SATIE: Piano Works, Vol. 4
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Erik Satie(1866 - 1925)
PianoWorks (Complete) Vol. 4
The French composer Erik Satie earned himself a contemporaryreputation as an eccentric. Stravinsky later described him as the oddest person he hadever known and at the same time the most rare and constantly witty. His musicalinnovations proved immensely influential on his nearer contemporaries Debussy and Raveland on a younger generation of composers and artists in the years after the war of 1914.
Satie was born in 1866 at Honfleur, on the coast of Normandy.
His father was at the time a ship's broker, while his mother was of Scottish origin.
Something of his later eccentricity seems to have been acquired from his paternal uncle,Adrien Satie, known in Honfleur as a character. The family moved to Paris, but on thedeath of Satie's mother in 1872 he was sent back to Honfleur to the house of hisgrandparents. Six years later he returned to Paris, where in 1879 he entered theConservatoire. There he proved an undistinguished and unsatisfactory pupil, lingering on,according to one friend, in order to avoid the obligatory five years of military service.
His status as a student allowed him a period of one year in the 33rd Infantry, cut shortby 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 ofpoems by his friend Contamine de Latour, published by his father, who now had astationer's shop and small publishing business. Inspired by his reading, in the early1890s Satie came for a time under the influence of the extraordinary Josephin Peladan,self-styled S?ór Merodack of the Rose + Croix, an eccentric exponent of Rosicrucianismwith whom he had broken by 1892. Eclectic medieval preoccupations led him to establish hisown mock religion, the Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor. Of this hedescribed himself fancifully as Parcier et Ma?«tre de Chapelle, the first title sheerinvention, 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, the Chat Noir.
The same years brought contact with Dubussy, with whom he remained on good terms in theyears that followed, in spite of the latter's tendency to patronise him.
In 1905, after a period in which hehad been compelled to earn his living as a cafe pianist and a composer of appropriatemusic, Satie enrolled as a student at the Schola cantorum, where his teachers includedVincent d'Indy and Roussel. Here he attempted to make up for his technical deficiencies asa composer by a concentration on traditional counterpoint. He completed his studies in1908, but only began to win some success through the agency of Ravel, who in 1911performed the three Sarabandes that Satie had written in 1887, establishing theoriginality of Satie's early work. The following years brought his compositions before awider public, but it was through the advocacy of Jean Cocteau that Satie's fame was morefirmly established, particularly with collaboration in the Dyagilev ballet Parade, with choreography by Massin and decor byPicasso. The scandal of the first performance, in May 1917, made Satie a hero to a youngergroup of composers, to be known as Les Six. In 1923, under the inspiration of DariusMilhaud, his collaborator in musique d'ameublement, furniture music, that was not supposedto be listened to, he became the centre of another group of younger composers, the Ecoled' Arceuil, its name derived from the poor and relatively remote district of Paris whereSatie lived a life of the utmost simplicity, his room furnished with a chair, a table anda hammock, the last heated in winter by bottles filled with hot water placed below andlooking, according to Stravinsky, like some strange kind of marimba. He died on 1st July1925, after an illness of some six months.
Satie's Le Piccadilly, described as a march, belongs to thegroup of works intended for the music-hall. Like LaDiva de l'Empire, with its allusion to London's Leicester Square, described asan American intermezzo, an arrangement of a cafe- concert song, it falls among the worksSatie himself described as rudes saloperies. Thesketch The Dreamy Fish, written in 1901,marked a new stage in the composer's work and was the result of much revision, as Satie'seditor Robert Caby, who prepared the solo piano version, informs us.
Satie's comedie lyrique, Le pi?¿ge de Meduse (The Trap ofMedusa), was written in 1913 but not staged until 1921, when it was mounted by PierreBertin at the Theatre Michel, an anticipation of Dadaism and the more recent theatre ofthe absurd. The characters in the piece include Jonas, a dancing monkey, stuffed by amaster hand, Baron Meduse and his fille de lait Frisetteand manservant Polycarpe, with Frisette's lover Astolfo. The seven piano pieces derivedfrom the score start with a Quadrille forthe stuffed monkey Jonas, who provides an interlude between the scenes. The monkey dancestenderly and then seems to go mad: Do not leave your shadow: behave, please: a monkey iswatching you. The second dance is a Valse: Silence,please: hard as the Devil, and the monkey cannot go on dancing. The third dance is a Pas vite, followed by a Mazurka, with the postscript: Laugh without anyonenoticing: the monkey is thinking of something else. The fifth piece is marked Un peu vif with the added rubric: Do not look out oftemper. The following Polka, to be dancedinternally, leads to the monkey tapping his thighs and scratching himself with a potato.
The sequence ends with a brief Quadrille.
Jack-in-the-Box, described by Satie as a cloonerie in a letter to his younger brother Conradin 1899, was intended as a pantomime, in collaboration with Jules Depaquit, to be stagedat the Comedie Parisienne. The project came to nothing, and the music survived inmanuscript, to be orchestrated in 1926 by Darius Milhaud for a ballet produced byDyagilev.
Vieux sequins etvieilles cuirasses (Old Sequinsand Old Breastplates), written in 1914, contains allusions to Gounod, to le Roi Dagobertand to the well known Malbrouk se va-t-en guerre, while the Heures seculaires et instantanees (Secular andInstantaneous Hours), composed shortly afterwards, has a text with it. Satie had addedoften irrelevant comments, asides to the performer, on a number of pieces. With the Heures seculaires the words, not to be read aloud,form part of each of the three pieces. The work opens with a mysterious and presumablybogus dedication: To Sir William Grant-Plumot I dedicate this work agreeably. Until nowtwo characters have surprised me, Louis XI and Sir William, the first by his strange goodhumour and the second by his continuing immobility. It is an honour for me to offer herethe names of Louis XI and of Sir William Grant-Plumot. The first piece, Obstacles venimeux (Poisonous Obstacles), has thefollowing text: This great portion of the earth has only one inhabitant, a negro. He is sofed up he is ready to die of laughter. The shadow of the thousand-year-old trees showsthat it is 9:17 a.m. The toads call each other by their family names. To think better thenegro holds his brain with his right hand, his fingers extended. From a distance he lookslike a distinguished physiologist. Four anonymous snakes fascinate him, hanging to theedges of his uniform which is shapeless from a combination of sadness and solitude. By thesi