Erik Satie (1866-1925)

For some people, Erik Satie is known as an eccentric who gave his works odd titles that seem almost derisive and ridiculous: Chilled Pieces, Drivelling Preludes (for a Dog), Dried up Embryos ...
Many believe that this was not only a result of his bizarre wit but also a way of offending the music critics at the time. It was known that Satie didn't like music critics and that the feelings were mutual.

Satie was also a collector. Once someone asked him what he wished for birthday present. He replied - I saw this beautiful handkerchief the other day.... After his death they found in his wardrobe 84 identical handkerchieves, besides 12 identical velvet costumes and dozens of umbrellas.

Satie was considered as an outsider, a lone wolf with projects of his known. For example he founded his own church. As a result he valued his privacy very high and never let anyone see his apartment in Arceuil, where he lived for the last 27 years of his life. He only had one known relationship in his life - an intense love affair in 1893 with the model, painter and former trapeze artiste Suzanne Valadon.

Satie lived as a true artist, for his music and his ideals. He had no respect for money and lived a poor life for many years. He was never afraid expressing his true opinion. If he found someone to be a jerk he made this perfectly clear (and took the consequences).

His music

Even though Satie was a fascinating person in many ways, it is his music that is the major reason for his popularity. He was very creative and had great influence on his colleagues Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc. Because his music was ahead of his time and regarded as timeless, he also has great influence on many modern composers.

Satie was a forerunner to minimalism. He experimented with what he called furniture music, to be in the background, not to listen to. He composed music to be listened at different angles, similar pieces divided into several parts. Many of his compositions have influences from medieval music and from French composers.

His most famous works are the serene Gymnopédies (three similar piano pieces), the mystical Vexations (short piano piece repeated 840 times), the popular piano suite Trois Morceaux en forme de Poire (duet), the ballet Parade (with some very odd instruments) and the ballet Relâche (with film sequences included).

His music was rather unknown and underrated until the 1960s. His popularity has grown ever since.

The true musician (by Erik Satie)

He grows in wisdom...He is brilliant...He learns to do without and is prepared to make great sacrifices...enormous sacrifices... if I may say...His energy is tremendous... In other words he is prepared for the struggle...and with honest he shall fight it... The performance of an Art demands complete self-denial... ...It was not meant as a joke what I just said...about sacrifices... The Music makes heavy demands upon those who want to devote themselves in it...This is what I have wanted you to call your attention to...

A true musician must subordinate himself his Art; ...he must place himself above human suffering; ...he must draw courage from within...and only from within.

What I am (Text by Erik Satie)

Everyone will tell you I am not a musician. That is correct. From the very beginning of my career I classes myself a phonometrographer. My work is completely phonometrical. Take my Fils des Étoiles, or my Morceaux en forme de Poire, my En habit de Cheval or my Sarabandes - it is evident that musical ideas played no part whatsoever in their composition. Science is the dominating factor. Besides, I enjoy measuring a sound much more than hearing it. With my phonometer in my hand, I work happily and with confidence. What haven't I weighted or measured? I've done all Beethoven, all Verdi, etc. It's fascinating.

The first time I used a phonoscope, I examined a B flat of medium size. I can assure you that I have never seen anything so revolting. I called in my man to show it to him. On my phono-scales a common or garden F sharp registered 93 kilos. It came out of a fat tenor whom I also weighted. Do you know how to clean sounds? It's a filthy business. Stretching them out is cleaner; indexing them is a meticulous task and needs good eyesight. Here, we are in the realm of pyrophony.

To write my Pièces Froides, I used a caleidophone recorder. It took seven minutes. I called in my man to let him hear them. I think I can say that phonology is superior to music. There's more variety in it. The financial return is greater, too. I owe my fortune to it. At all events, with a motodynamophone, even a rather inexperienced phonometrologist can easily note down more sounds that the most skilled musician in the same time, using the same amount of effort. This is how I have been able to write so much. And so the future lies with philophony.


I have always had it in mind to write a lyric play on the following specific subject: At that time I was taken up with alchemy. One day I was having a rest, alone in my laboratory. Outside the sky was leaden, livid and sinister - really ghastly! I was feeling sad without knowing why; almost afraid without knowing the cause. Into my head came the idea of amusing myself by counting on my fingers slowly from 1 to 260,000. This I did: and very boring it was. I stood up, took hold of a magic nut and gently placed it in a casket of alpaca bone studded with seven diamonds. Straightaway a stuffed bird took flight; a monkey's skeleton ran off; a sow's skin climbed along the wall. Then night descended, covering up objects, destroying shapes. But someone is knocking on the far door, the one near the Median talismans, the talismans a Polynesian madman sold me.
What is it? Oh god! Do not forsake thy servant. He is indeed a sinner, but is repentant. Have mercy on him, I beseech Thee. Now the door opens, opens, opens like an eye; a silent and shapeless being comes nearer, nearer, nearer. Not a drop of perspiration remains on my quaking skin; moreover I am very thirsty, very thirsty.
In the shadows a voice is heard:
- Sir, I think I have second sight.
I do not recognize this voice. It says:
- Sir, it is I, it is only I.
- Who? comes my terrified reply.
- I, your servant. I think I have a second sight. Did you not just place a magic nut gently in
a casket of alpaca bone studded with seven diamonds?
Suffocated, I can only reply:
- Yes, my friend. How do you know?
He draws near me, a gliding shadow in the darkness of the night. I feel him trembling. He is
probably afraid that I may take a shot at him.
With a sob, like a little child, he murmurs:
- I saw you through the keyhole.

Odd corners of my life

The origins of the Saties probably go back to ancient times. Oh yes... I can't confirm anything on this point - but neither can I unconfirm it. However, I presume that the family was not part of the nobility (nor even the papacy); that its members were good and humble serfs, and that was once an honour and a pleasure (for the serf's overlord, of course). Oh yes... I don't know what the Saties did in the Hundred Years War; nor have I any information on their attitude and the part they played in the Thirty Years War (one of our loviest wars). Let the memory of my ancient ancestors rest in peace. Oh yes... Let us pass on. I shall come back to this subject later.

As for me, I was born in Honfleur (Calvados), in the Pont-l'Evêque district, on 17 May 1866... So that makes me a quinquagenarian, and I might as well be called that as anything else. Honfleur is a small town watered by the poetic waves of the Seine and - in complicity - the tumultous ones of the Channel. Its inhabitants (honfleurais) are very polite and very agreeable. Oh yes...

I remained in that city until I was twelve (1878) and then moved to Paris.... My childhood and adolescence were undistinguished - nothing happened worth recording in serious writings. So I shall say nothing of them. Let us pass on. I shall come back to this subject later.

I'm burning to give you my description here (enumeration of my physical particulars - the ones I can mention decently, that is):... Hair and eyebrowns dark auburn; eyes grey (probably clouded); hair covering forehead; nose long; mouth medium; chin wide; face oval. Height 1 metre 67 centimetres. The description on this document dates from 1887, the time when I did military service in the 33rd Infantry Regiment at Arras (pas-de-Calais). It would not fit me today. I'm sorry I can't give you my digital (finger) prints. Oh yes. I don't have them on me, and these special reproductions are not good to look at (they look like Vuillermoz and Laloy combined). Let us pass on. I shall come back to this subject later.

Following a rather short adolescence, I became an ordinary young man, tolerable but no more. At that moment in my life I began to think and to write music. Oh yes. Wretched idea!... very wretched idea! It certainly was, for I lost no time in developing an unpleasant (original) originality, irrelevant, anti-French, unnatural, etc... Then life became so impossible for me that I resolved to retire to my estates and pass the rest of my days in an ivory tower - or one of some other (metallic) metal. That is why I acquired a taste for misanthropy; why I nurtured hypochondria; why I became the most (leaden-like) miserable of men. It distressed people to look at me - even
through hall-marked gold eye-glasses. Oh yes. And all this happened to me because of music. That art has done me more harm that good, really: it has made me quarrel with people of quality, most honourable, more-than-distinguished, terribly genteel people. Let us pass on. I shall come back to this subject later.

As a person, I am neither good nor bad. I waver between the two, so to speak. So I have never really done harm to anyone - nor good, come to that. All the same, I have plenty of enemies - loyal enemies, of course. Why? For the most part, it is because they don't know me - or only know me second-hand, in short, through hearsay (lies worse than death). Man can never be perfect. I bear no grudge against them: they are the main victims of their ignorance and short-sightedness.... Poor folk!... So I am sorry for them. Let us pass on. I shall come back to this subject later.


Suzanne Valadon

The painter and model Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) had from January to June 1893 an intense affair with Erik Satie which is known to be Satie's only love affair. This page will tell you more about the artist and the way she may have looked at the composer during their affair.

Valadon believed that "painting was the most difficult [medium] in which to reach greatness." (15) She worked for thirteen years on her oils before she showed them. The wait was worthwhile when one sees her early Portrait of Eric Satie. The musician, who was to be called "The Father of Modern Music", met Suzanne Valadon at the Auberge du Clou, a boisterous and inexpensive nightclub, where he played the piano. An eccentric and penniless bohemian, Satie affected a top hat, a flowing lavaliere, and wore a pince-nez. His room in 6 rue Cortot was next door to Valadon's, with whom he had a six-month liaison. (16) The affair began on January 14, 1893, and Satie proposed marriage that same night. He immediately became obsessed with the artist, whom he called his "Biqui", writing impassioned notes about "her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet." (17) Valadon did Satie's portrait and gave it to him, while the musician did hers, which he kept. The two works hung together and were found after Satie's death in his room at Arceuil. The fickle Valadon soon ended the romance with Satie, leaving him with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness".

The Portrait of Eric Satie is a small work with a height double that of its length, but it achieves a monumentality far beyond its actual size. The oil's unusual dimensions accentuate the sitter's elongated appearance. An abrupt cropping seems to amputate his arms, while his tall hat emphasizes the verticality of the image. The canvas is divided into two squares: the lower one shows Satie's black-clothed bust, and the upper part forms the background, painted in a striated blue-green that sets off the face and dark hat. The head constitutes the focus of the work and is conventionally placed in the center of the composition it seems to stand upon a light oval pedestal, which is actually the white shirt collar. There are no clues to Satie's character other than those rend in the facial details. A decisive and stubbornly fixed glance, sensual red lips, unconventional waxed mustache and the pince-nez project a personality conscious of and unafraid of its own originality. Satie was twenty-six when the portrait was done, and his lively complexion and taut features stress the youthfulness of the face to such an extent that the skimpy beard appears fake.

The linearity of the image, where every contour is imprisoned in black outlines, is contrasted with the treatment of the visage. Valadon has modeled the features solely with layered patches of color, a Cezannesque technique that she continued to use throughout her career.

The portrait of Satie possesses a monumentality and physicality found in the works of such renowned portraitists as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. By filling three-quarters of the canvas's surface with Satie's image, Valadon gives him an overwhelming presence. The musician seems to advance toward the spectator, an illusion created by the receding quality of the pale background. The life radiating from the painting takes its source from the vibrancy of the colors. Large areas of velvety black sparkle with elusive blue-green accents, and Satie's red cheekbones set off his startlingly blue eyes, outlined by the pinee-nez rims. Although the portrait was done at the beginning of Valadon's idyll with Satie, passion did not abate her impartiality. Her assessment of her lover reveals a methodical frankness close to brutality. If she has rendered his powerful yet sensitive presence, she has not hidden an aloofness and judgmental quality that sets him apart. He stands alone, towering over the viewer, his strength as well as his weakness captured by Valadon's impartial brush.

Although stamped with Valadon's personality, the Portrait of Eric Satie points to several interacting influences - the strength and overwhelming presence of the image evoke the immediacy and sobriety seen in many of Toulouse-Lautrec's posters, his Aristide Bruand (20) in particular. Valadon's choice of few but indicative traits gives to the representation a caricatural economy that brings it close to the tradition of the Montmartre satirists.

Valadon seems to have lost her taste for portraiture during the two decades following the Portrait of Eric Satie. Not until 1910 did she resume her former interest and pursue it with a new and challenging style.


Erik Satie and the piano

"The piano is like money: it's enjoyable only for those who know how to use it."

Erik Satie (From Musings of a Mule)

The piano stands as a central pillar in Erik Satie's strange composing career. From his first musical studies in his native Honfleur to the ballet projects with the Parisian avant-garde of later years, his production is in one way or another connected to the piano.

His earliest known work is a little Allegro for piano from 1884; his last piano piece - a classicist menuet - is dated 1920. More than half the music he wrote during his 40 years of composing was intended for the piano, or was first presented to the public in piano version. If one were to count separate movements and posthumously published sketches and fragments, this would represent some 200 pieces. One may even say that Satie's music up until the ballet Parade (1917) was solely written for the piano. What he had composed in other genres to that point - theatre music, cabaret music and solo songs (along with individual attempts for orchestra amongst other things) - represents a relatively small part. Judging by existing sources, his fragmentary and incomplete studies at the Conservatoire de Paris seem to have mainly concerned piano playing. During certain periods of his life (especially from 1899 to circa 1909), he earned a meagre income as a cabaret pianist. He would occasionally give piano lessons, and in later years appeared sporadically as a pianist performing his own newly-written pieces. As late as 1923, for instance, two years before his death, he played the Trois morceaux en forme de poire for piano duet with the pianist Marcelle Meyer during a Dadaist happening in Paris.

However, though Satie's relationship with the piano was a lifelong and productive one, it seems to have been quite problematic. Francis Poulenc, one of the young composers in Satie's circles around 1920, indicated this in a reminiscence:

"Erik Satie very seldom played the piano. I may have heard him accompany some of his songs two or three times, at the most, and even then he tried to get out of it to the end. It was mostly Ricardo Viñes, Marcelle Meyer, Auric or I myself who played instead."

As a composer, Satie was long described as an odd man out who tried to dissimulate musical plainness and incompetent technique behind a smokescreen of irony, verbal pleasantry and all kinds of avant-garde pirouetting. Posterity retained a similar image of him as a pianist: an amateur bungler who had to depend on others to hear what his compositions sounded like - or an alcoholic tapeur à gages, a bounty player who had to be locked up a few hours ahead so that he could perform his duties at the cabarets of Montmartre.

Distorted images usually contain some grain of truth. This most certainly holds true for Satie. But the contention that he should be a complete amateur at the piano must be relegated to the rich flora of anecdotes and myths that surround this enigmatic, eccentric and charismatic figure. However, it would appear that he was completely
uninterested in the piano as such, in the great pianistic tradition or in maintaining his skills in any way. Nor does he seem to have bothered to own an instrument in adequate condition himself. In the home of his parents he naturally had access to a piano, as well as in his first own home (on one occasion he advertised that he, as a former student at the conservatory, would receive piano pupils). His small bedsits up on Montmartre (1890-1896 and 1896-1898) were presumably too small to house an instrument; in any case the second, the so-called "closet", was.

In his youth, Satie evidently displayed quite a gift as a pianist. At the age of 13 he wa received as a pupil in a preparatory class at the tradition-bound and demanding Paris Conservatory. His choice to play a movement from a piano concerto by the Czech virtuoso composer Jan Dussek at the audition seems nigh-prophetic. Dussek
(1760-1812) was not only renowned for his delecate touch and singable playing, but was also something of a visionary, a forerunner of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms.

It was this singable quality, the beauty of tone and the elegance that were held as the most positive aspects of young Satie's playing. But apart from that his teachers found him an increasing source of disappointment. His piano teacher thought that he should devote himself to composition, his theory teacher that he should concentrate on playing. Critical evaluations began to accumulate: he was mainly accused of "indolence" and was soon considered to be "the laziest pupil in the conservatory, the school rules stipulating that any student not selected for the public competitions three years runnning should end their studies. In the autumn of 1885 he auditioned again, this time with a Chopin ballad, and was admitted once more. He was taught by none other than the famous George Mathias, once a pupil of Chopin's. However, after a year they had both grown tired, and Satie fled to do voluntary military service. In the final conservatory reports he was described as "a very unimportant pupil" and "totally useless".

These frustrating experiences were doubtless the main cause of Satie's ambigious attitude to the piano, and to the musical establishment. In a letter adressed (though possibly never sent) to the conservatory in the autumn of 1892, Satie eloquently tells, in the popous and quasi-religious style he then cultivated, of the time he spent in this institution (which he had described elsewhere as "rather ugly to look at, a kind of local penitentiary bereft of outer beauty - or inner, for that matter"):

"As a child I attended your classes; My soul was so delicate you could not understand it... Despite My extreme youth and My exquisite suppleness you made Me detest the crude Art you teach with your unintelligence; your inexplicable strictness made Me long despise you... May the Lord forgive you; blessed be the unfortunate souls you have yet to teach..."

Of course, posterity has reason to be grateful for the fact that Satie could not bring himself to join the ranks of the soon-forgotten composing piano virtuosos (to whom one must count his teacher, Mathias, who is little more than a footnote in the history of French piano-playing).

The teaching of the time-honoured and time-consuming piano was thoroughly academic and branded with the strict French way of thinking. This was of course nothing for Satie, whether he was genuinely lazy, or, which is more likely, torn because he flet out of place. The compositions from this period - the Ogives and the Sarabandes - show him drifting towards a musical no-man's-land. Here, the music is not shaped, according to established dialectical manner, on the time axis of tonality, but is rather put together by melodic and chordal segments in static, timeless montages. Satie turned his back on the need of contemporary music for variation and linear development: he found another musical time, based on repetition and circularity, a ritual repetition of small units complete in themselves. In all this he also expressed another need, closely bound to the asthetic of repetition and ritual, allowing all things to occur slowly, casting a spell on time. Practically everything he wrote during 1886 to
1899 was characterized by a slow, hypnotically grinding movement.

It has been said that this distinctive composition technique appeared as a solution in extremis, an escape from a paralysing technical incompetence. We shall never know the truth in this matter. In any case, the Conservatory's view on music and how to compose for the piano, which was forced upon Satie, was of no use to him in this experimentation with musical "time" and development.

Nevertheless, Satie always conceived his music in terms of pianism. In spite of that, though, he never composed at the keyboard: this he did in his head, on walks or, quite frequently, at a café table. There is no evidence of his ever having revised the music to make it more pianistic. His course of action, especially in later years, was rather the contrary: anything superfluous was peeled away. His goal was evidently the utmost purity, clarity and precision. Nothing but the essential is there, no ornaments or elegant tonal effects, few or no possibilities for the
pianist to demonstrate further skills. At the same time, there is hardly any original piece for the piano by Satie that is unpianistic or written against the instrument. Even the simplest and starkest of his pieces bears witness to a genuine feeling for, and knowledge of the piano. Superficially, the pieces are not technically demanding and could certainly be learnt by any moderately talented schoolchild; some could even be used as beginner's practice. Yet Satie's piano music is a thankless task for the mediocre pianist. The process of denuding and purifying his work requires something similar in his interpreters. Any meaningful interpretation of his work demands a high level of technique, total control of tone and a long period of familiarisation with the music to create a condition of complete mental and physical readiness.

It can be noted that Satie's piano music, perhaps for these very reasons, has not been popular in the repertoires of pianists or intuition. Nor does it seem to have established itself in the context of conventional concerts. This is certainly related to two other particularities: that the music is often linked to a function (dance, theatre, ritual, ceremony, etc.) and, perhaps most importantly, that of its need for, or coincidence with, a verbal sphere of expression.

Indeed, it would seem that Satie's need to express himself in writing was at least as deeply rooted as his musical creativity; his talent in that area was also considerable. The verbal and musical sides of his creative personality are largely equal. As early as the late 1880s he started contributing light articles to La lanterne japonaise (the written organ of the cabaret Le divan japonais) and also published madcap advertisements and announcements about his verbal practical jokes and the quasi-religious verbal torrents that were sent from his "Church of Art" (see vol. 2) rather than his music. Later, during his time in Arceuil, he wrote causeries in the local socialistic press and also the well-known autobiographical series Memoirs of an Amnesiac. In the 1920s he was more active as a collaborator to various avant-garde cultural periodicals than as a composer. During all these years he also wrote down his thoughts of small pieces of paper, and made numerous drawings which he collected in cigar-boxes. Many of these commentaries - sometimes bitter, sometimes crushing and hilarious - can be found in his musical scores.

In his piano music one often encounters this extremely original and often sparklingly witty verbal side in the curious titles, absurdist playing directives and the more or less coherent texts in the scores that complete and complicate the music.

In the earlier works it may have been a way to "mystify" in a symbolic spirit, to find eccentric or poetically suggestive titles and wordings. To start with they may confuse or block the pianist, but ultimately they challenge the sincerely interested interpreter to make up his mind and try to divine the composer's intention on his own.

Gradually, perhaps as he came to realize the twofold nature of his talent, texts of a different sort became an increasingly important means of expression. During the crisis years of 1898 to 1911, when he returned to the school-bench, he avoided his fictitious indications (but still indulged in his weakness for strange titles). Around 1912, when he once again found a way forward and a new style of his own, inspiration began to flow - and texts of varying kinds came to play a more extensive and independent part in the score.

In the series of "humourous" piano pieces of the years 1912-1915 (vol. 5), one find illuminating little "sign-posts" as well as complete prose poems that sometimes seem completely screened off from the music. Here, he swings back and forth over the un-clear borders between imaginative indications to the pianist and texts that may be of interest in the execution of the music but that might also just as well be left out. The audience itself is not expected to be aware of them - they are a matter exclusively between the composer and his interpreter. This piano music leans two ways: the interpreter has his own private poetic and musical whole to face, and the audience gets the tonal structures that are partly condition to the pianist's interpretation of Satie's ravings. Between the two are the strange, "mad" titles, which always seem to require either explanations or apologies. In that sense the audience inescapably becomes part of the poetic whole, but is at the same time not privy to the inspiration that certainly lies in the curious texts.

In this light it is not really surprising that Satie's piano music never became successful on the concert platform. Something within it counteracts the conventional concert custom, both in its stark, simple unobtrusiveness and its many layers of musical and verbal expression. It calls for a more intimate and personal context, which leaves space for a private communication.

Satie's own position in this respect is quite clear, however: he did not want to be seen as a buffoon or verbal mystificator, but recognized and heard as a composer. Perhaps the recording medium is the optimal way to convey these personal messages.

An article by Olof Höjer - a Swedish pianist and Satie expert.
Taken from his CD: Erik Satie - the complete piano music vol. 1.
© 1996 Prophone Records, Stockholm, Sweden.