SATIE: Piano Works
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Erik Satie (1866 -1925)
Piano Works (Selection)
The French composer Erik Satie earned himself a contemporary reputationas an eccentric. Stravinsky later described him as the oddest person he hadever known and at the same time the most rare and consistently witty. Hismusical innovations proved immensely influential on his nearer contemporariesDebussy and Ravel and on a younger generation of composers and artists in theyears after the war of 1914.
Satie was born in 1866 at Honfleur, on the coast of Normandy. Hisfather was, at the time, a ship's broker, while his mother was of Scottishorigin. Something of later eccentricity seems to have been acquired from hispaternal uncle, Adrien Satie, known in Honfleur as a character. The familymoved to Paris, but on the death of Satie's mother in 1872 he was sent back toHonfleur to the house of his grandparents. Six years later he returned toParis, where, in 1879 he entered the Paris Conservatoire. There he was to provean undistinguished and unsatisfactory pupil, lingering on, according to onefriend, in order to avoid the obligatory five years of military service. Hisstatus as a student allowed him a period of one year in the 33rd Infantry, cutshort by a severe attack of bronchitis that he had deliberately courted.
Satie's few months of soldiering were followed by the firstpublications of his music, two piano pieces, and then a set of five songs,settings of poems by his friend Contamine de Latour, published by his father,who now had a stationer's shop and small publishing business. Inspired by hisreading, in the early 1890s Satie came for a time under the influence of theextraordinary Josephin Peladan, self-styled S?ór Merodack of the Rose + Croix,an eccentric exponent of Rosicrucianism, with whom he had broken by 1892.
Eclectic medieval preoccupations led him to establish his own mock religion,the Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor. Of this he describedhimself fancifully as Parcier et Ma?«tre de Chapelle, the first title sheer invention,issuing his publication, Le cartulaire,in which critical enemies were attacked in appropriate style. At the same time,paradoxically, he was involved with Rudolf Salis and his bohemian cabaret, theChat noir. The same years brought contact with Debussy, with whom he remainedon good terms in the years that followed, in spite of the latter's tendency topatronise him.
In 1905, after a period in which he had been compelled to earn hisliving as a cafe pianist and a composer of appropriate music Satie enrolled asa student at the Schola cantorum, where his teachers included Vincent d'lndyand Roussel. Here he attempted to make up for technical deficiencies in histechniques as a composer by a concentration on traditional counterpoint. Hecompleted his studies in 1908, but only began to win some success through theagency of Ravel, who in 1911 performed the three Sarabandes that Satie had written in 1887, establishing theinnovative originality of Satie's early work. The following years brought hiscompositions before a wider public, but it was through the advocacy of JeanCocteau that Satie's fame was more firmly established, particularly withcollaboration in the Dyagilev ballet Parade, with choreography by Massin anddecor by Picasso. The scandal of the first performance in May 1917 made Satie ahero to a younger group of composers, to be known as Les Six. In 1923, underthe inspiration of Darius Milhaud, his collaborator in musique d'ameublement,furniture music that was not supposed to be listened to, he became the centreof another group of younger composers, the Ecole d' Arceuil, its name derivedfrom the poor and relatively remote district of Paris where Satie had lived alife of the utmost simplicity, his room furnished with a chair, a table and ahammock, the last heated in winter by bottles filled with hot water placedbelow and looking, Stravinsky tells us, like some strange kind of marimba. Hedied on 1st July, 1925, after an illness of some six months.
Satie wrote for the theatre, and particularly for dancers. Hiscompositions include songs, chamber music and, above all, piano pieces ofsurprising simplicity, apparent ingenuousness, and harmonic originality, oftenembellished with titles or instructions that defy idiomatic translation. The threeVeritables preludes flasques,three really flabby preludes, were written in 1912, for a dog, and are far fromflabby. The first, Sev?¿re reprimande,is severely contrapuntal, the second, Seul ?ála maison, Alone in the house, delicately so, and the third, On joue, play-time, more energetic.
Preposterous directions in the score are given in dog-Latin.
The first three Gnossiennes
were written in 1890, the fourth in 1891, the fifth in 1889 and the sixth in1897. The title, a mysterious one, suggests the world of Minoan Cnossos and thelabyrinth, while the score, written without bar-lines, includes bizarreinstructions to the player - du bout de la pensee, from the tip of the thought,sur la langue, on the tip of the tongue, sans orgueil, without pride, and dansune saine superiorite, with healthy superiority. Eccentric witticisms of thiskind are visible only to the performer.
The Menus propos enfantins
of 1913 and the Enfantillages pittoresques
of the same year are real children's pieces. The first starts with the war-songof the king of the beans, proceeding to the words of the princess of the tulipsand the waltz of the chocolate almonds. The second group, more conventional intitles, starts with a little prelude to the day, followed by a cradle-song andthe march of the grand staircase, so grand that no-one dared to use it and theking used to jump out of the window instead. Croquiset agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois, sketches and provocationsof a portly wooden man, contains three parodies, the first a Turkish Tyroleandance, the second a thin dance, in the manner of these gentlemen, and the thirdmaking fun of Chabrier and Debussy in Spanish vein, including remarks on thescore - Puerta Maillot, Plaza Clichy
and A la disposicion de Usted.
Chapitres tournes en tous sens,chapters turned in all directions, opens with a woman who talks too much,demanding a hat in massive mahogany, and prattling on until her husband dies ofexhaustion. The man carrying great stones amazes by his strength (he is onlycarrying a pumice stone) and includes the quotation from a popular operetta"C'est un rien, un souffle." In the regrets of those shut in,dedicated to Debussy's second wife, the popular song \Nous n'irons plus aubois", quoted by Debussy in Jardins sous lapluie, is used ironically.
The three Desciptions automatiques
are equally characteristic in their allusive parody. The first, Sur un vaisseau, on a ship, quotes thesong "Maman, les petits bateaux", and Sur lalanterne, a current music-hall song, while the third, Sur un casque, on a helmet, completes thetypical trilogy. Embryons desseches,desiccated embryos, of the same year, 1913, indulges in remoter fantasy, withimaginary descriptions of three marine creatures. Holothurie, the sea-cucumber,is said to climb about on stones and rocks and to purr like a cat. Satie claimsto have observed one at St. Malo, and opens the piece with a version of thesong "Mon rocher de St. Malo". Edriophthalma are described as crustaceans withsessile eyes and by nature of a sad disposition, dignified here by quotation ofChopin's Funeral March, identified ironically in the score as a SchubertMazurka. Podophtha