Satie, Bohemian wit in the Paris of
The French composer Erik Satie was born on May 17, 1866, and died on
July 1, 1925, was the son of an English mother and a Parisian music publisher.
He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1879 but failed to benefit from
academic education, which he embarked on again only in his 40th year, when he
enrolled as a pupil of Vincent d’Indy and Albert Roussel at the Schola Cantorum.
Long before that, however, he had composed a number of short piano pieces, whose
eccentric titles and unfashionable and yet convincing simplicity of melody were
matched by an individual sense of harmony. It is still a moot point whether
Satie got his harmonic ideas from his fellow student and friend Claude Debussy,
or whether the debt was on Debussy’s side. It is quite clear, however, that
Satie’s tasteful principles influenced Debussy in the composition of his opera
Pelleas et Melisande and that Satie was the main influence in helping Debussy to
free himself from the musical domination of Richard Wagner. Satie became
interested in plainsong through his association with a so-called Rosicrucian
group, while he earned his living as a cafe pianist in Montmartre.
Satie was a conscious eccentric and a determined enemy of all
establishments, including the musical. The comical titles that he attached to
his small piano pieces are characteristic of the Bohemian wit in the Paris of
his day. Irony and a deceptively childlike attitude, a dislike for pomposity of
all kinds, and an instinctive secretiveness were hallmarks of both the man and
his music. In 1916, Satie was befriended by Jean Cocteau and wrote the music
for a ballet, Parade, on which Pablo Picasso and Leonid Massine also
collaborated. By far the most important of Satie’s works is Socrate , an harsh
setting for four sopranos and chamber orchestra of Plato’s account of the death
of Socrates. The young composers who formed the essentially Parisian group
known as Les Six regarded Satie as a kind of tutelary genius, and in 1923 one of
them, Darius Milhaud, tried to found an “Ecole d’Arcueil,” named for the obscure
Paris suburb where Satie lived in extreme poverty.