Erik Satie’s music makes negatives positive. Read what Jean Cocteau has to say about Parade — that strange third dimensional ballet with its mechanised morse code rhythm, its supplementary orchestra of lottery wheels, revolvers and typewriters, and its odd-and-end troupe of psychologically ‘caught in a trap’ actors and actresses.
‘The Chinaman, the Little American Girl and the Acrobats’, wrote Cocteau, ‘represent varieties of nostalgia hitherto unknown, so great is the degree of verisimilitude with which they are expressed. No humbug, no repetition, no underhand caresses, no feverishness or miasma. Satie never stirs up the mud.’
Or turn to Max Graf analysing Satie’s unique contribution to world thought — ‘here is music without rhetorics, without literature, without trimmings of colour and without bombast.’
When Igor Stravinsky expressed Europe’s creative debt to this obscure and derided Frenchman for ‘opposing to the vagueness of a decrepit impressionism a language precise and firm,’ he approached a positive evaluation. It is significant, however, that he sticks to a technical point which presumes the reader’s aural acquaintance with the chief characteristics of Satie’s music the clear horizontal lines of his thematic construction: the disintegrated and reintegrated use of conventional chord patterns, and the cool floating sounds, as flat and colorless in a musical sense as the pallid wall paintings of his greatly admired Puvis de Chavannes. Without such understanding of a technical formula unprecedented in musical literature, Stravinsky’s tribute suggests nothing of Satie’s queer hallucinatory gift for making realism seem unreal, or for turning musical structure back to front and, hey presto it’s a hoose for a’ that. The precision and firmness deservedly applauded by Stravinsky were certainly mislaid virtues in the exuberant heyday of romanticism but, fortunately for musical development, they never became entirely unfamiliar.
Unfamiliarity (another negative!) is, however, the core of Erik Satie’s music. He was so far ahead of his own time that, in Constant Lambert’s splendid phrase, ‘he had the rare and, no doubt, exhilarating experience of seeing time catch up with him.’ At his most ‘advanced’ he is so emphatically of our own era that it is difficult to stand back far enough to take a good look at him. He is, indeed, so close at hand that only by a sustained effort can we get his work in focus.
At last, by a series of negatives, we find him — in ourselves. We are lonely in a world which has outpaced our adaptability: his music is the essence of loneliness. We are in the process of losing our illusions: he had not time for such luxuries. We feel the earth dwindling as sound-barriers break and the cold moon beckons: Satie’s music is minute, the matter of a few lines of music paper, but it has neither frontiers nor horizons. It operates in infinite space: it is without faith or fear. It is untouchable but recognisable: it is 1950 and after.
What was the background to this strange individual, born at the port of Honfleur in 1866, christened Erik Alfred Leslie in an Anglican church and re-baptised as a Roman Catholic at the age of six?
On his father’s side he came of seafaring stock; and Norman stock at that — as tough as the Mersey-siders and as ready to thumb the nose at authority.
His mother was a Scotswoman born in London, who met Jules Satie — shipbroker and captain of the Honfleur fire brigade — when living en pension in the town for the good of her French. Poor Jane Leslie Anton — she remains a shadowy figure, dying when the enigmatic composer of the future was little more than a toddler. Her successor as Mme Satie was an unpleasantly earnest young music teacher, Eugenie Barnetsche, who bought into trouble when she tried to give Erik the right ideas about piano playing.
Then there was Uncle Adrien, locally known as ‘Sea Bird’, an extraordinary character with an uncharted but colourful nautical past. He deserves a formal introduction as his influence upon the mature Satie was momentous. By all accounts Uncle Adrien must have been three parts mad in a manner more English than French. An expert practitioner in the craft of nonsense unlimited, he kept Honfleur residents in a perpetual state of exasperation wondering what he would be up to next. First cousin to all the great English humbugs, he lived mainly in a beautiful boat which never, or hardly ever, went to sea. He employed an almost entirely useless ‘crew’ of one. He did a lot to brighten Honfleur, but in an offhand, regal sort of way which amounted to no more than a reflex of his immense personal satisfaction in being Extremely Odd. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that Uncle Adrien was no ordinary exhibitionist. Like the immortal Jumblies he cared neither a button nor a fig for public opinion. He was a full-time eccentric because he enjoyed eccentricity for its own sake and found its regular practice kept him well and happy. His best performances were given for an audience of two, himself and little Erik.
The organist at the Honfleur parish church of St. Catherine was a man called Vinot — an old student of Fauré’s teacher, Wiedermeyer. From Vinot the queer and seemingly ungifted Erik learnt a little about the piano and more about plainsong. So began the passionate preoccupation with mystical poetry and Gothic art which produced some weird flowerings during and after Satie’s subsequent undistinguished period as a student of the Paris Conservatorium. ‘I am a man like Adam (of Paradise) who never won any prizes — a lazy fellow no doubt’, wrote the composer in later life. Yet he was only a lad of twenty-one when he published the three Gymnopédies and the three Sarabandes — those tiny but explosive compositions which did so much to clear the musical air in a Paris suffocating in Wagnerian raptures.
Today, when it is taken for granted that ‘new’ music is experimental music, it is hard to think back to the early post-Wagnerian period when France was little more than an artistic dependency of Bayreuth and all developmental roads appeared to be blocked by the so-called music of the future. Genius, organization, propaganda, and, above all, the colossal scope of the Wagnerian set-up crushed the spirit of young composers the world over. The musical superman had arrived and musicians knelt.
‘I walk around my work accompanied only by myself,’ said Erik Satie.
In groups of three — based on the sculptural principle of material viewed from different angles — the Satiean compositions accumulated. In opposition to Wagnerian size — French economy. In opposition to Teutonic gods and goddesses brandishing swords or parading along rainbows — grave ritualistic dances derived from the Greek. In opposition to Wagnerian tempests — a static calm.
A picture hangs on the wall: it can be dispassionately analysed at leisure — it cannot move.
Satie took an art which functions in time and achieved a feat which makes Joshua seem an amateur — in effect, if not in fact, he made music stand still.
The Gymnopédies, the Gnossiennes, the remote ‘unpopulated’ Nocturnes, the incomparable Socrates, are alike unique in their creation of mental sound-pictures which remain suspended in the memory like their visual counterparts. At its finest his work is extremely alarming, not so much because the tone colour is spectral and the attitude behind the tone colour nihilistic, as because it is echoless music in which each sound has a definite ending. One has only to compare the region of high expectancy into which Elgar ushers the spirit of Gerontius, with the silent outer spaces of Satie’s music, to realise the mortal chill of sounds without overtones.
‘In 1916 Satie was our schoolmaster,’ wrote Cocteau; and in 1953 we have not left the classroom. Perhaps we are not entirely to blame: he took no pains to make our lessons easy.
Here was a Parisian — a man of the cafes and the boulevards — a friend of Picasso, an urbanised Puck, with a spiteful wit and a liking for suits of mouse coloured velvet. Yet the mournful sea sounds through his music with Celtic persistence and the themes of the Gymnopédies hover like great shadowy birds.
He was clairvoyant, and saw through men and their designs with x-ray penetration. Had he been a bad or an idle man this habit of passionless dissection could have made him a modern Iago, juggling with wires to make his puppets dance. He was preserved from such malicious meddling by his hard working instincts, by a puritanic integrity of mind, and, above all, by his profound and touching trust in youth. He found Debussy fumbling — and ‘sold’ him the idea of musical impressionism. He recognized in Maurice Ravel the natural successor to Debussy, who would bring under one musical roof colour, light and classical form. Chronologically, he placed himself far ahead of both his young contemporaries, hiding his most intimate music under intentionally banal and misleading titles, content that it should remain in cold storage until the hour struck. A confirmed leg-puller, he was also a dismal realist who refused to be fooled by pretty stories. Fundamentally, he took life as it came and would certainly have approved the attitude of the common people to rival dictators as described by a contemporary 20th century poet in Alexandria…
The news about the result of the sea-fight, at Actium, was
But there is no need for us to compose a new address.
Let only the names be changed. Instead of (there
in the last lines) ‘Having delivered the Romans
From the disastrous Octavious,
The burlesque Caesar,’
Now we will put, ‘Having delivered the Romans
From the disastrous Antony.’
The whole text fits in beautifully.
Yet the same man was proud, touchy and secretive suffering horribly in the course of the nervy self-depreciating friendship with Claude Debussy. (‘Why won’t he (Debussy) allow me just a corner in his shade? I don’t want any of his sun.’) He kept a volume of Hans Anderson’s fairy-tales always near at hand and was ready at a moment’s notice for a bout of rumbustious nonsense on the Uncle Adrien model. He had one love affair with Suzanne Valadon, who in later years was to achieve both personal reputation as a painter and a permanent nitch in history as the mother of Maurice Utrillo.
Speculative, unorthodox, and insatiably inquisitive, Erik Satie was in many respects a pocket edition of Leonardo da Vinci. His inventive capacity and his imaginative foresight were alike remarkable. He wrote excellent cubist and surrealist ballets: anticipated the psychological background music for the present day film industry: demanded a ‘reading’ voice rather than conventional singing in Socrates (eg. Wozzeck!) and, in the same work, employed an experimental orchestra, including one cor anglais, one horn, one trumpet and a harp — thus anticipating Benjamin Britten’s Orchestra of Soloists designed for operatic productions in small halls.
(Wilfred Mellors, in his admirable Studies in Contemporary Music, goes so far as to stress the perfect suitability of Satie’s functional music to the sound film and the microphone, and indicates a use for his ‘lucid and objective’ writings in future depersonalised puppet operas based on the popular film cartoons.)
The contradictory elements in Satie’s make-up are forcibly illustrated in the creative work of his one-time disciples. Arthur Honnegger, at once a mystic and a solid provincial: Darius Milhaud, the inheritor of Satiean nostalgia: Georges Auric, the composer for many a fine film, including Beauty and the Beast, Louis Durey, the music writer and propagandist: Francis Poulenc, the mischievous and ironic song writer, who was never more emphatically a student of the intransigeant Erik than in his violent protest against against conventional modernism — ‘To make a system out of either cubism or atonalism, because these methods were adopted by three great painters (Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris) and three great musicians (Schonberg, Berg and Webern) as a means of expression which to them was as natural as breathing, is like forcing everyone to breathe through an iron lung. To this I refuse to submit.’
The contrast between Satie’s grasshopper intelligence as applied to other men’s talents, and his severe intellectual consistency as a ‘self-expresser,’ reaches Jekell and Hyde proportions. The convenient habit of dividing creative output into three ‘periods’ has unfortunately infiltrated Satiean biography. Never were old bottles and new wine associated with greater ineptness. Satie’s inner life functioned as a revolving wheel: direction differed, but the method and the objective were unalterable. His work must be regarded as a circular journey — whatever off-shoots — whatever mad excursions disturbed or delayed its progress can be written off as irrelevant. In his beginning was his end, and in his end was his beginning. His piano writings are incredibly bare and epigrammatic, but it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the technical skill with which each scrap of rhythm is welded into an extended phrase, or by means of which each note of the phrase, in itself cold and unillumined, reflects and passes on the colour of the supporting chain of chords.
The veracity of his work is extraordinary. It would be foolish to claim that it is great music as we understand the term in its relationship to such giants as Bach, Palestrina or Handel: such inventive geniuses as Mozart, Purcell, Byrd or Couperin: such romantic spirits as Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz or Hugo Wolf; or such radiant painters in sound as Debussy, Ravel or the Wagner he abhorred.
It would be, however, a flat denial of musical history to deny its power.
Rollo Myers might have had in mind other Satiean works beside Socrates when he wrote, ‘It seems, as it were, to be outside time and period, and so “dateless” that if it survives at all it will probably seem no more and no less “contemporary” two hundred years hence than it seems to us today.’
The small and admittedly peculiar little piano pieces are extraordinarily contrasted. In Sports et Divertissements, Satie combines music and verbal commentaries with the laconic precision of Japanese poetry. In the Descriptions Automatiques and Vieux Sequins et Vieilles Cuirasses, the music mocks, derides, lampoons, parodies, and grimaces. In the Apercus Disagréables, the deliberately perverse composer opens the doors of dark Gothic cathedrals and steadies the mind of the attentive listener with grave authoritative chorales. In the 5 Nocturnes, and in the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, he replaces twentieth century syncopation by a life pulse of almost unbearable regularity, and, whenever the mood takes him, can transport his audience to the shores of Euripides’ ‘magical unfriended’ sea, or place it in some cool olive grove where our farthest imagined past is only yesterday. The subject matter may occasionally involve physical characterisation, but whatever the antics, the gropings or the athletic activities of his pierrots, golfers, misers or ‘brass hats’, the listener is shielded from direct emotional impact by a cinematographic detachment unique in pianoforte literature.
Fascinated by the ‘insulated’ excitement of Javanese shadow-drama, Leopold Godowsky made a brilliant keyboard transcription of pantomimic dances conveyed by flicker-technique, but there is nothing ‘phoney’ in Satie’s compositional screen-methods, which are no matter of imitation but an entirely original psychological achievement possible only to a musician of queer intuitive capacity.
While still in the early thirties Satie ‘moved’ from Montmartre to the remote and unprepossessing little Parisian suburb of Arcueil-Cachan. His association with this dreary spot (which was to be his lifelong home) has brought it, if not fame, at least some measure of recognition. The high sounding ‘Ecole d’Arcueil’, which figures under Satie’s name in musical bibliographies, records the devotion and artistic faith of four young men, Roger Desormiere, Henri Cliquet-Pleyel, Maxime Jacob and Henri Sauquet, sent to Satie as disciples in 1923 by Darius Milhaud.
On July 1, 1925, Erik Satie died in obscure poverty, forgotten by all but his immediate circle. He knew his world too well to expect better treatment.
We are not called upon to make any exorbitant claims on his behalf.
He managed his own affairs in his lifetime with complete independence, and any posthumous bouquet he would certainly return.
Image credit: Chabe01