Reexamining Erik Satie: Forerunner to the Future of 20th Century Music

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go,” is one of the most famous lines from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Derangement amongst the most greatest of thinkers certainly has not been overlooked. The world of music presented itself with many examples of odd notoriety, but no composer received such harsh scrutiny as Erik Satie. Composer biographer, James Harding, states:

Satie in his time was, except for a small band of loyal admirers, an obscure and ridiculed musician. Today, when the astringent nature of his music is recognized by an age which can appreciate its modernity and its refusal to strike romantic poses, he has become a cult figure. No other minor composer is the object of so many picturesque legends. (1975, p. xi)

These ‘picturesque legends’ run rampant amongst the critics. This most eccentric composer from the Contemporary period got himself ostracized from the army with self-induced bronchitis by standing outside, naked, in mid-winter. His odd superstitions kept him from washing himself with soap. A “fetishist compulsion” for umbrellas left him with over two hundred found in his apartment after his death (Dearling, 1986, p. 19). The same is often said about his vast collection of identical gray velvet suits, and handkerchiefs (Fogwall, 1996). His religious convictions and propensity for the mystical led him to form his own church. “It had one member: himself” (Harding, 1975, xi). Pierre-Daniel Templier makes a striking reference in his biography of Satie (1969).

When you first start listening to him, all he says seems utterly grotesque. You catch glimpses of his thoughts only through a cloud of vulgar words and expressions, which clothe him like the skin of an impertinent satyr. He speaks only of armor-plated donkeys, of blacksmiths, of shoemakers, of curriers; and he seems always to be repeating the same thing in different words, so that ignorant men are tempted to laugh at him. But take the trouble to unfold his words, penetrate their inner meaning; then you will come to believe that they alone have meaning- you will find them all to be divine, containing the most noble images of virtue and encompassing almost everything that one must have before his eyes if he wishes to become an accomplished man. (p.55)

Templier puts it best when he states: “These words are about Satie’s “Socrate,” but they could well apply to Satie himself” (1969, p.55) Grotesque and provoking titles of his works such as “Dried up Embryos,” “Genuinely Flabby Preludes for a dog,” or “Memories of an Amnesiac” would send the critics of his day into fits of rage.

Many critics were long ago antagonized by his witty titles and eccentricity; and they negated his music without knowing it� Others claimed that Satie, ignorant of the fundamentals of music, had as a shrewd Norman exploited the rich possibilities of humor to mask his technical inadequacies. We must not forget that Satie was certainly the most insulted of musicians during the whole of his long artistic existence. He was obliged to develop great courage in the face of his systematic malevolence and the sneers directed at him. His evident talent was despised, his sincerity questioned, his intentions misinterpreted; he was constantly criticized for his ignorance, his dilettantism. Only foreign musicians did not levy these charges against him, because they judged him by his works alone. (Templier, 1969, pp.114-15)

Another interesting element to note about Satie is his use of commentary that accompanies his scores. Watkins explains that a provoking footnote attached to his Heures sÃ?©cularies & instantanÃ?©es (1914) states, “I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the performance. Ignorance of my instructions will bring my righteous indignation against the audacious culprit” (1988, p.259). Watkins also explains “the witticisms that pepper Satie’s score are not only in keeping with the announced antimonumentality of the pieces they accompany but suggest not so much a joke as the intention of the artist to deflate the whole business before the listener draws the wrong conclusions from a hearing without score” (1988, p.260). It is ironic that Satie often added prefatory disclaimers to the beginning of his works diminishing their importance. Upon reexamination we find that Satie foreshadowed Impressionism, Surrealism, Neoclassicism, prepared piano, minimalism, synchronized film score, and even Muzak.

One of the most renowned Satie biographers, Robert Orledge, explains that it was Debussy who first christened Satie as ‘the precursor’ (1995, p.141).

He pursued his isolated path with great moral courage and found a consistent road towards the future only after he left the Schola Cantorum in 1912. First and foremost, he was a man of ideas who questioned every aspect of inherited nineteenth-century tradition and reflected its concepts of Romantic expressiveness and thematic development. He was the first to challenge Wagner’s pervasive influence on French music and he also bypassed Impressionism and the beguiling orchestral sonorities of Debussy and Ravel without regret. (1995, p.141)

Watkins explains “in the 1880’s and 1890’s, Satie had designated himself as the first musical Impressionist, purportedly basing his techniques directly on the work of contemporary French painters such as Monet, CÃ?©zanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec” (1988, p. 69). It is with this explanation that we receive the notorious quote that “we (French) needed a music of our own- preferably without the sauerkraut” (1988, p. 70). From a pianistic standpoint John Gillespie explains:
In 1887 he wrote three Sarabandes, whose suave chromatic harmonies create a distinctively melancholy air. It must be admitted that certain stylistic traits in these works could be interpreted as forerunners of Impressionism. This also applies to the three GymnopÃ?©dies (1888) and the three Gnossiennes (1890), in which the harmonies become simpler and a feeling of modality prevailsâÂ?¦In contrast to Debussy’s predominantly harmonic approach, Satie’s series of parallel chords- sevenths, ninths, and elevenths- are habitually dependent on delicately designed melodic patterns. (1965, pp. 366-67)

Although Debussy’s music is claimed to be based on a harmonic approach, a closer examination might reveal more influence of Satie than one would like to admit. In “A History of Keyboard Literature,” Stewart Gordon declares:
Between the Minuet and the Passapied (of Suite Bergamasque) is the most famous piece Debussy ever wrote, “Clair de lune,” a fine work remarkably like Debussy’s mature style. The sensitive, diaphanous texture of the opening theme; the coloristic, parallel motion of the following transition section; the altered dominant harmony of the middle-section theme that suggests modality; these are among the wonderful touches that give the piece a distinctive expressiveness and make its popular appeal understandable. (1996, p. 364)

It is ironic to note that Debussy himself did not even like the term ‘Impressionism’ and even went so far as to write a letter to his publishers in 1908 complaining that “use of the term is poor in general and suggested that only imbeciles use it in reference to his music” (Gordon, 1996, p. 361). However, Watkins explains that:

Debussy, who was eager to leave the world of Wagner behind, took the bait and quickly outstripped Satie’s original offerings. Satie, all too keenly aware of this following the highly successful premiere of PellÃ?©as in 1902, abandoned ship, expressing no future interest in such an idiom. “There is nothing more to do in this direction,” he remarked. “I’ll have to look for something else or I am lost.” (1988, pp. 71-72)

Satie’s new direction would lead him to Cocteau, Les Six, and Parade, in which Watkins so simply, yet prolifically states “enemy lines were drawn” (1988, p. 260). This joint venture presented a combination of:
âÂ?¦ingredients of Marinetti’s variety theater (speed, instinct, surprise, practicality, and all other aspects of modern urban life); of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (carnival; the show within a show); of the esprit nouveau of ApollinaireâÂ?¦Picasso’s “surrealist” curtain and “cubist” costumes; and a hint of Futurist noisemaking, Parade was the perfect vehicle for antagonizing an audience and demonstrating its eternal incomprehension. Hardly of a piece, there was enough to offend everybody. (p. 263)

It is within a program note for the first performance of this controversial piece, written by Appolinaire, that we first see the term “surrealism” coined. (p.263) Watkins further explains that the term was “initially codified by the poet AndrÃ?© Breton in his Manifeste du surrÃ?©alisme of 1924” (p. 272).

Drawn to the “automatic writing” techniques of the Dadaists, they were intrigued with the world of dreams and fantasies and decried the concepts of coherence, reason, and logic in art. As a substitute they forwarded the possibility of a new reality- marvelous and heightened in what they called “surrealism”âÂ?¦and in Breton’s definition of Surrealism, given here, we have a base clearly prefigured by Satie’s Descriptions automatiques (1913). (p. 272)

Satie’s Surrealist influence is most notably seen in the joint venture of Cocteau and the group of 6 composers known as ‘Les Six’ with “Les MariÃ?©s de la Tour Eiffel” (p. 269). Watkins states that “Cocteau had become their spokesman in his Le coq et l’arlequin and Satie their spiritual leader” (p.269). I am sure Satie held his head high at the sight of two actors costumed as phonographs delivering commentary. It was the jumbled spectacle of Parade that influenced this path of twentieth-century music. However, Watkins explains that although “Satie’s score was a charming, though reasonably tame, example of his earlier style- compatible with the purposes at hand, but on the surface incapable of being judged a revolutionary step forward” (p.265).

It is ironic that critics argue as to the whether or not Parade can be considered a “revolutionary step forward” when Satie’s aim was to take a step back. In that same program note where Appolinaire “invoked” the term “surrealisme,” he also used the term “l’esprit nouveau” or ‘the new spirit’ “to describe the whole artistic feel of the ballet” (Rowley, 1995).
Neoclassicism in music is defined as “a movement in music lasting roughly from 1915 to 1940 that sought to avoid subjective emotionalism and to return to the style of the pre-Romantic composers” (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Rowley explains “Erik Satie’s view was stated very plainly in a lecture he gave in 1921, and can be seen as a summation of one aspect, at least, of the then-new neoclassical movement in music: ‘For me,’ he said, ‘the New Spirit is above all a return to classical form – with modern sensibility'” (1995). One might have a hard time distinguishing the neoclassic elements in the music of Erik Satie. However, Rowley further explains:

In the words of Rollo Myers, ‘there was a plethora of “pastiches” of Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart which lacked all the qualities which distinguish those composers from the rabble of their contemporaries, and only served to show the poverty of invention of those who perpetrated them.’ A single glance, however, at the work of Igor Stravinsky, the major composer in the style, will show that the boundaries of the movement extended much further than mere pastiche, or even the eighteenth century. The music of Stravinsky’s ‘neoclassical’ period, which lasted from about 1920 to about 1951, takes its inspiration from a variety of sources, both musical and literary. Mozart masses, jazz, ancient Greek legends, Tchaikovsky, Pergolesi and Pushkin all left their mark on Stravinsky’s neoclassical music. This shows that neoclassicism is well and truly about more than simply putting the music of the eighteenth century to work again in the twentieth. The spirit of the movement lies more in an ‘historical awareness’; in a reinterpretation of musically historical ideas, and it is this wider sense of the term neoclassicism that I have used in examining the form of Erik Satie’s music. (1995)

Other examples of neoclassic elements or “reinterpreted musically historical ideas” include the use of cantus firmus in Vexations, numerological references to the ‘Golden Section proportions’ during his Rosicrucian period, historical importance of the number three (holy trinity) in most of his works, and the obvious neoclassic elements contained in the Trois GymnopÃ?©dies. Rowley explains:

There are obvious elements of the Gymnop�©dies which recall the music of earlier eras: the use of church modes, the extreme simplicity of both melody and accompaniment, with all emphasis on the melody, and the return to a generally much simpler harmony than was being used by his contemporaries. However, it is the form of these three short piano pieces which reveals them as being truly neoclassical. (1995)

Cocteau (as cited by Watkins) announced “Satie’s example was deemed to consist primarily of a “return to simplicity,” a “grace without pedals,” a “metronomic unity,” and the pursuit of “his little classic path” (Watkins, 1988, p. 267).
There were several movements in music in which Satie was not alive to see his influence. His La PiÃ?©ge de Meduse (1913), a one-act lyrical fantasy or joke, is one of the first examples of prepared piano. Fogwall explains “at the play’s premiere Satie put pieces of paper between the piano strings in order to obtain a mechanical effect” (1996, Music Samples). Who knew that years after his death composers, such as Henry Cowell and John Cage would be expanding this idea into experiments involving nuts, bolts, rubber, tacks, and glass rods?

The next ‘ism’ in which Satie’s influence can be seen is that of minimalism. Stolba defines minimalism as “the style of music that is characterized by the repetition of short figures, tonal harmony, slow harmonic rhythm, and more or less regular pulsation. A minimal amount of musical material is used, but the composition may be quite long” (1998, p. 653). Although La Monte Young is considered to be the founder of minimalism, this definition could be the preface to Vexations (1893). Rowley again explains “works by Satie such as the Ogives (1886) and the enormous Vexations (1893) have sometimes been hailed as radical forerunners of the late twentieth-century movement of minimalism because of their use of repetition as the sole means of progression, instead of traditional Western development” (“Satie and Minimalism”). Although it is easy to feel as if once again Satie is not receiving credit for his innovations, Rowley further explains:
Certain minimal composers, such as Gavin Bryars and Howard Skempton, have openly acknowledged the importance of a knowledge of Satie’s music on the development of their own styles; but the fact that Satie is not a commonly-cited source of the style outside of Britain, while not ruling out the possibility of such an influence, does pose questions of how composers separated by nearly a century’s-worth of music can come up with such (relatively – allowing for technological advances, in particular) similar solutions to musical problems. (“Satie and minimalism”)

Satie’s influences on the aleatoric film score and Muzak go hand in hand. The idea of musique d’ameublement or Furnishing Music was born out of necessity. The painter Fernand LÃ?©ger would often accompany Satie on his long walks and lunches. Harding explains:

He lunched with Satie and some friends in a restaurant. The music played during meals by the resident orchestra was so noisy that they were obliged to leave. Mused Satie: “There’s a need to create furnishing music, in other words music that would be a part of the surrounding noises and would take them into account. I imagine it to be melodious; softening the clatter of knives and forks without dominating them, without imposing itself. It would fill up the awkward silence that occasionally descends on guestsâÂ?¦It would, he said, “fill a need.” (1975, p.196)

The first performances of this ‘Furnishing Music’ were not so successful. During musique d’ameublement specifically written for the play by Max Jacob, Satie had to yell “Talk, go on talking!” and command “Keep moving, whatever you do, don’t listen!” (p.197). However, his musing would be realized to the hilt with the invention of Muzak. Harding further describes Musak:

In the USA children are born to it, cats and dogs are neutered to it, people are buried to it, and astronauts conquered the moon to itâÂ?¦Muzak has been called “sound you inhaleâÂ?¦” Muzak is like air-conditioning, like a colour scheme. It emphasizes, claim its promoters, the quality of good food and surroundings. It banishes, they observe echoing Satie, those heavy pauses that arise in the most congenial of company. (p.198)

Satie applied this same principle in his score for RenÃ?© Clair’s film Entr’acte (p.198). Orledge explains that “in CinÃ?©ma, Satie discovered the ideal medium for his technique of composing in short juxtaposed contrasting motifsâÂ?¦Here it was the non-realistic musical equivalent of a film cutting from image to image that was revolutionary” (1990, p.240). This “brilliant score, which seems to have no independent life of its own, is as inseparable from its filmâÂ?¦” (p.243). It is impossible to imagine a film today without a musical score to influence one’s emotions. This is yet another contribution of the most misunderstood Erik Satie.

Maxime Jacob, a Satie follower, (as cited by Templier) is once quoted as saying, “To know him, one had to see him without his glasses. Even then, the irony would remain; but let it disappear for a moment and you would receive the caress of those gentle, nearsighted eyes in whose light appeared at last the real Satie” (1969, pp.55-56). Although the world musical criticism was quick to judge Erik Satie, Templier states that Erik Satie is a “unique phenomenon.” He further explains:
Some have called him the greatest musician of all time; his enemies, or the “pawns,” as he called them in his deep voice, in turn called him a buffoonâÂ?¦There is also his exemplary life, the thirty years of solitary meditation, his great integrity and his modesty, and his submissiveness to music, all of which made of Satie a rare and pure figure. (1969, pp.113-114)

Despite the harsh criticism Erik Satie received, it is hard to deny his influence on Impressionism, Surrealism, Neoclassicism, prepared piano, Minimalism, synchronized film score, and even Muzak.

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