of New York, but as a rule he played in Germany and Switzerland. There he alternated, night by night, in the part of Fafner, with a large German singer who was a natural prototype of the later Nazi bullies. This man persecuted Senger, the culmination of one campaign being that after his own performance finished one night, he broke up the megaphone used by both Fafners on the stage, so that the next evening, when it was Senger's turn to employ it, he found to his chagrin that it no longer existed. Consequently his voice was inaudible, and the newspapers the following morning drew the most wounding comparisons between his singing and that of his rival.

Senger now set out to retrieve his position. This he did by inventing the fibre trumpet, which he subsequently patented in England as the Sengerphone. He kept his discovery secret until a given night when he was able, by the use of this new instrument, to produce a booming so true, memorable and superb, that it resounded throughout the Opera House. As he left he knew that his talent was vindicated, his fortune made - but what he did not know was that an error by the management had substituted his rival's name for his own in that evening's programme. The following day the papers vied with each other in protesting how wonderful the false Fafner had been, and how right they had been on the previous occasion in castigating the wretched Senger!"

The Sengerphone was actually made of papier mâche which removed the metallic rasp of a megaphone, preserving the tonal qualities of the voice aided by the fact that the orifice did not just cover the mouth but also the nostrils so the resonance of the nasal cavities was retained. The Sengerphone Company was successful and the instrument was used by the Admiralty in both wars. Senger died in 1936.

A wonderful story but  "Apocryphal!"  we should perhaps cry. It is not often one can accuse Michael Kennedy of being a boring pedant but one does have to be a little equivocal about Osbert Sitwell's reportage in view of the terse little footnote in Portrait of Walton."The statement that Herr Senger sang at Bayreuth is incorrect". Here lies the smoking ruin of a wonderful story - or does it? Perhaps it was some other Opera House.

Further reading:

Michael Kennedy A portrait of Walton Oxford 1989

Osbert Sitwell Laughter in the next room, Volume 4 Left hand Right hand Macmillan 1949

Susana Walton William Walton: Behind the Façade Oxford 1988

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