Satie Seen Through His Letters
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.