The Duo Campion-Vachon has performed throughout the world in countries such as South Africa, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and Canada. They have been invited to [...]
They spoke about it
Over a century since he first set tongues wagging, Erik Satie (1866-1925) remains an enigma — though it has to be said that this half-Scottish Norman (1866-1925), who called himself “the oddest musician of his time” and claimed affinity with the fantaisistes, “all of whom are proper, right-thinking people,” did much to add fuel to his own legend.
Yet this self-described fantaisiste has been said by John Cage to be “indispensable” for an understanding of contemporary music, and another eminent American composer and critic, Virgil Thomson, has stated that “Satie’s aesthetics are the only aesthetics of 20th-century music.” Satie was not a prolific composer. He wrote about a hundred pieces all told, most of them lasting a few minutes or even a few seconds.
But as Cocteau pointed out, Satie’s work “is small the way a keyhole is small — everything changes the minute you look or listen through it.” One of the hallmarks of Satie’s music is that each piece he wrote is very precisely aimed at a particular social context and a particular instrument. Composed at a time when there was a piano in every home and when the usual way of listening to one’s favourite music was to play it oneself, Erik Satie’s works for solo piano are confidential in style, even down to the idiosyncratic performance marks — Sans orgueil (without pride), Avec une douce intimité (with a gentle intimacy), Avec une ironie contagieuse (with contagious irony) and so on — which are intended to suggest a mood to the performer rather than actual tempo or dynamics.
By contrast, his orchestral works, generally written for the stage and in particular for ballet, set out to establish a direct and preferably non-critical contact with the rather extravert theatre audiences of his day. His works for piano duet come halfway between these two extremes, being meant for the careful listening found in the concert hall but also requiring a degree of intimacy, a kind of ménage à trois between the composer and his two performers. Strangely enough, each of the duets was written at a turning point in Satie’s existence. In chronological order, they are as follows:
Three pieces in the form of a pear with a way of beginning, a prolongation thereof, a moreover and a repetition (1903)
Greatly affected by Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, that unsurpassable masterpiece of an aesthetics which he had helped to create, Satie used this piece to take stock — as it were — of his own achievement, bringing together and reworking several compositions written over the previous decade. It is usually stated that the bizarre title of this piece was intended to mock Debussy for having criticized Satie’s lack of attention to form. However, if any mockery was intended, it was probably aimed at the reactionary academic mandarins who had just criticized Pelléas et Mélisande for its lack of form.
Horse dress (1911)
I. Choral; II. Fugue litanique; III. Autre Choral; IV. Fugue de Papier
Contrary to what is generally believed, the title of this work does not refer to a horseman’s dress, but to the habit some people have of considering horses as pack animals. Satie’s metaphor is intended to attract attention to the severe discipline he imposed on himself by going back to school at forty to study counterpoint and start all over again from scratch. In this piece, Satie thought he had discovered “modern fugue.” He wrote to his brother: “The form of fugue was considered incompatible with our modern ideas… It has taken me eight years to produce the new fugue.”
Unpleasant perceptions (1908-1912)
I. Pastorale; II. Choral; III. Fugue
Satie’s friends disapproved of his decision to enrol at the Schola Cantorum, the Catholic music school run by Vincent d’Indy where the study of counterpoint was favored to that of harmony. When Debussy heard Satie’s first piece of counterpoint, a Choral Fugue, he winced and said it smelt of incense. Ravel and his followers, the Jeunes Ravêlites also thought the decision was a mistake. As Satie wrote to his brother: “I’ve often been bawled out in my miserable life, but I’ve never been despised so heartily. Why did I ever get mixed up with d’Indy? I’d written pieces with real charm before that, but now? How boring and uninteresting!”
To answer his critics, he tacked a very un-Beethoven like Pastorale on to his Choral Fugue and called the whole thing Aperçus désagréables. Such was their taste for paradox, his friends (e.g. Florent Schmitt in an article in Montjoie! in December 1913) suddenly discovered that the work was not all that “unpleasant” at all.
I. “Prelude for the red curtain”; II. “Chinese conjuror”; III. “Little American girl”; IV. “Acrobates”; V. “Continuation of the prelude for the red curtain”
This piece is a concert reduction of the orchestral score of the ballet Parade composed by Satie to an argument by Cocteau and performed, with sets and costumes designed by Picasso, by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the height of the Great War. For this ballet, now regarded as the start-ing point of the artistic revolution of the interwar period, Satie wrote what he ironically called “background music for Cocteau’s sound effects.” This recording is the first to incorporate these “aural illusions” theoretically intended for the orchestra. As a result, the listener hears, in between the keyboard passages, the “puddles” in which the Chinese conjuror splashes, the “typewriter” and “revolver shots” produced by the American girl (a typist with a craze for gangster movies) and the “sirens” that wail as the acrobats sail through the air with the greatest of ease.
Trois petites Pièces montées (1921)
I. “Pantagruel’s childhood” (Rêverie); II. “Cockaigne march” (Unmarch); III. “Gargantua at play” (Polka corner)
This work was composed for Cocteau’s Premier Spectacle-concert, at the time when Cocteau was the spokesman of Les Six, whose collective artistic creed was in fact Satie’s. The title alludes to the tripartite structure of the work and to the elaborate pâtisserie known as a pièce montée, utterly in keeping with the gastronomic connotations of the characters from Rabelais.
The lovely eccentric (1921)
I. “Franco-lunar march, first intermezzo, grand ritornello”; II. “Waltz of the mysterious Kiss in the Eye, second intermezzo, grand ritornello”; III. “High society cancan”
Written for a number by the eccentric dancer Caryathis, this work belongs to the “music-hall” aesthetics propounded in the early twenties by Cocteau. For his “grand ritornello,” played while Caryathis did a quick change of costumes in the wings, Satie reused a café-concert tune, Légende californienne, which he originally wrote around 1900 for the “queen of the slow waltz,” Paulette Darty. The significant differences between the orchestral score and the duet version show how attentive Satie was to balance and tone colour.
For the choreography of this number, Cocteau advised Caryathis to copy the movements of the animals in the zoo. Satie disagreed, writing: “though the Belle Excentrique can do the shimmy step, she is not a negress — she is a Pari-sienne, and very much so, as a matter of fact.” The day Satie died, July 1st 1925, Caryathis decided never more to dance and made a bonfire in her garden of the costumes and posters which had been designed for her by Bakst. She returned to the limelight a few years later, as the writer Elise Jouhandeau.
© Ornella Volta, Fondation Erik Satie Translation: Roger Greaves