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The Strange Case of Erik Satie Author(s): Rollo H. Myers Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 86, No.

1229 (Jul., 1945), pp. 201-203 Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd. Stable URL: Accessed: 21/08/2010 05:45
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Letters to the Editor ... Notes and News ... Academy and College Notes ... A Hundred Years Ago ... London Concerts ... The Amateurs' Exchange ... ... Music in the Provinces Britten's Festival Te Deum... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...... ... ...... .......... .............. ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... .... ... ... ...... ..... .... ... . ... ... ... ... 216 218 219 219 220 220 221 221

... The Strange Case of Erik Satie. By Rollo H. Myers .... ... ... Forming a Music Club. By Frank Ferneyhough ... ... ... ... ... Harrow Philharmonic Society Herbert Thompson (1856-1945). By George Linstead .. ....... W. Notes. By McNaught Gramophone .... ... ...... Round about Radio. By W. R. Anderson Church and Organ Music : ... ... ... ... ... Royal College of Organists ... .. ................ Miscellaneous ...... ... ... ... ... ... ... Recitals ' ... ... ... ... Grimes Peter ' .........

MUSIC Peace I leave with you.' By W. H. Harris.







precise) which have elapsed since the birth of Erik Satie no personality has arisen in the world of music presenting quite such baffling characteristics, and it may well be doubted whether we shall ever again be confronted with a comparable phenomenon. The twentieth anniversary of Satie's death which occurred this month (he died on July 1, 1925) would seem to provide us with an opportunity of recalling some facts about this now almost legendary figure who was at one time the object of a somewhat hieratic cult, though either ignored or derided in 'respectable,' bien pensant circles both during his lifetime and ever since. However, a great many distinguished writers and artists have held other views, and it is obvious that a musician who enjoyed the friendship and admiration of men like Debussy, Stravinsky, Picasso, Roussel, Koechlin, Cocteau, Milhaud, Honegger and many others cannot possibly be dismissed as either a fumiste or still less as a nonentity. So, for the moment, let us forget about the 'respectable' musicians and critics, and see if we can somehow relate this strange figure to the times in which he lived, and even to the main current of music to which he was, in a sense, a tributary. Erik Alfred Leslie Satie (what Frenchman thus baptized could hope for a quiet life ?) was born at Honfleur on the Normandy coast, on March 17, 1866. (Is it a coincidence that Honfleur was also the birth-place of another famous French His father, humourist, Alphonse Allais ?) French, was an obscure music publisher; his mother, a Scotswoman, nie Jane-Leslie Anton, died when he was six ; his stepmother wrote little piano pieces under the name of Eug6nie SatieAt the age of seventeen Erik Barnetsche. entered the Paris Conservatoire, but failed to impress any of his teachers there, and left after a year of unhappiness. Nevertheless, he was still determined to be a composer, and two years later, in 1886, he published his first piano pieces, to which he gave the somewhat strange

DURING the eighty years (seventy-nine to be

title of ' Ogives.' Then came the ' Sarabandes ' in which he anticipated the kind of harmonic sequences, notably unresolved 'ninths,' which were afterwards to become a characteristic of Debussy's style; and these were followed by the three charming 'Gymnop6dies,' of which the first and last were orchestrated by Debussy. (Excellent recordings of these exist, made by H.M.V.) These little pieces exhale an extraordinary, fragile fragrance ; their lilting, undulating rhythm and subtly-bare harmonies, cool to the ear, suggest the tracing of some graceful arabesque by the naked feet of dancers under an early-morning Mediterranean sky. Small wonder, then, that Debussy (whom Satie first met during his Montmartre period at the famous 'Auberge du Clou') was captivated by their charm and freshness; small wonder, too, that he was attracted by their composer's personality-and who knows, if they had never met, and if Satie had not discussed with Debussy the opera he was then planning to write on the text of Maeterlinck's ' La Princesse Maleine,' whether ' Pell6as et M61isande' would ever have taken shape in Debussy's brain ? For its conception is said to have been the direct outcome of a suggestion made by Satie, who then put away his own unfinished opera, and decided then and there to compete no more in that field, but to strike out an entirely new line for himself and create a 'new music.' Up to then Satie's music had been original but not eccentric; it was with the 'Trois Gnossiennes' (1890) that he inaugurated what we may call the 'unbridled' epoch, characterized by such eccentricities as the suppression of timeand key-signatures and bar-lines, and by the addition of a verbal running commentary superimposed upon the music. Well-known examples of these literary quips (to quote only a few-they are mostly untranslatable) are: ' Du bout de la pens6e,' ' Postulez en vous-m6me,' ' Sur la langue,' ' Ouvrez la tete,' and so forth, and so on. And this brings us to the question of what



July 1945

importance we may suppose the composer to have attached to these wisecracks, and also to the comic titles he gave to his music. I believe myself that he adopted these peculiar methods partly, perhaps, as a publicity ' stunt,' but mainly as Cocteau suggests, in order to 'protect his works from persons obsessed by the sublime.' Satie felt he had something new to say, but he was at bottom shy about himself, so hit upon the idea of giving his music funny names so as to If they were disarm the critics in advance. discerning enough they could see the real value of the music underneath; if not, then it would be easy for them to dismiss it all as a joke. And that suited Satie's book very well. For he loved mystification, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than upsetting the critics and putting them off the scent. In addition there was, of course, on occasion a deliberate desire to parody the somewhat 'precious' titles favoured by Debussy and the Impressionists, e.g., ' Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut,' etc.; while, if a precedent were needed, he could always claim to be merely following the example of the eighteenth-century clavecinists, and notably Couperin, who was very fond of such titles as ' Le tic-toc-choc ou les Maillotins,'' Les coucous b6n6voles,' or ' Les vieux galants et les Tr6soribres surann6es.' Alfred Cortot, in a fairly exhaustive study of Satie published in the Revue Musicale, of April 1938, points out that Satie's ceuvre, like Beethoven's (he adds: 'et r6v6rence parler '), may be divided into three distinct periods : from 1886 to 1895, the period of mysticism and mediaeval influences ; from 1897 to 1915, the years of ' clowning' and eccentricities; from 1916 to his death in 1925, the period of the ' musique d'ameublement,' and also of the principal works for the stage. As regards the ' mystical ' side of the composer his sister (Madame Olga Satie-Lafosse), after describing her brother as having been always 'difficult to understand,' has expressed the opinion that he was a ' spiritist rather than a true mystic' (' plus spirite que vraiment mystique '). This would account, no doubt, for the fact that in his ' Rose Croix ' period Satie was under the impression that he was working under the direct guidance of some medieval cleric whose fanatical piety he had inherited from beyond the grave. Paradoxically enough, it was while Satie was playing the piano at the 'Chat Noir' on Montmartre (where he had been engaged by Rudolf Salis as 'second pianist ') that he came under the influence of Josephin P61adan, Sar and High Priest of the 'Rose Croix,' and founder of the ' Chaldman Confraternity' whose aim was somehow to regulate the arts according to supposedly Wagnerian asthetics. At any rate Satie became the official composer of the group, and wrote incidental music to P61adan's play 'Le Fils des Etoiles' (1891) ; the 'Trois Sonneries de la Rose Croix' (1892); and the 'Prl61ude B la Porte H6roique du Ciel' (1894). At this time the only contemporary critic who mentioned Satie's name was Gauthier-Villars (' Willy '), with whom, incidentally, Satie had several encounters, both verbal and physical.

The music of this period was decorative, static, and relied for its effect upon a certain hypnotic quality induced by repetition and the use of harmonies if not derived from, at least evocative of Plain Song. In the next stage, which was to last for close on twenty years, we see the composer-' Monsieur le Pauvre '-as he then called himself-turning his back on this 'musique h genoux ' and launching out on a career as a musical humourist. To this phase belong the numerous piano pieces (nearly always grouped in threes) with droll titles: e.g., 'Airs k faire fuir,' ' Embryons dess6ch6s,' ' Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois,' ' Chapitres tourn6s en tous sens,' and the These 'Pr6ludes Flasques (pour un chien).' latter represent, in a sense, the result of Satie's three years' course as a student at the austere Schola Cantorum which he entered, at the age of forty, to study harmony and counterpoint under d'Indy and Roussel. A strange act of abnegation, and proof, if any were needed, of Satie's essentially serious devotion to his art. As to the intrinsic value of all this music opinions will differ. Unequal it may be, but those who are not hopelessly alienated by the tomfoolery with which it amused Satie to surround his work will be able to separate the authentic gold from the indisputable dross. For after all, what interests us primarily in Satie is perhaps not so much the actual musical value of his works (though that is by no means negligible) as the 'attitude' which underlies it, the tendencies of which it is symptomatic, and, above all, the extremely intriguing personality of the composer whose madness when all is said and done, is clearly not without method. His art, in short, though embracing a somewhat limited field, is yet governed by a definite philosophy, and is the conscious expression of an ideal-of a desire for simplicity of outline and brevity of statement which may be looked upon as a reaction against the excessive preciosity and complexity of the Romantic and Impressionist schools. In fact, what the ' Douanier ' Rousseau was doing for painting Satie was doing for music ; he re-introduced a kind of primitive purity and directness of vision which had been overlaid by the accretions of tradition and a highly-developed technique. Satie was also in revolt against the excessive cult of Germanic music then prevalent; hence his remark to Debussy that it might be a good thing to have a little French music for a change-' if possible without sauerkraut.' And so it is easy to see how, after the first German war, Satie was elevated to the position of chef d'dcole ' by the young men who were launching the new movement ' in French music. It was their leader, Jean Cocteau who ' put over' Satie and what he stood for so brilliantly in ' Cock and Harlequin' with aphorisms such as the following: 'Satie teaches what, in our age, is the greatest audacity 'The cult of Satie is difficult -simplicity'; because one of Satie's charms is that he offers so little encouragement to deification ' ; 'Satie's orchestra charms without the use of pedals. It is like an inspired village band.' And, finally, in allusion to a famous suite for piano duet (which Satie wrote after being rebuked by Debussy for

July 1945



neglecting form): 'The impressionists cut a pear into twelve pieces and gave each the title of a poem. Satie composed twelve poems, and entitled the whole: " Morceaux en forme de poire." ' The third and final phase in the evolution of Satie's enigmatic art was inaugurated in 1917 when he was commissioned by Diaghilev (with his usual flair for the latest 'thing ') to write the music for the first Cubist Ballet, 'Parade,' devised by Cocteau with d6cor and ' constructivist' costumes by Picasso. This ballet is unique, and an undoubted masterpiece in its genre ; and Satie's profoundly original score, in which (to quote Cocteau again) 'he seems to have discovered an unknown dimension thanks to which one can listen simultaneously both to the " parade " (the scene represents a booth at the circus) and to the show going on inside,' certainly helped very largely to make it so. From now on Satie's chief compositions (if we except the noble ' Socrate,' a setting of passages from the Dialogues of Plato for voices and a chamber orchestra of strings, wind and harp) were for the theatre. In 1921 came the incidental music written for ' Le Pi ge de M6duse,' followed in 1924 by ' Rel&che,' with scenario by Picabia and produced by Jean Borlin's Swedish Ballet. The same year saw the production (at Count Etienne de Beaumont's 'Soir6es de Paris ') of 'Mercure,' for which the d6cor and costumes were designed by Picasso. For reasons which now appear obscure the Dada-ists created such a disturbance in the theatre on the first night that the curtain had to be brought down in the middle of the performance. Before he died Satie had completed the score of yet another operatic work, which remains unpublished; this was 'Paul et Virginie,' libretto by Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet. The term 'musique d'ameublement,' which applies to many of the third period works, and of which 'Socrate' is the outstanding example, owes its origin to a statement made by the painter Matisse, who declared that he dreamed of an art without any distracting subject-matter, and which might be compared to an easy chair (' quelque chose d'analogue h un bon fauteuil '). It is unnecessary to labour the metaphor-what is clearly indicated is a form of art which unfolds itself calmly and untouched by emotions, relying on an internal equilibrium rather than on violent contrasts of mood and style. In ' Socrate ' Satie seems to have 'found' himself completely and to have produced music which, while conforming to the painter's definition, is also rich in poetic content. From this deeply reflective work, which flows quietly and inevitably along like an uneventful stream, flecked here and there by little eddies and swirls of subdued emotion, I make a short quotation (see next column) to illustrate the simplicity and limpidity of the style, which is Satie at his best. There seems to be here a kind of Attic purity, a freshness and candour which remind one of the inscription Satie wrote under his self-portrait: ' Je suis venu au monde trbs jeune dans un temps trbs vieux.' He was only fifty-nine when he died, but he was already venerated, and lived to see the

et la but a-vec u-ne tran-qui-li-te





- so - ceur mer-veil-leu

foundation of yet another 'group,' short-lived though it proved to be, the 'Ecole dArcueil' so-called because Satie lived at and achieved some civic notoriety in the small Parisian suburb of Arcueil-Cachan. quizzical, bewhiskered face crowned invariably by a bowler hat, he was often to be seen trudging through the streets of Paris engaged on who knows
what mysterious errands.
. .

eyes glinting through his pince-nez and his

his inevitable his shrewd umbrella, Carrying

. For he went

everywhere on foot, and it was this idiosyncrasy that drew from Cocteau this touching tribute which might well serve as an epitaph to his memory :' Another poet whom the angels guide, cherish and torment is Erik Satie who walks every night from Montmartre or Montparnasse to his home at Arcueil-Cachan--a miracle which cannot be explained unless the angels carry him. ..r The English Singers Quartet has recently returned from a tour of Spain. It was sponsoredby the British Council. Spanish musical societies gave the Quartet an enthusiasticand cordialwelcome. The programmes gave a rough survey of British vocal chamber music from Elizabethan times to the present.