Satie Remembered

The following book review by Jeffrey Chappell appeared in Piano & Keyboard Magazine, May/June 1996.

The sacred clown is a sociological phenomenon found in many cultures. The Native American type wears costume and paint, acting out exaggerated parodies of social conventions. Zen masters are famous for making irreverent, contradictory responses to profound questions. In Shakespeare’s plays, the Fool relentlessly plays with words and the limits of civility. These wise men don’t give straight messages. Through mockery, staged antics, and unexpected inversions, they force people to solve a puzzle that will enlighten.

Erik Satie was one who operated in the same paradoxical fashion. He wanted music to be pure and direct, both sonically and aesthetically (think of his Gymnopedies). Yet his persona was so calculated that people sometimes weren’t sure whether he or his music were being serious. Robert Orledge’s “Satie Remembered”, a collection of eyewitness accounts by his contemporaries, demonstrates this in an intriguing and entertaining manner.

“The laziest student in the Conservatoire,” according to his piano teacher Descombes, became one of the most respected composers of his time, forming influential relationships with Debussy, Ravel, and numerous young musicians. He gave us the concepts of performance art, prepared piano, minimalism, dodecaphony, and neo-classicism, presaging numerous 20th-century artistic developments. Satie wrote music that he called “musique d’ameublement” (furniture music), and insisted that it not be listened to. These days, we find background music virtually everywhere.

This same man was found lying face-down by the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde during a 1918 bombing because “I’m composing a piece of music for the obelisk.” He ceremoniously said farewell to a drinking partner before they sat down together at a cafe because there wouldn’t be time to do it when his train arrived. He once called the sun “a pig. If only my legs were long enough to give him a good kick in the eye!”, but he would hug a tree because “he at least has never harmed anyone.” About the movement of Debussy’s “La Mer” called “from dawn to midday on the sea” he said, “There’s one particular moment between half past ten and quarter to eleven that I found stunning!” He would contradict people just to provoke them, and once was removed by police escort from a concert for beating a critic with his cane.

Portrayed by his brother Conrad as “a man of transcendent idealism,” Satie chose to live alone in impoverished purity, spending his last twenty-seven years in a minuscule one-room apartment in the Paris suburbs with a piano that he never played. A Christian mystic, he became the official composer of the Rosicrucian Order. He even established his own “Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus Leader of the People”, with himself as the only member and office-holder. “To prefer oneself to one’s art is an error,” he said. “You must serve it with self-denial.”

Satie created whole situations just for amusement.

But his art was curious, ironic, enigmatic. Sometimes its simplicity created a static effect that nullified expectations. Many believed his “Socrate” to be a huge joke; he said that in it he wanted to achieve “originality through platitude.” Titles of works such as “Second-to-last thoughts” and “Three pieces in the form of a pear”, and written comments in compositions such as “while watching oneself approach” and “go on till you faint” seem only to be verbal sporting. So does the title of his magazine article, “Memoirs of an Amnesiac”.

Satie created whole situations just for amusement. On one occasion, Satie called upon the director of the Paris Opera without an appointment to demand that one of his scores be considered for performance, fully expecting rejection. As he hoped, he was turned away by the director’s secretary, which provided the pretext to write a series of hostile letters, culminating with a challenge to a duel. When a meeting finally took place, Satie lectured the director about artistic integrity.

“Satie Remembered” joins the excellent “…Remembered” series, which includes Ravel, Debussy, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Purcell. Roger Nichols, author of “Debussy Remembered” and “Ravel Remembered”, is credited with the French translations. In fact, some material is repeated between these books, occasionally with revised translation. Orledge has done a superb job of organizing the testimonials, and he provides a reference chronology of Satie’s life and works, a biographical sketch of each anecdotalist, and photographs of Satie and his residences. What detracts from the presentation is the remarkably small print size, which is even smaller for the footnotes.

“Satie Remembered” can also be redundant, as though Orledge wanted to represent as many available sources as possible, but there are some interesting little inconsistencies from one witness to the next (was it seven or was it six identical corduroy velvet suits that he owned?). Many of the writers are well-known only in France, and although Stravinsky takes a turn, it would be nice to know what Faure, Debussy, and Ravel thought of Satie. Faure apparently didn’t mention Satie in his writings. Debussy and Satie got together twice a week and spent hours in conversation, but Debussy didn’t write about it.

Ravel did, however, speak about Satie at length in a lecture delivered at Rice University in 1928, which Orledge does not include in this book. Part of what he said was: “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, and while he himself may perhaps never have wrought out of his own discoveries a single complete work of art, nevertheless we have today many such works which might not have come into existence if Satie had never lived.” But in a Dutch newspaper interview in 1922, he said: “Satie exerts an intellectual influence, but he isn’t perfectly sincere. The most important quality for a composer is sincerity.”