Monday, May 17, 8866

Erik Satie (1866-1925) - Theater of the Absurd

[Jean Cocteau - Erik Satie]

Starting with his first composition in 1884, Alfred Eric Leslie Satie (May 17, 1866, Honfleur, France - July 1, 1925, Paris, France) signed his name as Erik Satie.

Satie was introduced as a "gymnopedist" in 1887, shortly before writing his most famous compositions, the Gymnopédies. Later, he also referred to himself as a "phonometrograph" or "phonometrician" (meaning "someone who measures (and writes down) sounds") preferring this designation to that of "musician," after having been called "a clumsy but subtle technician" in a book on contemporary French composers published in 1911.

In addition to his body of music, Satie also left a remarkable set of writings, having contributed work for a range of publications, from the dadaist 391 to the American Vanity Fair. Although in later life he prided himself on always publishing his work under his own name, in the late 19th Century he appears to have used pseudonyms such as Virginie Lebeau and François de Paule in some of his published writings.

Satie was a colorful figure in the early 20th-century Parisian avant-garde. He was a precursor to later artistic movements such as minimalism, repetitive music, and the Theatre of the Absurd.

[Satie house and museum in Honfleur]

Erik Satie's youth was spent alternating between living in Honfleur, Basse-Normandie, and Paris. When he was four years old, his family moved to Paris, his father (Alfred), having been offered a translator's job in the capital. After his mother (born Jane Leslie Anton, who was born in London to Scottish parents) died in 1872, he was sent, together with his younger brother Conrad, back to Honfleur, to live with his paternal grandparents. There he received his first music lessons from a local organist. When his grandmother died in 1878, the two brothers were reunited with their father in Paris, who remarried (a piano teacher) shortly afterwards.

From the early 1880's onwards, Alfred Satie started publishing salon compositions (by his new wife and himself, among others).

In 1879, Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was soon labelled untalented by his teachers. After being sent home for two and a half years, he was readmitted to the Conservatoire at the end of 1885, but was unable to make a much more favourable impression on his teachers than he had before, and, as a result, resolved to take up military service a year later. However, Satie's military career did not last very long; within a few weeks he left the army through deceptive means.

Satie left home in 1887 to take lodgings in Montmartre. By this time he had started what was to be an enduring friendship with the romantic poet Patrice Contamine, and had had his first compositions published by his father.

Trois Gymnopedies (1888)


I. Lent et douloureux



He soon integrated with the artistic clientèle of the Le Chat Noir Café-cabaret (The Black Cat Cafe-Cabaret), and started publishing his Gymnopédies. Publication of compositions in the same vein (Ogives, Gnossiennes, etc.) followed. In the same period he got to know Claude Debussy.

Trois Gnossiennes (1890)




He moved to a smaller room, still in Montmartre (rue Cortot N° 6), in 1890. By 1891 he was the official composer and chapel-master of the Rosicrucian Order "Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal", led by Sâr Joséphin Péladan, which led to compositions such as Salut Drapeau!, Le Fils des étoiles, and the Sonneries de la Rose+Croix.

By mid-1892 he had composed the first pieces in a compositional system of his own making (Fête donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l'Honneur d'une jeune Demoiselle), had provided incidental music to a chivalric esoteric play (two Préludes du Nazaréen), had had his first hoax published (announcing the premiere of Le Bâtard de Tristan, an anti-Wagnerian opera he probably never composed), and had broken with Péladan, starting that autumn with the Uspud project, a "Christian Ballet,"in collaboration with Contamine de Latour. While the comrades from both the Chat Noir and Miguel Utrillo's Auberge du Clou (Inn of the Nail, but see below...) sympathized, a promotional brochure was produced for the project, which reads as a pamphlet for a new esoteric sect.


1 clou Noun, masculine (a) nail; stud in ground; stud (earring), sleeper; (Infml) pawnshop; (Slang) clink, cooler, slammer; ~ à crochet hook; ~ à girofle clove; ~ (à souliers) tack; ~ en U staple; mettre au ~ to pawn; (Proverb) "un ~ chasse l'autre" "there's plenty more fish in the sea", "life goes on"


Satie and

Suzanne Valadon,

[Toulouse Lautrec]

[Pierre-Auguste Renoir]

an artists'

[Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Suzanne Valadon]

[Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Dance at Bougival (1883, Suzanne Valadon and perhaps Renoir)]

model and

[Suzanne Valadon - Self-Portrait]

artist in her own right, and a long-time friend of Miguel Utrillo (and mother of Maurice Utrillo, who himself became an artist), began an affair early in 1893. After their first night together, Satie proposed marriage. The two did not marry, but Valadon moved to a room next to Satie's at the Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, and writing impassioned notes about "her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet."

During their relationship, Satie composed the Danses Gothiques as a kind of prayer to restore peace of mind,

and Valadon painted a portrait of Satie, which she gave to him. After six months she moved away, leaving Satie broken-hearted. Afterwards, he said that he was left with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness." It is believed this was the only intimate relationship Satie ever had.


[Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Woman Braiding Her Hair (Suzanne Valadon)]

A free spirit, Suzanne Valadon would wear a corsage of carrots, kept a goat at her studio to "eat up her bad drawings," and fed caviar (rather than meat) to her "good Catholic" cats on Fridays.

A perfectionist, Valadon worked on some of her oil paintings for up to 13 years, before showing them. She also worked in pastel. Despite her financial success and the recognition gained for her artistic achievements, her fame was eclipsed by that of her son (also an artist)

Her marriage to stockbroker Paul Mousis in 1896 ended when, in 1909, Valadon left Mousis for a painter half her age, André Utter. She married Utter in 1914, but that marriage did not last either.

Suzanne Valadon died on April 7, 1938 and was interred in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen in Paris. Among those in attendance at her funeral were her friends and colleagues, Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque.

Today, some of her works may be seen at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Musée des Beaux Arts in Grenoble, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


In the same year Satie met

the young Maurice Ravel for the first time, Satie's style emerging in the first compositions of the youngster. One of Satie's own compositions of that period, Vexations, was to remain undisclosed until after his death. By the end of the year he had founded the Eglise Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur (the Metropolitan Church of Art of the Leading Christ). As its only member, in the role of "Parcier et Maître de Chapelle" he started to compose a Grande Messe (later to become known as the Messe des Pauvres), and wrote a flood of letters, articles and pamphlets showing off his self-assuredness in religious and artistic matters. To give an example: he applied for membership of the Académie Française twice, leaving no doubt in the application letter that the board of that organization (presided by Camille Saint-Saëns) as much as owed him such membership. Such proceedings without doubt rather helped to wreck his popularity in the cultural establishment. In 1895 he inherited some money, allowing him to have more of his writings printed, and to change from wearing a priest-like habit to being the "Velvet Gentleman."

Vexations (1895)

Vexations -- with 840 repetitions of the musical motif (and many more of the melody of the bass) Satie's longest single-movement work with a defined number of repetitions (note that, without the repetitions, the actual music takes less than two minutes to play). No explanation by Satie survives regarding the exceptional length of the piece. If excluding the Tango mentioned in the next point, performing the Vexations takes longer than all his other music played in sequence.

Pieces Froides (Cold Pieces) (1897)

By mid-1896 all his financial means had vanished, and he had to move to cheaper lodgings, first at the Rue Cortot, to a room not much bigger than a cupboard, and two years later (after he'd composed the two first sets of Pièces froides in 1897), to Arcueil, a suburb some ten kilometers from the centre of Paris (in the Val-de-Marne district of the Île-de-France ).

At this period he re-established contact with his brother Conrad

[Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) - Self-Portrait (1887)]

(in much the way Vincent Van Gogh had with his brother Theo) for numerous practical and financial matters, disclosing some of his inner feelings in the process. For example, from his letters to his brother it's clear that he had set aside any religious ideas (which were not to return until the last months of his life); Satie used humor as he was often to do: to indicate a change of mind concerning subjects about which he had had strong views.

From the winter of 1898-1899, Satie could be seen, as a daily routine, leaving his apartment in the Parisian suburb of Arcueil to walk across Paris to either Montmartre or Montparnasse, before walking back again in the evening.

From 1899 on he started making money as a cabaret pianist (mostly accompanying Vincent Hyspa, later also Paulette Darty), adapting over a hundred compositions of popular music for piano (or piano and voice), adding some of his own. The most popular of these were Je te veux (text by Henry Pacory), Tendrement (text by Vincent Hyspa), Poudre d'or (a waltz), La Diva de l'Empire (text by Dominique Bonnaud/Numa Blès), Le Picadilly (A March), Légende Californienne (text by Contamine de Latour lost, but the music later reappears in La Belle Excentrique), and many more (probably even more have been lost).

In his later years Satie would reject all his cabaret music as vile and against his nature[1] (although he revived some of the fun of it in his 1920 Belle excentrique), but for the time being, it was an income.

Only a few compositions that Satie himself took seriously remain from this period:

Jack-in-the-Box, music to a pantomime by Jules Dépaquit (called a "clownerie" by Satie); Geneviève de Brabant, a short comic opera on a serious theme, text by Lord Cheminot; The Dreamy Fish, piano music to accompany a lost tale by Lord Cheminot, and a few others (mostly incomplete, hardly any of them staged, and none of them published at the time).

Both Geneviève de Brabant and The Dreamy Fish have been analyzed (e.g. by Ornella Volta) as containing elements of competition with Claude Debussy, of which the latter was probably not aware (Satie not making this music public). Meanwhile, Debussy was having one of his first major successes with Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, leading a few years later to "who-was-precursor-to-whom" debates between the two composers (in which Maurice Ravel would also get involved).

Trois Pieces en Form de Poire (Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear) (1903)

In October 1905 Satie enrolled in Vincent d'Indy's Schola Cantorum to study classical counterpoint (while still continuing his cabaret work). Most of his friends were as dumbfounded as the professors at the Schola when they heard about his new plan to return to the classrooms (especially as d'Indy was an admiring pupil of Saint-Saëns, not particularly favored by Satie). As for Satie's motivation for this step, there were probably two main reasons: first, he was tired of being told that the harmonization of his compositions was erratic (a criticism he could not very well counter, not having completed any studies in music), and secondly, he was developing the idea that one of the most typical characteristics of French music was clarity (which could better be achieved with a good background knowledge of how traditional harmony was perceived). Satie would follow these courses at the Schola, as a respected pupil, for more than five years, receiving a first (intermediate) diploma in 1908.

Nouvelles Pieces Froides (New Cold Pieces) (1910)

In 1910 the "Jeunes Ravêlites," a group of young musicians around Ravel, proclaimed their preference for Satie's earlier work (from before the Schola period), reinforcing the idea that Satie had been a precursor of Debussy. At first Satie was pleased that at least some of his works were receiving public attention, but when he realised that this meant that his more recent work was overlooked or dismissed, he looked for other young artists who related better to his more recent ideas, so as to have better mutual support in creative activity. Thus young artists such as Roland-Manuel, and later Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau, started to receive more of his attention than the "Jeunes."

As a result of his contact with Roland-Manuel, Satie again began publicising his thoughts, with far more irony than he had done before (amongst other things, the Mémoires d'un amnésique and Cahiers d'un mammifère).

Some of his classroom counterpoint-exercises would, after his death, be published (e.g., the Désespoir agréable), but he probably saw the En Habit de Cheval (In Horse's Clothing) published in 1911 as the result of "eight years hard work to come to a new, modern fugue") as the culmination of the Schola episode.

Since the same year, he was on friendly terms with Igor Stravinsky, about whom he would later write articles.

Satie changed his appearance to that of the "bourgeois functionary" (with bowler hat, umbrella, etc.).

From this point, things started to move very quickly for Satie. First, there was, starting in 1912, the success of his new short, humorous piano pieces; he was to write and publish many of these over the next few years (most of them premiered by the pianist Ricardo Viñes): the Véritables Préludes flasques (pour un chien) ("Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog)"), the Vieux sequins et vieilles cuirasses ("Old Sequins and Old Breastplates"), the Embryons desséchés ("Dried up Embryos"), the Descriptions Automatiques, and the Sonatine Bureaucratique (a Muzio Clementi spoof), etc., all date from this period. His habit of accompanying the scores of his compositions with all kinds of written remarks was now well established (so that a few years later he had to insist that these not be read out during performances). He had mostly stopped using barlines by this time.

But the real acceleration in Satie's life did not come so much from the increasing success of his new piano pieces. In fact, it was Ravel who (perhaps unwittingly) triggered something that was to become a characteristic of Satie's remaining years and part of each progressive movement that manifested itself in Paris over the following years. These movements succeeded one another rapidly, at a time in which Paris was seen as the artistic capital of the world (long before London or New York would achieve much significance in this regard), and the beginning of the new century appeared to have set many minds on fire.

Quatre Preludes Flasques (Pour un Chien) (Four Flabby Preludes... For a Dog) (1912)

Trois Veritables Preludes Flasques (Pour un Chien) (Three Truly Flabby Preludes... etc.) (1912)

Descriptions Automatiques (Automatic Descriptions) (1913)

Embryons Desseches (Dessicated Embryos) (1913)

Le Piège de Méduse (1913) had a unique position in Satie's oeuvre, as it was a stage work conceived and composed seemingly without any collaboration with other artists.

Sports et Divertissements (Sports and Divertissements...[you, too, can speak French!]) (1914)

Sports et Divertissements was a kind of multi-media project, in which Satie provided piano music to drawings made by Charles Martin, composed in 1914 (publication and first public performance in the early 1920's).

For Le Tango ("The Tango"), a rather catchy tune from Sports et divertissements, Satie indicates in the score perpétuel (i.e. something like a perpetuum mobile, which in French is "mouvement perpétuel"). There is little indication how Satie understood this "perpetual," apart that at the premiere, at least assisted by Satie, there was obviously nothing repeated ad infinitum, taken literally. When performed for a recording there is seldom more than one repeat of this part of the composition, making it one of the shortest tangos ever, something like a Minute Tango.

Heures Seculaires et Instantanees (Secular and Instantaeous Hours [ditto]) (1914)

Avant Derniere Pensees (Next-to-Last Thoughts) (1915)

With Jean Cocteau, whom he had first met in 1915, Satie started work on incidental music for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (resulting in the Cinq Grimaces [Five Grimaces]).

From 1916, he and Cocteau worked on the ballet Parade, which was premiered in 1917 by

Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with sets and costumes by

Pablo Picasso,

and choreography by Léonide Massine.

[Pablo Picasso - Erik Satie]

Through Picasso Satie also became acquainted with other cubists, such as

Georges Braque, with whom he would work on other, aborted, projects.

With Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, and Germaine Tailleferre Satie formed the Nouveaux Jeunes, shortly after writing Parade.

[Les Six, Jean Cocteau, and a singer [center] -- Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, and Cocteau [standing, back right])

Later the group was joined by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. In September 1918, Satie -- giving little or no explanation -- withdrew from the Nouveaux Jeunes. Jean Cocteau gathered the six remaining members, forming the Groupe des Six (to which Satie would later have access, but later again would fall out with most of its members).

From 1919 Satie was in contact with Tristan Tzara, the initiator of the Dada movement. He became acquainted with other artists involved in the movement, such as Francis Picabia (later to become a Surrealist),

André Derain,

Marcel Duchamp, and

[Salvador Dali and Man Ray]

Man Ray, among others. On the day of his first meeting with Man Ray, the two fabricated the artist's first readymade: The Gift (1921). Satie would contributed writing to the Dadaist publication 391. In the first months of 1922 he was surprised to find himself entangled in the argument between Tzara and André Breton about the true nature of avant-garde art, epitomized by the failure of the Congrès de Paris. Satie originally sides with Tzara, but manages to maintain friendly relations with most players in both camps. Meanwhile, an "Ecole d'Arcueil" had formed around Satie, with young musicians like Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob, Roger Désormière, and Henri Cliquet-Pleyel.

Parade (1917)

Satie got in trouble over an insulting postcard he had written to one of his critics shortly after the premiere of Parade; he was condemned to a week of imprisonment, but was finally released as a result of the (financial) intercession of Winnaretta Singer, Princess Edmond de Polignac.

Singer, who had learnt Ancient Greek when she was over 50, had commissioned a work on Socrates in October 1916; this would become his Socrate, which he presented early in 1918 to the Princess.

From 1917 Satie wrote five pieces of furniture music (Musique d'ameublement) for different occasions.

The pieces were intended as "background" music with no number of repeats specified. The circumstances in which such music was performed by Satie himself indicate, however, that the total playing times would be intended to be the usual 'intermission' time of a stage production (see Entr'acte). While the public was not expected to be silent, these compositions can hardly be seen as an experiment in boredom.

From 1920, Satie was on friendly terms with the circles around Gertrude Stein, amongst others, leading to the publication of some of his articles in Vanity Fair (commissioned by Sibyl Harris).

Some works would originate under the patronage of the count Etienne de Beaumont, from 1922 onwards.

Relache (Closed) (1924)

Satie composed an "instantaneist" ballet (Relâche) in collaboration with Picabia, for the Ballets Suédois of Rolf de Maré. In a simultaneous project, Satie added music to the surrealist film Entr'acte by René Clair, which was given as an intermezzo for Relâche.

During his final years Satie travelled; for example, in 1924 to Belgium, invited by Paul Collaer, and to Monte Carlo for the premiere of a work on which he had collaborated.

At the time of Satie's death in 1925, absolutely nobody else had ever entered his room in Arcueil since he had moved there 27 years earlier. What his friends would discover there, after Satie's burial at the Cimetière d'Arcueil, had the allure of the opening of the grave of Tutankhamun; apart from the dust and the cobwebs (which among other things made clear that Satie never composed using his piano), they discovered numerous items that included,

great numbers of umbrellas, some that had apparently never been used by Satie,

the portrait of Satie by Suzanne Valadon,

love-letters and drawings from the Valadon romance,

other letters from all periods of his life,

his collection of drawings of medieval buildings (only then did his friends see a link between Satie and certain previously anonymous, journal advertisements regarding "castles in lead" and the like),

other drawings and texts of autobiographical value,

other memorabilia from all periods of his life, amongst which were the seven velvet suits from his Velvet gentleman period.

Most importantly, however, everywhere there were compositions that were totally unknown or which were thought to have been lost. They were found behind the piano, in the pockets of the velvet suits, and in other odd places. These included the Vexations, Geneviève de Brabant, and other unpublished or unfinished stage works, The Dreamy Fish, many Schola Cantorum exercises, a previously unseen set of "canine" piano pieces, several other piano works, often without a title. Some of these works would be published later as more Gnossiennes, Pièces Froides, Enfantines, and Furniture Music).

Satie as precursor: the only "precursor" discussion Satie was involved in during his lifetime was whether or not he was a precursor of Claude Debussy, but many would follow. Over the years Satie would be described as a precursor of movements and styles as varied as Impressionism, neo-classicism, Dada, Surrealism, atonalism, minimalism, conceptual art, the Theatre of the Absurd, muzak, ambient music, multimedia art, etc., and as taking the first steps towards techniques such as prepared piano and music-to-film synchronisation. Further, Satie became one of the first musicians to perform a cameo appearance -- he was in a 1924 film by René Clair.

All by himself Satie appears to have been the avant-garde to half of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century. Many of these "precursorisms" are possibly based on quite superficial resemblances only, while, on the other hand, he undeniably inspired and influenced many later artists, and their ideas. According to Milhaud, Satie had "prophesied the major movements in classical music to appear over the next 50 years within his own body of work." There is a website exploring that theory in detail: Erik Satie's Crystal Ball.

Satie as humorist: many would be surprised to know how many of Satie's seemingly humorous compositions were at heart taken very seriously by him. When he forbade commentaries written in his partitions to be read aloud, he probably saw this himself as a means to safeguard the seriousness of his intentions. When, at the first public performance of Socrate, there was laughter, he felt hurt. Many other examples of his serious attitude can be found, but there's no doubt that Satie was a witty person, certainly not without many humorous idiosyncrasies.

Satie and compositions in three parts: although many of his compositions (e.g., most of the pre-war piano pieces) were indeed in three parts, there is no general rule in this respect. After his death, publishers would force more of them into an artificial three-part structure; Satie had actually already made a joke of such proceedings with his seven-part Trois Morceaux en forme de poire.

Satie and (lack of) money: although Satie certainly knew periods of dire poverty, and was perhaps a little uncontrollable in his spending, in long periods of his life he had few financial worries. Although maybe not having much money in his pockets, he was (certainly from the second decade of the new century) often invited to expensive restaurants and to all sort of events, and was given financial help, by all sorts of people.

Satie as an opponent of other musical styles. The musical styles Satie opposed were allegedly numerous: Wagnerism, Romanticism (Saint-Saëns, Franck, etc.), Impressionism (Debussy and Ravel), Expressionism (later Ravel), Slavism (Stravinsky), post-Wagnerism (Schoenberg), cabaret music, etc. Apart from some animosities on the personal level (which can be seen as symptomatic of most adherents of avant-garde movements of those days), Satie's ideas on other music of his time generally had more subtlety; for example, about César Franck he could not be brought to write critically, but would avoid the issue with jokes ("Franck's music shows surprisingly much Franckism; Some even say César Frank was lazy, which is not a commendable property in a hard working man"). Perhaps the same can be said as above regarding "Satie as precursor": there is much empty discussion -- for example, the debate with Debussy appears to have been over whether or not Satie was a precursor of Impressionism, which would not have made much sense if he had been opposed to Impressionism as such.

Satie and boredom. Satie often consciously disregarded the conception of development found in the German tradition (Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms). Satie's compositions tend to be very short; a typical movement of a Satie composition takes less than two minutes to play, and compositions with more than five movements are exceptional. Even his larger-scale works conforming to the genres known in his time would be two to five times shorter than the usual duration of such compositions (Socrate, a secular oratorio -- or "symphonic drama" -- lasting about half an hour, is the longest). In general, Satie thought it to be a great fault for a composer to bore his audience in any way.

Satie and sexuality: much has been said about Satie's sexuality, ranging from "hidden" homosexuality to "ordinary" heterosexuality. In fact, apart from the short-lived, and highly "idealized," Valadon period, Satie's behaviour appeared more or less asexual: he tended to be dismissive when the topic of sexuality came up.

[8867 South African Mining / 8866 Satie / 8865 Sibelius]