|About this Recording
GP761 - SATIE, E.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (New Salabert Edition) (Horvath)
ERIK SATIE (1866–1925)
ABOUT NICOLAS HORVATH AND THE NEW SALABERT EDITION OF SATIE’S ‘OEUVRES POUR PIANO’
The internationally renowned French pianist, Nicolas Horvath, approached me (as a Satie scholar) about recording Satie’s Complete Piano Music in 2014. After I had heard his phenomenal performances of Philip Glass’s music, as well as his amazing virtuosity and sensitive interpretations of Liszt, Chopin and others, I realised that his quest for new approaches to both the Classics and modern music would make him an ideal interpreter of the ground-breaking music of Erik Satie. So I agreed to act as his artistic advisor, and when the commission to edit all of Satie’s piano music subsequently came from Salabert (Milan), it provided me with a golden opportunity to revisit all of these wonderful works and sort out the many errors that had accumulated and been perpetuated over the years (some due to Satie and his somewhat erratic proof-reading—as in the 2e Sarabande in particular). As this was one of the pieces that brought Satie sudden fame in 1911 when Maurice Ravel introduced it to the Parisian musical elite in a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante at the Salle Gaveau, the need for an authentic recording seemed even more obvious.
I also had long discussions with Nicolas about what constituted ‘all’ of Satie’s music for piano. Should we include song accompaniments? Should we include music that may have been written for harmonium (like uspud)? Should we include the piano duets in a double recording? Should we include popular songs for which the text and vocal part are either wordless or missing (as in Imperial Oxford)? Should we include two early pieces marked as ‘String quartets’ even though they are obviously conceived both for and at the keyboard? For one never knows quite how much Satie is intending to confuse (or amuse) his audience in his occasional programme notes, or when he is being completely serious in his directions—which is less often than we might imagine. These discussions also helped me make my decisions for the new and entirely revised Salabert Edition and it seemed to me to be in the best interests of Satie (which is what we should all working towards) if I passed on my corrections and conclusions to Nicolas.
In the end, we decided just to take the music written for solo keyboard, treating the duets as a separate genre. We included Satie’s own reductions of his ballets (like Mercure and Relâche) but not his song accompaniments, or pieces published earlier by Robert Caby that had turned out not to be by Satie at all (like the Rêverie du pauvre (MC 399) that was a transposition of the accompaniment to Massenet’s song ‘Les enfants’ made for a parody version (as ‘Les éléphants’) by Vincent Hyspa around 1900). Then only complete pieces titled by Satie were included, though I decided to include some first versions of pieces that were complete, identifiable and of special interest, and which were simply superseded by Satie’s later visions of them (as in the first versions of ‘Le Golf’ and ‘Le Tennis’ in Sports et divertissements). However, it was sometimes difficult to decide when pieces were short rather than incomplete, so, for instance, the piece that Caby published as an ‘Air’ in 1968 has been included as a ‘Pièce sans titre’ of 1914, whereas Bévue indiscrète and Le vizir autrichien (both fancifully titled by Satie) have not, because they are simply incomplete minuet-like sketches for what became the more substantial piece titled Profondeur around 1909 (which, naturally, is included, even though Satie chose not to publish it during his lifetime). So, in reality, one would have to get Satie back from beyond the grave to decide precisely what went into a ‘complete’ edition of his piano music. He might well then say ‘only what I chose to publish during my career’, but that would then deprive us of most of the Rose+Croix music (published posthumously by Darius Milhaud). So the problems are never-ending and only capable of individual solutions, of which the present recording constitutes one.
This cycle also contains music that even Satie enthusiasts may not know exists, like what I believe to be the first two movements of the Petite Sonate that Satie wrote for Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum as part of his ‘IIIe Cours’ in 1908–9, and which d’Indy praised (rather to Satie’s surprise, I suspect). Profondeur, a sort of minuet, may perhaps have been intended as the third movement of this sonata, so the three movements are presented together in this recording. There are various other Schola exercises included to give examples of other things that Satie was working on; some piano reductions of popular songs (when Satie made them himself); some extra trial versions of Préludes flasques and Enfantines (when they seem to be of equal merit to the pieces Satie chose to publish), and Satie’s piano solo versions of the first two movements of La Belle excentrique (because they contain important differences from the better known piano duet versions). In retrospect, I have also included two reconstructions of later pieces that Satie intended to complete: La mer est pleine d’eau: c’est à n’y rien comprendre for its wonderful title as much as for its content; and the cellular 7e Nocturne, as Satie planned to write seven of these pieces in 1919 and this is the only real contender for the title and forms a gentle coda to the set in the same key and spirit as it began.
Thus, there is much to discover and to reappraise alongside familiar favourites like the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. This will become apparent with some of the speeds adopted, about which Satie was sometimes rather vague. All the Rose+Croix music is marked ‘Slow’ or ‘Very slow’, and pieces like the Gymnopédies have had this lethargy applied to each crotchet or quarter note, when Satie surely meant the slow pulse to apply to each complete bar. He chided the conductor Roger Désormière in 1923 for not putting accents on the second beat chords in each bar and thus making them sound sluggish, and his first version of the 1ère Sarabande had a metronome mark of crotchet/quarter note = 104. Even though Satie later lowered this to crotchet = 84, the Sarabandes are often (and erroneously) played more slowly. Musicality has to be the guiding factor here, and anything that sounds like a dirge, or ignores the conceptual spirit of the music, is not as Satie intended it.
SATIE’S GENIUS AND HIS RELEVANCE FOR THE PRESENT DAY
Erik Satie (1866–1925) was indisputably a genius and John Cage regarded him as ‘indispensable’ to any modern musician. However, these concepts require some explanation. In the first place, Satie’s unhappy years at the Paris Conservatoire (1879–86)—which he was probably made to attend by his stepmother, Eugénie, a budding salon composer with social aspirations—convinced him to reject Romantic expressiveness, directional music leading to grand climaxes, and all forms of emotional excess. So whilst Satie performed works like Chopin Ballades and Mendelssohn Concertos in his examinations, he was already more concerned with his future identity, and came to reject virtuosity and anything traditional in his own music. It is true that there are odd signs of Chopin in very early works like the Valse-ballet and Fantaisie-valse of c.1886, which were his only attempts at conventional, appealing ‘salon’ music. However, if his piano pieces are difficult to perform well, their problems are rarely technical, and they only become ‘showy’ as a joke (when Satie mimics the repetitive end of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony in ‘De Podophthalma’), or parodies academic sonata form (in ‘D’Holothurie’, also from the celebrated Embryons desséchés [Dried Up Embryos] of 1913).
Another factor in the equation is that although Satie had a gift for memorable melody and harmony, as well as an excellent ear, his friend and collaborator, the Spanish poet, J.P. Contamine de Latour (1867–1926) recalled in his memoirs that in the 1890s, Satie ‘was in the position of a man who knows only thirteen letters of the alphabet, and decides to create a new literature using only these, rather than admit his own insufficiency. For sheer bravado, it was unparalleled at the time, but he made it a point of honour to succeed with his system’. [Il était dans la situation d’un homme qui ne connaîtrait que treize lettres de l’alphabet et déciderait de créer une litérature nouvelle avec ces seuls moyens, plutôt d’avouer sa pauvreté. Comme audace on n’avait pas encore trouvé mieux, mais il tenait à l’honneur de réussir avec son système.] Indeed he only remedied the technical side during his voluntary contrapuntal, compositional, and analytical studies with Albert Roussel, Vincent d’Indy and others at the Schola Cantorum between 1905 and 1912. During this period he (typically) invented the ‘new fugue’ with its deliberate simplicity (as in En habit de cheval). And after it his approach became more linear, and even sparser than before—notably in the 60 or so ‘humoristic’ piano pieces he composed between 1912 and 1915, of which the best known are the Sports et divertissements.
Thus, in his early Rose+Croix music the ever-inventive and innovation-seeking Satie took the spirit, but not the letter, of medieval plainsong as the basis for pieces like the four Ogives (?1886), which use slow chordal chains, with contrasts of texture and dynamics as a means of both expansion and formal balance. But within this hieratic formula, Satie was always experimenting and inventing new organizational systems—as in the Fête donnée par des Chevaliers Normands with its thirteen overlapping harmonic cells divided into melodic categories, or the bi-partite Prélude du Nazaréen (also 1892), in which he perfected his concept of what Patrick Gowers has described as musical ‘punctuation form’. Here the complex, cellular music acts as the prose, with the punctuation provided by a series of recurring cadence figures acting as commas, and as full stops when two of them occur together. These have their own distinctive rhythms and more sensuous harmonies to distinguish them from the surrounding musical literature.
In 1917, during the composition of ‘The Death of Socrates’ [Mort de Socrate], Satie reflected on his career as a professional composer in a revealing article called ‘Subject matter (Idea) and Craftsmanship (Construction)’ [La Matière (Idée) et la Main d’Oeuvre (Couture)]. At its heart are these two statements:
So, for Satie, the Idea was central, both as a melodic initiator of compositions, and as something that could transcend what was normally regarded as high art. By 1917, Satie had achieved the technical expertise necessary to achieve this high and sophisticated art (even if his orchestration was, in reality, closer to instrumentation), but he chose to remain with simplicity, clarity, precision, elegance and economy, which he regarded as quintessentially French traits. However, he principally regarded himself as Parisian, so the elements of sophistication, surprise and chic also come into the equation, and provided his main contribution to the fashionable world of the 1920s as ‘godfather’ to Les Six and the embodiment of the ‘esprit nouveau’.
So one can truthfully say that Satie’s genius came from his being a man of Ideas, both in the way that he approached each work, and in the prevalent concept of the Idea itself. He was no intellectual, but few composers can claim to have invented something absolutely original which then influenced others. With Satie such iconoclastic ideas abound, and they had a marked effect on the aesthetic of John Cage and his contemporaries once they became internationally known after World War II. And they mostly arose within his piano music. Thus, underneath the surface of the slow, haunting Gymnopédies lies the concept of a music that is divorced from its implied source of inspiration—here celebratory dances by nude Spartan boys. This divorce is compounded by the apocalyptic, prefacing quotation from Contamine de Latour’s Les Antiques, in which ‘shadows of a raging torrent rushed in waves of gold over the polished flagstones’. [Oblique et coupant l’ombre en torrent éclatant/ Ruisselait en flots d’or sur la dalle polie] Moreover, Satie viewed these sets of pieces in an architectural manner, like walking round a sculpture and viewing it from different angles. If one side looked good, then the whole creation must be good in itself.
This spatial concept of music as architecture or mere scenic backcloth to an utterly divorced text appears even more clearly in Satie’s early theatrical works, like Le Fils des étoiles or the weird ‘Christian’ ballet uspud, whose other claim to fame is its text entirely in lower case letters, long before e.e. cummings. Only very occasionally does Satie remember the theatrical stage in his early works. At the end of his Prélude à La Porte héroïque du ciel (1894), he indicates the rise of the curtain and a small musical extension into the first moments of the opening scene. Satie liked this piece so much that he dedicated it to himself! But it still has nothing one could justifiably relate to Jules Bois’ effusive and mystical text.
Then, in the previous year (1893), Satie was vexed by the ups and downs of his tempestuous (and only) affair with the artist Suzanne Valadon (1867–1938). He expressed this in two original ways. In the Danses Gothiques, he composed a huge chunk of cellular music to preserve the ‘calm and tranquillity of his soul’, which he then divided up arbitrarily into nine separate dances with elaborate religious titles. Sometimes a new dance will start in the middle of a motif, so titles and music are clearly unrelated.
Then Satie wrote an extraordinary, internally repetitive piece called Vexations, which began with a (very necessary) period of silent meditation before the whole piece was repeated 840 times. Besides having many connections with the Lucas summation series (1, 3, 4, 7, 11 etc, right up to 840—the sum of the first twelve numbers up to 322), its theme features 11 of the 12 semitones that make up the chromatic scale. So it is essentially the first piece of organised total chromaticism, as well as being quasi-serial with a hexachordal subdivision, as later favoured by Anton Webern. At the same time, the theme has associations with the keys of E flat, C and F sharp minor and with E major in its last five notes. The tiny song ‘Bonjour Biqui, Bonjour!’ which Satie composed for Suzanne as an Easter gift on 2 April 1893, uses chords 1 and 13 from the Vexations sequence, so Vexations begins where the song leaves off. Thus they clearly belong together, and if we remember that ‘Vexations’ was the subtitle of the Coelum Philosophorum by the 16thcentury Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, we can begin to see that most pieces by Satie have hidden depths and mysteries if you know where to look for them, and why John Cage attached so much importance to a strangely chromatic piece that, in itself, lasts less than a minute and is also repetitive in itself. Satie’s fascination with medieval history, magic and alchemy means that he would surely have known about this connection.
Then we find Satie inventing another Cageian stand-by, the prepared piano, by placing sheets of tissue paper between the hammers and the strings at the premiere of Le Piège de Meduse in 1914. Then comes ‘furnishing music’ in 1917, the forerunner of muzak, or music not meant to be listened to; the new approach to ‘initial choreography’ that he proposed to André Derain and Léonide Massine in 1922 (with the music being added later to fit this); leading to the first synchronized score to a silent film with René Clair’s Entr’acte in 1924 (published as Cinéma). Apollinaire coined the term ‘sur-réalisme’ to apply to Satie’s Parade, and it goes without saying that ‘minimalism’ in modern music stemmed from his repetitive pieces with the occasional surprise, as in ‘Aubade’ from the Avant-dernières pensées (1915), which began life as a one-chord serenade, or ‘strange rumour’ [étrange rumeur] dedicated to Paul Dukas.
Sometimes with Satie, the Idea behind a work can appear more significant than the music it generated, but that is generally because its full implications have not been taken into consideration. If we imagine that the 21 tiny Sports et divertissements are just for entertainment and diversion, then we have to remember that their combination of music, prose poems and Cubist pictures in a mini-gesamtkunstwerk with Japanese haikulike tendencies was remarkable for its time. For, more than any other contemporary composer, Satie sought to demolish the barriers between the arts and to look at music afresh as a vital part in the interaction between the various levels of aesthetic experience; as a contribution towards a larger, and always thoroughly modern, whole. He might be described as the first cross-cultural artist whose quest to publicise and radicalise his latest compositions led him to end up working to commission with elite names like Picasso, Braque, Cocteau, Derain, Diaghilev, Massine, Rolf de Maré and Brancusi in the post-war years. Despite his being vilified by many after his death, Satie’s enduring success can be seen in the survival of his influence into the 21st century as a living spirit, even as a blueprint for future iconoclasm, in composers as diverse as Virgil Thomson, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Howard Skempton, Christopher Hobbs and Harrison Birtwistle, to cite but a few.
ABOUT THIS RECORDING
In his quest to make this landmark recording as authentic as possible, Nicolas Horvath has recorded the music with the piano sound that Satie would have known and composed for during his career. Thus the pieces up to 1897 are recorded on an 1881 Erard (which once belonged to Cosima Wagner). When Satie asked Picasso to design the programme/ poster for the Festival of his works in June 1920, he specifically got him to include ‘Piano Erard’ at the bottom, which implies that this was his instrument by choice.
The earliest works (1884–90)
After the death of his mother in 1872, Satie was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Honfleur (Normandy), only returning to Paris in 1878 after his grandmother, Eulalie, drowned in a swimming accident. His first known composition, signed ‘Honfleur. 9 September 1884’ must have been written on a return visit there, but is actually only an arrangement of the refrain from the popular romance ‘Ma Normandie’ published by Frédéric Barat in 1850. Otherwise all Satie’s works were composed in Paris.
Valse-ballet (Op. 62, 1885) and Fantaisie-valse (?1885–87)
Published in the journal La musique des familles in March and July 1887, these two light salon pieces may have been written to please his stepmother, Eugénie Barnetche, who held musical gatherings in the Satie apartment in the boulevard de Magenta and was also a prolific salon composer herself. The ‘Op. 62’ on what was Satie’s Op. 1 was almost certainly a joke at her expense, like the ‘Op. 52’ that appears on the song ‘Chanson’ which Satie’s father Alfred published in January 1888.
1er et 2ème Quatuor (?1886)
These are two of Satie’s earliest attempts at genuine composition (as opposed to arrangements and salon music). Although they are titled ’1er Quatuor’ and ‘2e Quatuor’, they look like chordal exercises for keyboard, and as No. 2 is in up to eight parts, it cannot literally be for string quartet.
[Quatre] Ogives (?1886)
As the manuscripts are lost, we only know that the Ogives existed sometime before they appeared in a small private edition in January 1889. They are sometimes dated to 1886 or 1887, and the reasoning behind this might be the inspiration of the dominating ogival windows in the church of St Laurent right next to Satie’s father’s music shop at 66 boulevard de Magenta (and the Gare de l’Est). However, an alternative account says that they were inspired by the Gothic architecture in Notre Dame Cathedral. Whichever version is true, the Ogives are again re-creating a bygone age.
Satie’s material simply consists of plainsong-type themes in octaves divided into two halves, which are made into a complete piece by harmonizing them in two modal ways—the first in thundering, filled octaves, and the second in gentle chords, which are mostly the same, but tend to move as root position chords in contrary motion. The main element that varies in the Ogives is the lengths of their phrases, so their form might be said to be ‘chronometric… a function of time and duration’, as Alan Gillmor has observed. Thus from something simple came an advanced conception that was way ahead of its time.
Trois Sarabandes (September 1887)
The chains of parallel ninth chords which caused such a stir when Ravel premiered the Second Sarabande in 1911 may have come from the prelude to Chabrier’s opera Le Roi malgré lui, which greatly impressed Satie when he saw it in May 1887. But he was already experimenting with more advanced chords, as well as barlessness in the earlier song ‘Sylvie’, so this is by no means certain. The Second Sarabande exists in several versions of slightly different lengths and dynamics, so this recording uses the version Satie told his publisher Jacques Lerolle was the final one in 1911, with its long-standing errors now finally corrected. Unusually, the Third Sarabande is not a reflection of the other two, but a more fluid (even Chopinesque) construction that is perhaps more in line with the original designation of the First Sarabande as a ‘Sarabande vive’.
Trois Gymnopédies (February–April 1888)
The story goes that when Satie left home in December 1887 to live his own Bohemian life in Montmartre, he introduced himself to Rodolphe Salis, the ‘bonimenteur’ of the Chat Noir cabaret, as ‘Erik Satie, gymnopédiste’, to suggest he had something intriguing and special to offer amongst a clientele already rich in Symbolists, Hydropathes and the like. And then he had to write pieces to justify his claim in the following months. Perhaps he got his title and his idea for the Sarabandes from the apocalyptic poem by his friend, the Spanish poet and actor, J. P. Contamine de Latour, several of whose poems he set to music in his early years. In Les Antiques—in the lines that originally prefaced the first edition of the Gymnopédies—we find ‘atoms of amber, glistening in the firelight’ joining ‘their sarabande to the gymnopédie’. [Où les atomes d’ambre au feu se miroitant/ Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie.] Somewhat akin to the fall of the ‘Damned… screaming and struggling in a dense, whirling confusion’ in the extract from Latour’s La Perdition which prefaced the Sarabandes. [les Maudits tombèrent/ Hurlant et se heurtant en un lourd tourbillon] Both quotations appear perverse as we listen to the slow, quiet and detached pieces themselves, which only share triple time and advanced, though largely non-progressive harmonies. But it is the haunting beauty of the floating melodies that have given the Gymnopédies their enduring popularity: an effortless distillation of a bygone classical age. Curiously, the rhythms in the Gymnopédies are more consistently typical of the sarabande (with the accent on the second beat of the bar) than are those of the Sarabandes themselves.
In Le Chat Noir journal on 24 November 1888, Satie advertised the Third Gymnopédie as ‘one of the most beautiful [works] of the century’. [L’une des plus belles [oeuvres] du siècle] Despite the dating on the manuscript, it may have been the first one to be composed, as it was the first that Satie chose to publish privately, and the piece with which Debussy began his orchestration of the Gymnopédies in 1896. In the issue of La Lanterne Japonaise on 23 March 1889, Satie created a hilarious tribute from a Femme Lengrenage in Précigny-les-Balayettes who ‘had suffered for 8 years from a polyp in the nose. After hearing your Ogives I felt much better’, she wrote, and ‘four or five applications of your Third Gymnopédie cured me completely.’³ Satie was an expert in this jokey sort of publicity and through it he gained renown in contemporary Montmartre.
Gnossienne [N° 5] (9 July 1889)
This was actually Satie’s first Gnossienne, which gained its present number in its posthumous first publication in 1968. Its panpipe like melody, undulating decoratively above a guitar type accompaniment, was almost certainly inspired by the Romanian folk ensemble that Satie heard at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. On the reverse of the same manuscript page, Satie jotted down his own version of a tiny Chanson hongroise, which he may have intended to be repeated ad infinitum, like his later Furnishing Music.
Trois Gnossiennes (?1890–93)
These equally famous pieces, with their haunting modal scales and regular accompaniment rhythms, are again meant to be flexible rather than in any way like dirges. As all three first appeared in print in 1893, Satie’s memory may have played him false when they were republished in 1911 with an ‘1890’ dating. To make matters even more confusing, the facsimile of Satie’s manuscript of what he later published as the ‘2e Gnossienne’ appeared in 1893 as the ‘6e Gnossienne’.
These were the first pieces to carry observations addressed to any pianist who might perform them, but by no means all of them relate to the music itself. Thus, in No. 3, ‘Bury the sound’ [Enfouissez le son] near the end does, but ‘Alone, for a moment’ [Seul, pendant un instant] does not. What has become known as Gnossienne No. 4 is actually an untitled piece dated ‘22 January 1891’. The melody shows the same chromatic surprises and acciaccaturas as No. 1 but its wide-ranging, wave-like accompaniment is quite different. Like many of Satie’s early pieces, its final chord comes as a complete surprise. Two days before this Satie composed a short march-like piece marked ‘Modéré’ [Pièce sans titre, 1891], which Robert Caby published in 1968 as Satie’s Première Pensée Rose+Croix. Although its triplet rhythms show some similarities to those in the Sonneries de la Rose+Croix, it again has no title and there is no direct evidence that associates it with this spurious religious movement.
The Rose+Croix music (1891–95)
Leït-Motiv du « Panthée » (28 October )
This is Satie’s only surviving monodic composition. It looks as if it should be on trumpet, though as so often in Satie’s early works, no instrument is specified. Sometime in 1890 Satie met the bizarre but charismatic Joséphin Péladan, the self-appointed leader (or Sâr) of the (bogus) Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal. Satie ignored his Wagner mania but was probably intrigued by his occultism and certainly attracted to Péladan’s genius for publicity. So, between May 1891 and August 1892, Satie became the Order’s official composer and chapel master, and it seems that one of his first tasks was to write a frontispiece for Péladan’s effusive and opinionated historical study Le Panthée. La Décadence latine, Ethopée, No. 10. The contrast between the length of the book and Satie’s tiny musical introduction speaks volumes (as it were).
[Trois] Sonneries de la Rose+Croix (November 1891)
These ‘airs’, celebrating the Order, its Grand Master (Péladan), and its suitably wealthy and aristocratic Grand Priest, Comte Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, gave Satie both his first sponsored publication and his first public premiere at the Eglise Saint-Germainl’Auxerrois in the prestigious Place du Louvre in Paris on 10 March 1892. Whether the fanfares (mostly loud) and chorales (mostly hushed) were played in alternation between trumpets and harps is not known, but the chromatic music involved would have been far more suitable played on a piano or harmonium. They were performed again at the first Rosicrucian Soirée at the Galerie Durand-Ruel twelve days later, though again no review has survived that tells about the actual performance. Satie kept the concept of abruptly shifting chords, in which one chord negates the accidentals in the previous one, in his later piano music. Also, the opening ‘Air de l’Ordre’ uses the Golden Section as a calculated means of formal organization, with the Golden Section point itself being followed by a very rare ‘development’ section which combines material from the opening section in different and truncated ways. So, as in his final ballets, Satie was concerned from the first about his music being able to withstand analytical scrutiny, however strange it might appear on the surface.
Gnossienne No. 7 finally found its place in the incidental music for Act 1 of Joséphin Peladan’s Le Fils des étoiles late in 1891.
ERIK SATIE ON HIMSELF
A sort of reflective autobiography with some additions and discoveries by Robert Orledge (2016)
[Satie’s actual words appear in inverted commas & a handwritten typography and readers should remember that he never stayed serious for long and became famous for his irony and sense of fantasy. Some articles like ‘The Musician’s Day’ (1913) are almost entirely fantasy, whereas in ‘The Musical Spirit’ (1924), Satie said that he was “giving up, just for today, my habitual irony”. Therefore more will be taken from the latter type of article than the former in what follows. Some quotes also come from letters and the testimonials of his friends. To keep everything uncluttered, as Satie preferred, there will be no footnotes, though a short bibliography at the end gives some of the major sources used here. The use of… reflects the way Satie wrote and their various lengths helped him pace his public lectures. Occasionally, however, they signify a short omission in the text concerned.]
Under pressure, I might fill in a few gaps in my “undistinguished childhood and adolescence”. My mother (Jane Leslie Anton: 1838–72) had a Scottish mother, and I was conceived during their honeymoon in that chilly, Northern province soon after their marriage in St Mary’s Church in Barnes [London] on 19 July 1865. My father, Jules Alfred Satie (1842–1903) was a cultured man who spoke several languages, and I was christened with the amalgamation of Eric-Alfred-Leslie in the Protestant church in Honfleur on 29 August 1866. But I later became ‘Erik’ for anything that related to my musical compositions. Yes. As I explained to my friend and benefactor Louis Lemonnier in 1905, “I have signed [this letter] with my nickname [Erik] and my real name [Eric].” But let us pass on.
Next to arrive was my dear sister Olga, who was to pass most of her life in Buenos Aires after an unhappy marriage. After this came my brother Conrad in 1869. We were like Theo and Vincent Van Gogh, though with a more tempestuous relationship. Then came Diane in 1871 and it was her death the following summer that hastened the early demise of my poor mother. After which, Conrad and I were sent to live with our paternal grandparents, Jules and Eulalie, in Honfleur (because our parents had moved back to Paris in 1870 and my father wanted to remain there). I was promptly re-baptised as a Catholic (which I remained) and sent to the Collège d’Honfleur, where I proved quite adept at history and Latin, but not much else. More importantly, I began lessons in solfège and Gregorian chant in 1874 with M. Vinot, the organist at the Eglise St-Léonard and a pupil of Louis Niedermeyer, and I was allowed to start piano lessons in 1876. I also picked up a bit about life in general from my eccentric uncle Adrien who loved boats and horses and was known as “Sea-bird”.
Then in the summer of 1878 disaster struck when my grandmother (an experienced swimmer) mysteriously drowned. I was sent back to live with my father in Paris, and instead of regular schooling he took me to lectures at the Collège de France and hired me a private tutor to learn Greek and Latin. He also had the temerity to marry a piano teacher and dilettante salon composer called Eugénie Barnetche (1832–1916), who set off the seven worst years of my life by enrolling me for the Paris Conservatoire on 4 November 1879—“a huge, very uncomfortable and rather ugly building; a sort of local penitentiary without any interior charm—or exterior either”. I remained so upset that I even addressed a letter to it in 1892 in which I justly complained that “despite my extreme youth and my delicious Agility, through your lack of intelligence you have made me loathe the coarse Art that you teach; by your inexplicable harshness, you have made me despise you for ages.” Predictably, I didn’t do very well there. Everyone wanted to be rid of me: “[Antoine] Taudou, my harmony teacher, thought I should play the piano; while my piano professor, [Georges] Mathias [who had taught my step-mother] thought I would be better off as a composer”. Actually, he was right, but for the wrong reasons, and to think that I almost dedicated my 3e Gymnopédie to him in 1888! Even in June 1886, he thought me ‘worthless’ and ‘unable to sight-read properly’, so, soon after that I volunteered for military service to escape the Conservatoire, and one month later I escaped from this new boredom by standing in freezing water and deliberately contracting bronchitis, though the authorities refused to give me up as a bad job until the following November.
But then I was free and I already knew I wanted to compose after setting some poems by my Spanish friend Patrice Contamine de Latour in 1886–87 and finding that the already advanced harmonies of my Sarabandes would sound more effective at a slower speed. I did try temporarily to please my step-mother by writing a Valse-ballet and a Fantaisie-valse for her weekly salons, and my father arranged for them to be published in the journal La Musique des familles. But far more importantly, he had started his own music publishing business close to our home by the Gare de l’Est. Besides bringing out some run-of-the-mill pieces by himself, his new wife and some acquaintances—in which the pictures on the covers were often more impressive than the music inside—he agreed to publish a few of my own, serious compositions, and later to market my private editions in his shop on the Boulevard de Magenta. I even got favourable rates with his printer, Dupré, and so my Gymnopédies and Ogives reached a small, and undoubtedly rather baffled public. But let us pass on.
My good father also helped me (with 1600 francs) to leave home at the end of 1887. I moved to 50 rue Condorcet in Montmartre, where I gave piano lessons and soon discovered the nearby Chat Noir cabaret. As my friend Contamine de Latour observed: ‘It was a respectable sum for a young man accustomed to scrape by on a hundred sous a week…He rented a small mezzanine flat and filled it with choice furniture. Then he had to lower his sights. The furniture disappeared piece by piece as his capital dwindled’ and, of course, quite a bit of it went into my editions like the four Ogives. As I told the readers of the journal Le Chat Noir early in 1889: I, “the indefatigable Erik Satie, the sphinx-man, the composer with the wooden head, announce the appearance of a new musical work…a suite of melodies in the mystico-liturgical genre that I idolize, with a suggestive title: the Ogives. [You will no doubt] wish him a similar success to that which he has already achieved with his Troisième Gymnopédie, now to be found underneath every piano. On sale at 66 Boulevard [de] Magenta.”
As one had to impress the formidable Master of Ceremonies (Bonimenteur) Rodolphe Salis to be accepted at the Chat Noir, I boldly styled myself ‘Erik Satie—gymnopédiste’ and then found myself having to write said pieces about naked dancing Spartan youths in early 1888 to justify myself. At the Chat Noir I met all sorts of fascinating Bohemian characters, like the forward-looking writer Alphonse Allais (also from Honfleur), the charming humorist Vital- Hocquet (who called himself Narcisse Lebeau), and the illustrator Maurice Radiguet, with whose brilliant and short-lived son Raymond I later collaborated on the opera Paul & Virginie in 1921–22.
I also met Victor Fumet (known as Dynam[ite] because of his anarchist sympathies). When he fell out with Rodolphe Salis, I took over from him as conductor of the small orchestra that accompanied the shadow theatre productions put on by Henri Rivière and others. I also played the piano and harmonium there on occasions. Yes.
But none of this brought me much money, especially after settling my bar bills, and early in 1890 I was forced to move into a smaller room at 6 rue Cortot, high in the Butte Montmartre, where I could escape from my creditors. In 1891, I also met the flamboyant author, fervent Wagnerite, and self-appointed leader of the Ordre de la Rose+Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal, Sâr Joséphin Peladan (1858–1918). I forget whether we met at some cabaret or other, or at Edmond Bailly’s newly-founded Librairie de L’Art Indépendant, but I was swept along by his extravagant persona and soon found myself appointed as the official composer and chapel-master of his new and spurious cult. Besides, Peladan had serious financial backing from Comte Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, and there is no such thing as bad publicity.
First of all, I wrote Peladan a little, very un-Wagnerian Leit-motif as a frontispiece to his indulgent novel Le Panthée (part of a long and tedious cycle called La Décadence latine); then five days later I finished a strange hymn called Salut Drapeau! (Hail to the Flag) for his play ‘Le Prince du Byzance’, which was all about androgyny (which seemed to fascinate him. Hum!)
But Peladan did finance the publication of my three Sonneries de la Rose+Croix, which featured at what was my first official public performance at the Eglise Saint-Germaine-L’Auxerrois on 10 March 1892. And they were repeated at Peladan’s first Rosicrucian Salon at the fashionable Galerie Durand-Ruel twelve days later. Yes. So it was thanks to him that I was launched as a serious, professional composer, which was all I ever wanted to be.
However, Salis had never got on with Peladan and in Le Chat Noir journal on 18 April 1891 he had the temerity to print the following: ‘Editorial Secretary: Joséphin Peladan—obstinate arse-hole’ ! Peladan promptly sued him for public deformation of character and libel on 19 June and, after the hearing at the Palais de Justice on 29 October, Salis was ordered to pay damages of 5000 francs and publish two apologies in papers of Peladan’s choice. Naturally, the case was reported in leading papers like Le Figaro, and in private Salis called Peladan ‘the Sâr meteorite mountebank’ and ‘this ridiculous author for vicious old women’, and plenty worse!
Naturally, as Peladan’s appointed chapel-master and perceived associate, I was tarred with the same brush, and so I thought it best to move on to the nearby Auberge du Clou, where I became second pianist and met Claude Debussy. So every cloud has a silver lining. Yes.
¹ [Une mélodie n’a pas son harmonie, pas plus qu’un paysage n’a sa couleur. La situation harmonique d’une mélodie est infinie… N’oubliez pas que la mélodie est l’Idée, le contour, ainsi qu’elle est la forme & la matière d’une oeuvre. L’harmonie, elle, est un éclairage, une exposition de l’objet, son reflet.]
² [S’il y a forme & écriture nouvelle, il y a métier nouveau… L’Idée peut se passer de l’Art. Méfions-nous de l’Art: il n’est souvent que de la Virtuosité.]
³ [Depuis 8 ans, je souffrais d’un polype dans le nez… A l’audition de vos Ogives, un mieux sensible s’est manifesté dans mon état; quatre ou cinq applications de votre Troisième Gymnopédie m’ont radicalement guérie.]
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