Francine Kay, noted for interpretations “compelling in their individuality” (Ottawa Citizen) is widely recognized as a pianist with a unique artistic voice. She has appeared as soloist with orchestras [...]
They spoke about it
The relationship between Satie and Ravel is an example of the extraordinary ferment of artistic life in Paris at the turn of the century. These two artists touched one another’s lives at a time when the musical life was one of passions and politics, friendships and rivalries, inspiration and innovation.
Satie was a young man in his twenties, living the bohemian life in Montmartre during the 1890’s. An eccentric individual and an unfettered artistic spirit, he was unknown and poverty-stricken, earning a living as a cabaret pianist. At the same time, he was creating his own unique spiritual life as the founder of his own personal religion, and composing his earliest works, the haunting and mystical Gymnopédies and the Gnossiennes among them.
At the same time, Ravel, a young boy of fourteen, enjoyed a comfortable home life, and was an accomplished pianist studying at the Conservatoire. He came across some of Satie’s published scores while rummaging through the bins of music at the dealers Durand and Lerolle. Deeply impressed with these works, Ravel asked his father, Joseph Ravel, a progressive thinker, engineer, and inventor, to take him to meet Satie. The meeting took place in the Café Nouvelle Athènes. Satie’s audacity, wit, and remarkable spirit made a profound impression on the young Ravel.
Doubtless, Satie’s bohemian eccentricities and excesses coupled with his mystical devotion could only have been fascinating to a young boy from a more conventional background. Ravel introduced Satie’s Sarabandes and Gymnopédies to his harmony class at the Conservatoire. Interestingly, these works were received with much more enthusiasm by the students than by the professors.
Later in life, Ravel recalled Satie as a “spiritual influence,” and in a lecture delivered at Rice University in Texas in 1928, he gave the following description of his friend and colleague: “He was the inventor’s mind par excellence. He was a great experimenter. Simply and ingeniously, Satie pointed the way, but as soon as another musician took to the trail he had indicated, Satie would immediately change his own orientation and without hesitation open up still another path to new fields of experimentation; he thus became the inspiration of countless progressive tendencies.”
Satie was bemused and affected by the young Ravel’s admiration. To his brother he wrote, “Ravel is a Prix de Rome of very great talent; another Debussy, but more striking. He assures me—every time I meet him—that he owes me a great deal. If he says so.” On another occasion, Satie added, “I confess to my shame that I didn’t think him capable of publicly acknowledging that he owes me a lot. I was very moved by it.”
In 1910, the Société Musicale Indépendante (SMI) was formed, with Ravel as one of its founding members. Under its auspices, new works by contemporary composers were performed in an atmosphere of camaraderie and impassioned debate. In 1911 Ravel organized a concert devoted to the works of Satie. On this occasion, Ravel himself performed the Sarabande No. 2 (which bears a dedication to Ravel), the Gymnopédie No. 3 and a prelude from the Fils des Étoiles, which he later orchestrated. Unpredictable as always, Satie did not attend the performance.
As concepts of aesthetic philosophy surged forward in the early 1900’s, and as passions raged as to the “true” path of music and art in the modern world, the paths of Satie and Ravel began to diverge. As Satie became involved with the Dada movement and the circle of Jean Cocteau, his aesthetic views channeled into a direction, which excluded the aesthetics of Ravel.
In 1919, Satie wrote, “I love Ravel deeply, but his art leaves me cold.” Ravel however, remained steadfast in acknowledging his respect for Satie. He dedicated the last of the Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé to Satie and he inscribed a score of Ma Mère l’Oye with the following dedication: “for Erik Satie, grandpapa of Les Entretiens de la Belle et la Bête, and others. Affectionate homage from a disciple.”
The Valses nobles et sentimentales were premiered at a special concert organized by the SMI, in which the composers of the works presented remained anonymous, and the audience was invited to cast votes as to their authorship. Interestingly, the votes for the work were divided between Ravel, Satie, and Kodaly. About this work, consisting of seven waltzes and an epilogue, Ravel said, “The title Valses nobles et sentimentales sufficiently indicates my intention of composing a series of waltzes in imitation of Schubert.” This magical work of exquisite coloration and irresistible rhythms is prefixed by a quote from Henri de Régnier: “Le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile” (The delightful and always novel pleasure of a useless occupation). The Valses were subsequently orchestrated by Ravel, and were choreographed as a ballet entitled Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs.
There have been those who have suggested that Satie’s Trois Valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté (Three Distinguished Waltzes of a Jaded Dandy) were written as a gentle humorous response to the event at the SMI. It has been further suggested that the dandy of the title is a parody of Ravel himself, who was known for his elegance of dress and manner. On his tour of America in 1927, he is reputed to have taken along 50 shirts. Equally possible however, is that the dandy of the title is Satie’s own mocking self-parody. At one time he was the owner of a dozen identical velvet suits, bought with an inheritance, and was dubbed “The Velvet Gentleman.” Satie, however, was no model of elegance. His dress and demeanor were quirky and deliberately eccentric. He did wear a monocle, which is the subject of the second waltz, Son Binocle. There is a surrealistic verbal commentary written into the score, a kind of absurdist poetry, which goes along deliciously with the music. Each waltz is also prefaced by quotes from Cicero, La Bruyère, and Cato. These waltzes are jewels of sophisticated humor and charm.
Jeux d’eau, (The Fountain), is a striking example of Ravel’s youthful aesthetics, luxurious, sensual and evocative. The title is an allusion to Liszt’s Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este, 1883. Both compositions are virtuosic, and exploit the range of the piano. Ravel prefaces his work again with a quotation from the poet Henri de Régnier: “Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille” (River God laughing at the water which tickles him). Ravel himself described it as “inspired by the bubbling of water and the musical sounds of fountains, waterfalls and brooks.” It is dedicated to his “beloved master Gabriel Fauré.”
The spare and hypnotic Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes form a great contrast to Ravel’s work. The titles refer to the Greece of Antiquity. A gymnopédie describes an ancient festival where naked boys danced in honor of fallen warriors. Satie claimed that his inspiration for these pieces came from his reading of Flaubert’s Salammbô, a tale of ancient Carthage.
The title Gnossiennes, refers to the palace of Minos at Knossos. Both of these works also reflect Satie’s fascination with gothic and medieval subjects, with their allusion to Gregorian plainsong, and mystical atmosphere. In the Gnossiennes, there are also hints of Eastern and Slavic flavors. This could be attributed to the impact that the Exposition universelle of 1889 had on French musicians, who were exposed at that landmark event to exotic musical styles from around the world. These pieces are composed in sets of threes, and reflect Satie’s preoccupation with the Trinity. Satie described his method of composition thus: “Before I compose a piece, I walk around it several times accompanied by myself.”
Alborada del gracioso translates as “morning dance of the jester”—”alborada” being the opposite of “serenata,” or evening dance. The energetic, joyful and wildly colorful images of Spain illuminate this work, replete with virtuosic guitar plucking and strumming, flamenco inspired song and incisive rhythms. This work belongs to the collection entitled Miroirs, which Ravel wrote in 1904-5. Ravel’s fascination with Spain was a natural outcome of his Basque heritage. His mother was of Basque origin, and his relationship with her was the deepest emotional tie of his life. Through her he absorbed the language, the folklore and the melodies of Spain.
The Five Nocturnes are Satie’s last work for piano. They are sweet and pure melodic musings. Tender melodies over a rolling accompaniment are embellished with Chopinesque figurations. After the jokes and the surrealism, Satie, at the end of his life returned to simplicity.
© Francine Kay