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Lives of the Great Composers, Installment 1
Erik Satie  (1866-1925)

(originally published in the literary magazine "Big Fish," July, 1990)

     Erik Satie, the talented French composer to whom just about everyone ends up applying the adjective "bizarre," was in many ways the Frank Zappa of his time. Or the Thelonius Monk of his time. Or the Mark Twain of his time (although strictly speaking, Mark Twain was, I suppose, of his time).

     Satie's music is forever modest. It possesses clarity and simplicity. He used no learned tricks of composition. His music is quizzical, and seems to be an acquired taste in listening (if we may be allowed this cross-sensual language).

     Above all, Satie was a satirist, and like all great satirists, he knew how to position himself. He could set up an overblown, late-Romantic style fragment and then undercut it with some very simple notes, or he could "overcut," as it were, street-song or music-hall type tunes with an advanced harmonization.

     Satie poked fun at music, from his titles -- "Choses vues a droite et a gauche, sans lunettes" (Things seen right, and left, without glasses), or "Lui manger sa tartine" (Eating up your friend's piece of bread) -- to his humorous notations to the performer: "en clignant l'oeil" (with a wink), "ouvrez la tete" (open your head), or "Ne me faites pas rire, brin de mousse: vous me chatouillez" (Don't make me laugh, chunk of moss: you're tickling me).

     To underscore the rather private nature of his style, Satie wrote under the title page of "Obstacles venimeux" (Venomous obstacles) of these sorts of directions: "To whom it may concern: I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the performance. Ignorance of my instructions will bring my righteous indignation against the audacious culprit. No exceptions will be allowed."

     Satie's works drew mixed reactions. he was undoubtedly an important influence on Ravel, who called him a "precursor both brilliant and clumsy," and Debussy, who was his greatest friend, although Satie would turn his mordant wit on the Impressionists when he felt their music growing too wimpy.

     Above all, Satie broke the grip Wagner and the late Romantics had over French musical thought. In Satie's words, "I explained to Debussy that a Frenchman had to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure, which wasn't the answer to our national aspirations. I also pointed out that I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but that we should have a music of our own -- if possible, without any Sauerkraut."

     Satie was an eccentric, always wearing the same bowler hat, with a carefully trimmed beard, long hair, a monacle, and an ever-present umbrella. He was famous for owning 12 identical grey velvet suits. At age 40 he surprised all by going back to school to study counterpoint and orchestration.

     His fellow composer Darius Milhaud wrote, "Satie was our mascot. The purity of his art, his horror of all concessions, his contempt for money, and his ruthless attitude toward the critics were a marvellous example for us all."

     One time his "marvellous attitude" almost landed him in jail. It was after the scandal caused by his wonderful ballet Parade, which caused a riot at its Diaghilev-produced premiere in 1917 (with set and costumes by Picasso and writing by Cocteau). After the critics condemned the artistic collaborators as the "three Boches" (Germans), Satie fired off a few "incautious" postcards to the critics and was sued for "public injury and defamation of character," and given a sentence of a week in jail (later suspended).

     At his death in 1925, his room was discovered to be almost completely bare -- only a bed, chair, and table, a cupboard with the 12 velvet suits, an old piano whose pedals worked by jerry-rigged strings, and his music notebooks. Found behind his piano was the music, believed lost, to a pantomime he wrote some twenty-six years earlier, entitled "Jack-in-the-box." How symbolic.

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