Books: Cultural Amnesia — Erik Satie |
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Erik-Alfred-Leslie Satie (1866–1925) was the eternal figure of the brilliant young French composer in rebellion against everything at once: the social order, bourgeois gentility, even music itself. Wagner had opened the way for Debussy, but for Satie Wagner was an oppressor, simply because he had become accepted. Satie successfully made it his mission to save Debussy from Wagner’s influence. With his goatee, pince-nez worn askew, and pumiced fingers—he had a Howard Hughes–like obsession about clean hands—Satie was the kind of eccentric who unites normal men by making them feel protective. Debussy and Ravel, never generous to each other, were both generous to him. Whatever was orthodox, Satie hated: his ballets were not like ballets, his lyric dramas were not dramatic, his chamber pieces were designed to make the chamber uncomfortable. Dropping out from the Paris Conservatoire after a single term, he started his career as a piano player in the cabarets of Montmartre, but as a composer he soon lost any wish to appeal to a wider audience. On the contrary, his aim was to trim the audience down to a select few, and perhaps to zero, by making his programme notes and general presentation as off-putting as possible. When he published his first set of piano pieces he called it opus 62. After living in poverty he went back to school at the Schola Cantorum, but took care to hide the seriousness of his subsequent compositions with suitably demented titles: Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear was typical. Some of his fellow composers were not fooled: Darius Milhaud and the rest of Les Six all kept tabs on what he was up to, the impressionism of his Sarabandes and Gymnopédies anticipated Debussy and Ravel, and his determination to get the emphasis away from harmonic lushness and back on to a spare melodic line went on influencing music in France after his death. Today’s admirers of advanced music who find even John Cage an historical figure, and think that there must be unexplored paths of development beyond his pieces for “prepared” pianos, deliberate passages of silence, etc., might care to study Satie’s brief but frenziedly original career, in which they will find everything they could desire except electronic effects. Satie was too early for those, although he was in time for the telephone, which he incorporated into the orchestra for Parade, the 1917 Diaghilev ballet that unleashed Satie, Cocteau and Picasso on the public all at once, setting standards of innovation that have been hankered after in vain ever since: to get an effect like that, you don’t just need all those people, you need the war they were ignoring. In the score of Parade, Satie’s instrumentation was competing with the western front. Finally, however, Satie’s lyrical talent was victorious over every nonsensical idea that he could throw at it. A quarter of a century after his death, his piano pieces were rediscovered, joined the standard repertory, and became so popular—really popular, Chopin popular, Rachmaninoff popular—that they might have been mistaken, by him, for the kind of sonic wallpaper he so despised. Satie would have had something to say about that: his killing wit never failed him, especially at inappropriate moments. Students of Dada from Tristan Tzara through to Yoko Ono sometimes yearn for jokes with genuine laughs. Satie’s jokes were really funny, probably because he was really gifted. The grand gesture of throwing it all away depends for its effect on having something to throw.

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Ravel refuses the Legion d’Honneur but all his music accepts it.

AND RAVEL WAS one of his friends. At the height of his productive period that stretched from the teens of the twentieth century until the early 1920s, Erik Satie would throw his completed compositions behind the piano, either trusting the important ones to emerge from the mulch by themselves, or just not caring. The composer important enough to influence both Ravel and Debussy had no regard for his own dignity. He was ready to insult even himself. In our time, Barry Humphries is a Satie figure, but one who is glad to incorporate the conventional life even while making war against it: one of the secrets of his creative longevity. Satie incorporated the war. Self-destruction was the surest sign of his rebellion. Among the tanning factories and market gardens of Arcueil, Satie looked up to no-one except the phantom Madonna he called Notre-dame Bassesse: Our Lady Lowness. Like Baron Corvo (real name: Frederick Rolfe), Satie would sign his name as a bishop, but just for the gag. Unlike Baron Corvo he had no hankerings to be Pope. All the facts are in Myers’s book, but many of them—according to Robert Orledge, our best qualified scholar of that effervescent period in French music—were lifted with insufficient acknowledgement from an earlier book of the same title by Pierre-Daniel Templier. Satie would probably have approved of the misappropriation. In every department except his compositions, even in their performance, he was out to sow the seeds of anarchy.

Lydia Sokolova in her memoir of the Russian ballet records the meeting of Satie and Cocteau for Parade: the conjunction of two hierarchs in the minor but vital French tradition of taking frivolity with uncompromising seriousness. For Satie, however, there was no hierarchy: his superiority was unassailable. “Those who are unable to understand are required by me to adopt an attitude of complete submission and inferiority.” He said it before the premiere of Socrate, and the “by me” tells you everything. This confidence in the importance of his mereness—the melody unadorned, stripped even of harmony—remains the most shocking thing about him, though the confidence was justified. Today his music is a case of once heard, never forgotten. But he was determined to be forgotten first, and succeeded. His written directions to the performance of his pieces (“Play like a nightingale with toothache”) were designed to help them go out of date. He knew that nothing takes on verdigris faster than a determined novelty. By a trick of coincidence—surely it was not a planned echo—Ring Lardner exactly reproduced the cracked tone of Satie’s surreal annotations in the stage directions of his, Lardner’s, little plays: “The curtain descends for seven days to denote the passing of a week.” In that regard Satie, like Lardner in the same mood, was out to make nothing but mischief. Edmund Wilson hated it when Lardner called a book of short stories How to Write Short Stories. Why put up barriers of nonsense? In Satie’s case, it was probably a dread of having so transparent a secret penetrated by the solemn. Nobody unqualified to open the casket should clap eyes on its contents of water-drop jewellery. Here the precursor of Dada outflanked the whole movement, because the Dadaists had no secret: the protection was all there was. Satie’s defences marked the route to treasure. No writer who has heard and loved Satie’s piano pieces (they came back in a big way only in the early 1960s) will be proof against the urge to strip from prose everything except its melody, as if, in the necessary interplay of word and thought, there could be a purely lyrical essence. There can’t. But in music Satie made a vivid reality out of the hopeless ideal of a central, primal thread. He makes babies of us, except if we are distracted by his words, in which case we do not qualify.