The eccentric cabaret-classical musician Erik Satie (1866-1925) floated with the fragile equilibrium of a hang glider pilot through l’air du temps at the turn of the century. Just by staying in place he passed through a succession of seemingly contradictory periods and styles. During the Eighties and Nineties he combined piano playing in the bohemian night spots of Montmartre with exotic incidental music for Rosicrucian gatherings. In the fertile decade before World War I, reaching forty, Satie returned to school to study counterpoint. Soon after he was rediscovered as an anti-Wagnerian pioneer by his two old friends Ravel and Debussy. Parade, the ballet Satie dreamed up with Cocteau, Picasso, and Massine for Diaghilev in 1917, launched him into several years of collaboration with the Dadaists. His “furniture music” (“Don’t listen! Keep talking!” he instructed his listeners) displays a subtle relation to his writing in “Memoirs of an Amnesiac.”
Satie’s spare setting of Socrate (1919) made him the herald of a neoclassic movement that influenced Stravinsky and Les Six. Along the way Satie developed a highly personal style of calligraphy and schematic drawing, and a drolly archaic prose style for lectures and public statements. While still an unknown cabaret pianist in his twenties, he had performed three successive times the mock-serious ritual of becoming a candidate for the Académie des Beaux Arts. Years later the mayor of his quarter decorated him for community work, and he joined the Communist party as soon as it was organized in 1921.
This curmudgeonly loner formed close ties to fellow artists as different as Brancusi, Braque, Milhaud, and Man Ray. When the Dada group decided in 1923 to “try” André Breton at the Closerie des Lilas for deviant seriousness, seniority gave Satie the responsibility of presiding as magistrate. But he was never above the fray, and after the ballet Relâche, he ended up in court for sending an insulting postcard to a critic. Picabia saw him perceptively in 1922:
Satie is a man you can’t trifle with! He’s a crafty and wily old artist—at least that’s what he thinks of himself. Personally, I think just the opposite! He’s a very sensitive man, proud, a real sad child whom alcohol occasionally renders optimistic.
Satie was not prolific, not a master of the craft of music, not a great performer on any instrument, not a follower, not a charismatic leader. One cannot call him neglected: Diaghilev and the Princesse de Polignac (heiress of the immense Singer fortune) commissioned works by him. Today this minor composer of the early twentieth century just won’t fade away. Someone rediscovers him every decade or so. The young Olivier Messiaen listened carefully to La Messe des Pauvres. Thirty years ago John Cage called Satie “indispensable.” Contemporary minimalist composers owe a great deal to repetition and simplicity in Satie’s early works.
For years admirers have known that Satie’s peculiar writings deserve publication in book form. Only snippets appeared until a few years ago, when a Paris-based journalist and a Cambridge musicologist produced independent collections of quite different merit.* Ornella Volta’s volume contains 200 pages of Satie’s writings and drawings followed by 100 pages of pithy notes. Nigel Wilkins translated about 130 pages without notes, framed by a chronology and a glossary of proper names, all in a handsome edition full of drawings, photographs, and musical illustrations. Neither volume contains anything like a general introduction. Wilkins’s devoted labors were seriously hampered by the heirs’ unwillingness to grant permissions. He was rudely sued for his pains. The reader unfamiliar with the era and with Satie’s career will be lost in either volume.
The two new books under review finally assemble the materials from earlier studies in a more approachable form. Though Volta states that John Cage “inspired” her collection (a two-page letter from him opens the book “By Way of an Introduction”), it appears to be the volume of letters announced in her earlier collection and translated into English before the French edition has appeared. The loosely thematic arrangement of the letters (into chapters with titles like “Schools,” “Homes,” “Contemporaries”) violates chronological order often enough to blur the sequence of Satie’s life. Enlivened by drawings and photographs on almost every page, the layout presents the letters with connecting commentary. Volta says almost nothing about Satie’s music and confines her remarks to questions of biography, temperament, collaboration, and literary work.
In many of his letters Satie developed a mocking style that alternates haughtiness with humility and calmly rolls out the most unimaginative clichés. Just after World War I a group of young composers, including Milhaud, Poulenc, Honegger, and Auric (they would soon be named Les Six) found their leader in Satie. Parade had made him famous the preceding year. The letter he wrote to the prominent teacher and critic, Charles Koechlin, carries some of the flavor:
Mon cher Ami—I have been instructed by the “Nouveaux Jeunes” group to ask if you have any new—or even old—work that we could include in our programme of 19 Oct.—in the stately but congenial Salle Huyghens. We should like to have a quartet, a sonata for various instruments, etc….
Do you have something?
Furthermore, the “Nouveaux Jeunes” group requests me to address the following petition to you:
Become a member of our group, as above.
Come along with Us, as they say.
You agree? Yes?
You would give Us great pleasure, you know.
Bien à vous:
In 1903 he parodied himself in a letter to his old and close friend Debussy:
Monsieur Erik Satie is working at the present time on a delightful work entitled 2 Morceaux en forme de poire. Monsieur Erik Satie is crazy about this new invention of his mind. He talks about it a lot and says very good things about it. He believes it superior to everything he has written up till now; perhaps he’s wrong, but we mustn’t tell him so: he wouldn’t believe it.
Writing to his brother several years later, Satie doesn’t try to joke about his strained relations with Debussy:
One person who isn’t pleased is the good Claude. It’s really his fault; if he had done sooner what Ravel—who makes no secret of the influence I had on him—has done, his position would be different….
The success achieved by the Gymnopédies at the concert conducted by him at the Cercle Musical—a success which he did everything possible to turn into a failure—gave him an unpleasant surprise.
I’m not angry with him about it. He’s the victim of his social climbing. Why won’t he allow me a very small place in his shadow? I have no use for the sun. His conduct has turned against the “Ravêlites” and the “Satistes,” people who have been keeping quiet in their place, but are now yelling at each other like polecats.
A terse letter to Emma Debussy in 1917 during the rehearsals of Parade gives Satie’s view of their quarrel and break less than a year before Debussy’s death:
Chère Madame—decidedly, it will be preferable if henceforth the “Precursor” stays at home, far away.
Painful teasing—and at the rehearsal yet! Yes. Quite unbearable, anyhow.
Picabia was obviously right about Satie’s sensitivity. Ornella Volta’s collection of letters will appeal above all to those who already know Satie as the mascot and the imp of twentieth-century music.
Alan Gillmor, a music professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, has written the first thorough study of Satie in English—his times, the man, his music, his writings. It includes an impressively complete bibliography, a catalog of musical works, and a discography (twenty-seven pages, including “Free Arrangements”—e.g., by Blood, Sweat and Tears). Gillmor’s extensive readings and investigations have produced a fresh portrait of Montmartre life at the end of the nineteenth century and of Satie’s stubborn opposition to the Wagner craze. We learn what the curriculum was at the Schola Cantorum and how everyone in Paris avant-garde circles chose up sides in the Dada squabbles. Gillmor is not reverential toward his subject and doesn’t hesitate to criticize the crabbed temperament that could turn Satie into a pouting child. The essentially chronological account supplies in colorful detail the sometimes touching story of Satie’s career against the background of minor bohemians, major artists, and society hostesses. Toward them all he maintained a prickly relation that excluded apathy and servility.
Gillmor’s most valuable contribution is the clarity and incisiveness of his musical analyses, with ample musical illustrations. He writes most sympathetically about the dozen or so humoristic piano suites, all with disconcerting texts and instructions, dating from 1912–1915. After an analysis of the tonal framework of Chapitres tournés en tous sens, in which Satie quotes children’s songs without disguise, Gillmor concludes:
There is in this music—as in all of Satie’s music—a curiously objective and unatmospheric quality. The composer does not use chords for their rhetorical or coloristic possibilities but rather he delights in the unexpected relationships he can discover between them. Through a concept of form free from motivic development, a formal idea arrived at through the juxtaposition of bits and pieces of commonplace materials, Satie disallows the rhetorical element that results from the dramatic accumulation of related musical events. The sensuous element, too, is negated through the extreme bareness of the texture and the mechanistic rigidity of the rhythmic impulse.
Seventy-five years later minimalist composers have found a comparable style, without Satie’s running counterpoint of grotesque texts and with sensuous elements reintroduced through orchestration. Gillmor writes eloquently of Sports et divertissements, which combines prose poetry and piano music in a handsomely calligraphed score in two colors—all to be experienced together in what Gillmor calls “a tiny Gesamt-kunstwerk.” Gillmor reproduces two of the twenty one-page scores and says they call for intimate performance for “a mere handful of aficionados gathered around a piano.” Having performed the prose poems of Sports et divertissements with Charles Miles playing the piano at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I can certify their appropriateness for a chamber music setting as well.
Gillmor gives a full account of Parade, the collaboration of Satie, Cocteau, Massine, and Picasso, and the rumpus at the first performance. Evidently the chaste scoring of Plato’s words in Socrate (1919) moves him more deeply than the modern ballet. The last nine measures, quoted in the orchestral version, correspond to Socrates’ death by poison:
Then, a chillingly effective moment as the pulsating fifth quietly shifts upward a whole-tone to an open B–F-sharp: “Thus was the end, Echecrates, of our friend….” The voice pauses momentarily and the orchestral drone unobtrusively slips back to the original pitches: “…the wisest and most just of all men.” For the briefest of moments the tragedy has resolved onto that hollow fifth (A–E), until, without warning, the music moves, as it were, out of time, sinks onto an unexpected tritone (E-sharp–B), which “resolves” onto the perfect fourth (F-sharp–B), on which pale and remote interval the music slowly fades into silence. It is a haunting moment of ineffable sweetness that lingers in the memory like one of those friezelike, pastel-colored Puvis de Chavannes murals so greatly admired by the composer….
Satie the wag could surprise everyone by unexpected shifts of style. Soon after the dignified measures of Socrate he was hobnobbing with Dadaists and their “dadames” and composing “furniture music” intended not to be listened to.
Except for one photograph of the composer, Gillmor’s book contains only musical illustrations, no drawings or other art work by Satie. The editor should have known better; the author should have insisted. The occasional lapses are forgivable. Parade is not the first modern experimental ballet. Several years earlier L’Après-midi d’un faune (1912) and Sacre du printemps (1913), both choreographed by Nijinski, had left a deep mark on classical ballet. “Beggarly” does not mean impecunious. In the musical analyses Gillmor falls back often on the expression “mosaic technique” to describe Satie’s compositional style. Though pieced together out of tiny fragments, most mosaics have a fairly clear figurative or decorative structure, whereas Gillmor seems to be suggesting lack of structure, a form closer to randomness. Neither Satie’s experimentation nor his classicism approaches aleatory music. But these are minor quibbles. Gillmor has written the book Satie has long deserved.
In dealing with Satie one must finally come up against a question of tone—the tone of what he composed and wrote, the tone of a life lived at a carefully calibrated distance from everyone, even his brother. He remains the master bricoleur or tinkerer who cannot leave the language or the culture alone. “Experience is one of the forms of paralysis,” he wrote. At every age, his works reveal an elderly sprite in full possession of his childhood. Trying to sum up his accomplishment, I would reckon there are fifty pages of unmatched prose—mostly lectures and stories, many of them in Wilkins’s collection—and a handful of important musical works in which Satie either displayed or overcame his genius as a miniaturist. Sometimes he sounds like a faux naif: there is reference in the letters to his special relation as Saint Erik to a benevolent God. There are also simple explanations for his frequent desperation. “I haven’t eaten in two days.” He taught himself how to blend unbridled fantasy with ironic conformity. During his last years he wore a derby hat and carried an umbrella. As he informs us in one of his earliest quips, or bulls (he signs it “Chamfort”): “He died cured.”
March 15, 1990
Erik Satie, Ecrits, réunis, établis et annotés par Ornella Volta (Paris: Editions Champ Libre, 1977); The Writings of Erik Satie, translated and edited by Nigel Wilkins (London: Eulenburg Books, 1980). ↩