Liner Notes / Eve Egoyan: ‘Hidden Corners (Recoins)’
Professor Robert Orledge
Erik Satie (1866-1925) remains one of the most bizarre and fascinating composers in the history of modern music. Indeed, he did much to shape its course through his influence on the composers of Les Six, and later John Cage, who declared in 1958: “It’s not just a question of Satie’s relevance. He’s indispensable.” Like Fauré, Satie’s music shows constant renewal within an apparently limited textural range, and he also refined his musical expression to its bare essentials in later life by giving it greater contrapuntal strength. But there the similarity ends, because Satie remained a left-wing iconoclast throughout. He entirely rejected the nineteenth-century concepts of Romantic expressiveness and thematic development, being the first to repudiate Wagner’s consuming influence on French music. He by-passed “impressionism” and the beguiling orchestral sonorities of Debussy and Ravel, and his art derived more from painters (especially the Cubists) than from other composers.
First and foremost, Satie was a man of ideas, a precursor of total chromaticism (virtually serialism) and minimalism (in Vexations of 1893), the prepared piano (in Le Piège de Méduse in 1913), neo-classicism (in his Sonatine bureaucratique of 1917), and even muzak (in his Musique d’ameublement of 1917-23). Simultaneously he pursued his uncompromising inner path towards simplicity, restraint, brevity and clarity in a way that was essentially French, or, in Satie’s case, Parisian. He remained true to the compositional aesthetic that he notated in 1917, and in essence his art, like Debussy’s, derived from melody, though in Satie’s case this had to remain in direct contact with its popular roots. “Do not forget”, he advised, “that the melody is the Idea, the outline; as much as it is the form and the subject matter of a work. The harmony is an illumination, an exhibition of the object, its reflection... One cannot criticise the craft of an artist as if it constituted a system. If there is form and a new style of writing, there is a new craft.” And in his piano works, mostly assembled from series of motifs (“Ideas”) in jigsaw-puzzle fashion, Satie demonstrated how this could be achieved.
Whereas Satie’s career divides into two main periods (before and after his move to the Parisian suburb of Arcueil in 1898), and his public persona into three (the bohemian dandy in Montmartre, the “velvet gentleman” from 1895 to 1905, and the dapper bourgeois functionary thereafter), his piano music divides into at least six, most of which are represented on this imaginatively programmed CD. First came the salon music written before he left the family home in the Boulevard de Magenta in late 1887. In the Valse-ballet of 1885-86, we can see affinities with the four-square domestic compositions of his father Alfred and his step-mother Eugénie, from whom he learned how to make a little material go a long way. The inflated opus number (“62”) was almost certainly a joke at Eugénie’s expense, for she simply drew from a stockpile of earlier compositions and re-published them with a new opus number whenever an opportunity arose. But the process had the added benefit of making Satie look more experienced and prolific than he really was.
Second came a period of harmonic experimentation (1887-90) in which Satie drew his inspiration from the medieval past. This resulted in the four Ogives (c1888) which each take a plainchant-type melody and repeat it three times with different accompaniment textures on an A - A1 - A2 - A1 basis. The Ogives are ametrical, modally ambiguous, and as the main variable element is the length of their two mirroring phrases, their form might be said to be ‘chronometric... a function of time and duration’, as Alan Gillmor has observed.
Then follows the strange Rose+Croix period (1891-95) with its systematised chord progressions and juxtaposed harmonic cells, followed by a period of searching for a new direction (1897-1912), during which Satie returned to study counterpoint and the craft of composition at the Schola Cantorum under Roussel and Vincent d’Indy. Back in 1897, Satie had experimented briefly with greater rhythmic and textural flexibility, and the Danses de travers offer another early example of minimalism in which all three slow, quiet dances share the same rhythm, texture and melodic shapes, and are not easy to tell apart. Possibly Satie had the arpeggiated textures of Schumann or Fauré in mind here, but in any event, this promising development was cut short by his move to Arcueil in 1898 and he rather turned to the cultivation of the cabaret song (as a source of income). The Petite ouverture à danser is in fact another in a series of Gnossiennes, whose strange, undulating melodies were inspired by the Romanian folk music Satie heard at the Exposition universelle in 1889. In this case, the title, barlines, and dynamics were added by Robert Caby when he edited Satie’s manuscript for publication in 1968.
Le Piccadilly belongs to the ‘popular’ music of this fourth period and is an early example of a ragtime march, part of which may have been modelled on the chorus of Howard and Emerson’s “Hello! Ma Baby”, a “hit” tune of 1899. In a quite different vein come the offshoots of Satie’s Schola Cantorum work, the Deux choses and Profondeur of c1909. The former are characterised by their more linear approach and unexpected chromatic diversions, while the subtitles of Profondeur (essentially a minuet exercise) show his growing fondness for strange and alluring titles.
This trait came into prominence in Satie’s “humoristic” piano sets of 1912-15, his fifth period, which arose after his rediscovery as a “precursor” of the harmonic effects of “impressionism” (chains of parallel sevenths and ninths). This was initiated by Ravel’s performance of the 2e Sarabande of 1887 at a Société Musicale Indépendante concert on 16 January 1911, which resulted in the publication of Satie’s early Sarabandes and Gymnopédies by Rouart-Lerolle in 1911-12. However, what Satie really wanted was acknowledgement of his latest works, and the publicity generated by his rediscovery proved sufficient for Eugène Demets to publish his Véritables préludes flasques (pour un chien) in August 1912, after they had been ignominiously rejected by Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand. They proved popular, enjoying several editions, and this led to a sudden demand for intriguing new pieces that Satie struggled to fulfil. The delightful Descriptions automatiques was the first triptych to emerge in April 1913, and later that summer Satie wrote several sets of Enfantines (including Menus propos enfantins) as he had always loved children and the young, and wanted to provide music that would make piano lessons a pleasure. All these pieces are accompanied by stories or comments to amuse the performer, a textual process that dated back to the three Gnossiennes of 1890.
This process reached its artistic zenith in the twenty-one Sports et divertissements of 1914, a miniature Gesamtkunstwerk of immaculately calligraphed musical cameos, accompanied by original prose poems and humorous, Cubist-influenced drawings by Charles Martin. Satie forbade his texts to be read aloud and their ideal performance would be one in which scores, texts and drawings would be projected onto a screen during performance. Lastly in this prolific period of over sixty varied piano pieces come the Avant-dernières pensées (originally Etranges rumeurs) which were his individual “observations” of his contemporaries: Debussy (his closest friend), Dukas (who often helped him financially), and Roussel (who taught him the art of counterpoint). In Satie’s sketches, the first two pieces bear subtitles: Debussy’s Idylle, with its continuous four-note bass ostinato, represents “A poet who loves nature, and says so”; whilst in Dukas’s Aubade, he had in mind “A fiancé beneath the balcony of his fiancée”, thus making it a guitar-strumming serenade. The poet in Méditation, “shut away in his old tower... on whom genius gazes with an evil eye: a glass eye”, is undoubtedly Satie himself, despite the dedication to Roussel. San Bernardo (2 August 1913), here in its first ever recorded performance, is a first version of Españaña, the last of the Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois, which the present writer has reconstructed from Satie’s sketchbooks in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (like the 6e Nocturne below).
In 1918?20, before his final ballets, Satie’s music adopted a more serious tone, perhaps as a reflection of the horrors of the First World War. Beginning with his masterpiece, the symphonic drama Socrate, Satie extended this approach into his six sparsely-textured Nocturnes of 1919. The first three were conceived as a set in D major, which Satie told Valentine Hugo were “not at all bad...The first serves as a prelude; the second is shorter and very tender--very nocturnal; the third, yours, is a more rapid and dramatic nocturne. Between the three of them they form a whole with which I am very pleased.” To these Satie added the sensuous 4e Nocturne with its parallel fifths, the more austere 5e Nocturne in F, and the Sixth, with its sonorous, Brahmsian bass octaves and its masterly return to the home key of the whole cycle on its very last chord.
Professor Robert Orledge
University of Liverpool
6 August 2002