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: Jack-in-the-Box

 

About This Work
Satie composed this little "pantomime" in two acts in 1899, but the work was not premiered until 1926, two years after his death. Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev approached Satie in 1922 with a request for a ballet, and again in Read more 1924. Nothing came of either request, and Diaghilev had to settle for the misplaced Jack in the Box, which was revived after Satie's death by his pupil Darius Milhaud. Satie referred to this work as a "suite anglaise," and composed three jigs for it: Prelude, Entr'acte, and Finale. The work was mislaid sometime after 1905, and was only discovered decades later by accident; the score for Jack in the Box, along with a score for a marionette opera called Genevieve de Brabant, was found in a pile of soiled, discarded papers in one of Satie's apartments.

Jack in the Box is based on a scenario by Jules Depaquit, and has little to offer in the way of dramatic substance: it is essentially a Vaudevillian experiment, a "pantaloonery" which pokes fun at "the evil men who live in this world." Musically, the work is relatively simple, and in many ways typically Satiean. The overall harmonic framework is diatonic; the work is cast in the key of C major. Satie employs unresolved seventh chords, bitonal harmonies, constant metric shifts, and repetitive motives in what musicologist Eric Gillmor describes as Satie's appropriation of "the sounds and boisterous atmosphere of the music hall." Gillmor also notes that certain aspects of the music look ahead to the work of Milhaud, who was thus the obvious choice to revive the work after Satie's death.

The ballet was finally performed in June of 1926, choreographed by famous Stravinsky collaborator George Balanchine. In the Balanchine production, the music accompanies the dancing of the principal figure, the Jack in the Box puppet, along with several other characters, including two harlequin-like ballerinas dressed in half-black/half-white costumes. As with many of Satie's works, Jack in the Box was not well received by critics, in this case on both sides of the English channel. The French dismissed the work as banal, while English critics decried it as "pert but hollow." Perhaps the failure of Jack in the Box is not so surprising, given that it was written during a period in Satie's life--around the turn of the century--when he was deeply depressed, and feeling resigned to failure as a composer.

-- Alexander Carpenter Read less

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