Erik Satie

Biography

Born: May 17, 1866; France   Died: Jul 1, 1925; France   Period: 20th Century
Erik Satie was an important French composer from the generation of Debussy. Best remembered for several groups of piano pieces, including Trois Gymnopédies (1888), Trois Sarabandes (1887) and Trois Gnossiennes (1890), he was championed by Jean Cocteau and helped create the famous group of French composers, Les Six, which was fashioned after his artistic ideal of simplicity in the extreme. Some have viewed certain of his stylistic traits as Read more components of Impressionism, but his harmonies and melodies have relatively little in common with the characteristics of that school. Much of his music has a subdued character, and its charm comes through in its directness and its lack of allegiance to any one aesthetic. Often his melodies are melancholy and hesitant, his moods exotic or humorous, and his compositions as a whole, or their several constituent episodes, short. He was a musical maverick who probably influenced Debussy and did influence Ravel, who freely acknowledged as much. After Satie's second period of study, he began turning more serious in his compositions, eventually producing his inspiring cantata, Socrate, considered by many his greatest work and clearly demonstrating a previously unexhibited agility. In his last decade he turned out several ballets, including Parade and Relâche, indicating his growing predilection for program and theater music. Satie was also a pianist of some ability.

As a child Erik Satie showed interest in music and began taking piano lessons from a local church organist, named Vinot. While he progressed during this period, he showed no unusual gifts. In 1879 he enrolled in the Paris Conservatory, where he studied under Descombe (piano) and Lavignac (solfeggio), but failed to meet minimum requirements and was expelled in 1882. Satie departed Paris on November 15, 1886, to join the infantry in Arras, but he found military life distasteful and intentionally courted illness to relieve himself of duty. That same year his first works were published: Elégie, Trois Mélodies, and Chanson.

The years following his military service formed a bohemian period in Satie's life, the most significant events of which would be the beginnings of his friendship with Debussy, his exposure to eastern music at the Paris World Exhibition, and his association with a number of philosophical and religious organizations (most notably the Rosicrucian Brotherhood).

In 1905 he decided to resume musical study, enrolling in the conservative and controversial Schola Cantorum, run by Vincent d'Indy. His music took on a more academic and rigorous quality, and also began to exhibit the dry wit that would become hallmarks of his style. Many of his compositions received odd titles, especially after 1910, such as Dried up embryos and Three real flabby preludes (for a dog). Some of his works also featured odd instructions for the performer, not intended to be taken seriously, as in his 1893 piano work, Vexations, which carries the admonition in the score, "To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities."

In 1925 Satie developed pleurisy and his fragile health worsened. He was taken to St. Joseph Hospital, where he lived on for several months. He received the last rites of the Catholic Church in his final days, and died on July 1, 1925. Read less

Work: Parade

 

About This Work
Smarting from his failure to interest Stravinsky in a scenario strutting King David through a fairground setting -- a parade of tableaux -- Jean Cocteau, on furlough from driving ambulance at the front, heard Satie's Trois Morceaux en forme de poire Read more performed by Ricardo Viñes at a Paris concert on April 18, 1916, and immediately recognized them as the ideal music for his project. Satie had other ideas -- "Let's do something new, right? No joke." A tortured collaboration began, picking up Picasso in the summer for set, costumes, and (for Cocteau) an unwelcome hand in the scenario, and the interest of Diaghilev, who stimulated Satie's desultory inspiration with cash advances. In a piano duet version, the music was completed January 9, 1917, while the orchestration occupied Satie until May 8 -- ten days before the premiere. Playing under 15 minutes, Parade may be Satie's richest score -- it is certainly his most finely wrought. Palindromic in form, beginning and end essay an eerie fugato complementing Picasso's red curtain, and depict a curtain drawn to reveal performers at leisure. Before the conclusion of the curtain music, the entrance and collapse of the Cubistically costumed Managers are heralded by an obstreperous cakewalk raising the curtain not only on the show, but on one of the great aesthetic preoccupations of the early twentieth century, namely, the interplay of antitheses called forth by art -- interior and exterior, fantasy and reality, or (in Goethe's phrase) poetry and truth. The show proper begins with a Chinese conjuror, balanced, after the centerpiece, by Acrobats. The central, compactly elaborate act is the Little American Girl enacting (choreography by Massine) tropes from American films -- typing, six-gun blazing, a Chaplin-esque shuffle, and so on. Irving Berlin's 1911 ragtime knock-off, That Mysterious Rag, is deliciously parodied, while Parade is suffused throughout with popular and music hall gestures alternating eldritch evocations with brisk vivacity. Satie is often credited with Parade's extra-musical effects -- sirens, foghorn, typewriter -- though they were, in fact, included at Cocteau's insistence. As Satie wrote to Diaghilev, "I don't much like the 'noises' made by Jean, but there is nothing we can do here. We have before us an amiable maniac." The ballet's premiere on May 18, 1917, provoked hostilities.

-- Adrian Corleonis Read less

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