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ClassicsOnline Home » SATIE: Piano Works, Vol. 1
BBC Music Magazine
Basildon Evening Echo
Erik Satie (1866 - 1925)
Piano Works Vol. 1
The French composer Erik Satie earned himself a contemporary
reputation as an eccentric. Stravinsky later described him as the oddest person he had
ever known and at the same time the most rare and constantly witty. His musical
innovations proved immensely influential on his nearer contemporaries Debussy and Ravel
and on a younger generation of composers and artists in the years after the war of 1914.
Satie was born in 1866 at Honfleur, on the coast of Normandy.
His father was at the time a ship's broker, while his mother was of Scottish origin.
Something of his later eccentricity seems to have been acquired from his paternal uncle,
Adrien Satie, known in Honfleur as a character. The family moved to Paris, but on the
death of Satie's mother in 1872 he was sent back to Honfleur to the house of his
grandparents. Six years later he returned to Paris, where in 1879 he entered the
Conservatoire. There he proved an undistinguished and unsatisfactory pupil, lingering on,
according to one friend, in order to avoid the obligatory five years of military service.
His status as a student allowed him a period of one year in the 33rd Infantry, cut short
by a severe attack of bronchitis that he had deliberately courted.
Satie's few months of soldiering were followed by the first
publications of his music, two piano pieces, and then a set of five songs, settings of
poems by his friend Contamine de Latour, published by his father, who now had a
stationer's shop and small publishing business. Inspired by his reading, in the early
1890s Satie came for a time under the influence of the extraordinary Joséphin Péladan,
self-styled Sâr Merodack of the Rose + Croix, an eccentric exponent of Rosicrucianism
with whom he had broken by 1892. Eclectic medieval preoccupations led him to establish his
own mock religion, the Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor. Of this he
described himself fancifully as Parcier et Maître de Chapelle, the first title sheer
invention, issuing his publication Le cartulaire,
in which critical enemies were attacked in appropriate style. At the same time,
paradoxically, he was involved with Rudolf Salis and his bohemian cabaret, the Chat Noir.
The same years brought contact with Dubussy, with whom he remained on good terms in the
years that followed, in spite of the latter's tendency to patronise him.
In 1905, after a period in which he had been compelled to earn
his living as a cafe pianist and a composer of appropriate music, Satie enrolled as a
student at the Schola cantorum, where his teachers included Vincent d'Indy and Roussel.
Here he attempted to make up for his technical deficiencies as a composer by a
concentration on traditional counterpoint. He completed his studies in 1908, but only
began to win some success through the agency of Ravel, who in 1911 performed the three
Sarabandes that Satie had written in 1887, establishing the originality of Satie's early
work. The following years brought his compositions before a wider public, but it was
through the advocacy of Jean Cocteau that Satie's fame was more firmly established,
particularly with collaboration in the Dyagilev ballet Parade, with choreography by Massin
and decor by Picasso. The scandal of the first performance, in May 1917, made Satie a hero
to a younger group of composers, to be known as Les Six. In 1923, under the inspiration of
Darius Milhaud, his collaborator in musique d'ameublement, furniture music, that was not
supposed to be listened to, he became the centre of another group of younger composers,
the Ecole d' Arceuil, its name derived from the poor and relatively remote district of
Paris where Satie lived a life of the utmost simplicity, his room furnished with a chair,
a table and a hammock, the last heated in winter by bottles filled with hot water placed
below and looking, according to Stravinsky, like some strange kind of marimba. He died on
1st July 1925, after an illness of some six months.
Satie planned in 1919 a set of six Nocturnes, of which only
five were completed and a group of three published. These, the last of Satie's
compositions for the piano, rely in harmony on fourths and fifths and show a
characteristic simplicity of texture, if little of the mood of Chopin or Field suggested
by the title. The Première pensée Rose + Croix and
three Sonneries de la Rose + Croix, Air de l'Ordre, Air du Grand Maître and Air du Grand Prieur, were written in the early 1890s,
during the period of Satie's association with Péladan, music to be used in the ceremonies
of the order, until Satie publicly declared
his independence in a letter to the paper Gil Blas couched in archaic French. The
music, written without bar-lines, reflects something of the alternative mystical influence
of the painter Puvis de Chavannes, a reproduction of one of whose works was used on the
cover of the published Sonneries.
Satie's Rêverie de
l'enfance de Pantagruel, a whimsical reference to Rabelais, was written at
about the time of the Nocturnes, a
relatively late work, while the Reverie du pauvre,
a title not of the composer's making, reflects a period at the turn of the century that
found him in some hardship. In 1898 he had moved out to Arceuil, and here "Monsieur
le Pauvre" expressed his awareness of "le séjour mysterieux de Notre-Dame
Bassesse" (the mysterious presence of Our Lady Humility), perhaps in the solemn
simplicity of this Reverie. The two Reveries Nocturnes, written in 1910 and 1911, the
first of the pair without bar-lines, are of subtle lucidity, with their gentle evocation
of mysterious night.
Prélude de la porte heroique du ciel,
written in 1894 and dedicated by Satie to himself, belongs to the early period of
eccentric mysticism that followed his involvement with Rosicrucianism. The piece was
intended as an introduction to a play by Jules Bois, founder and editor of a publication Le Coeur. In the play Christ appears urging a poet to
dethrone the Virgin and put Isis in her place. This mingling of the ancient Egyptian with
the medieval is characteristic of the kind of esoteric mysticism in which Satie was
involved. The opening of the Prélude is
marked "Calme et profondément doux" (Calm and profoundly sweet) and typical
directions to the performer continue. The second line is to be played superstitiously and
later passages are marked "Avec deference" and "Tres sincerement
silencieux" (Very sincerely silent), "En une timide piete" (With timid
piety), "Sans orgueil" (Without pride), before the curtain rises.
The four Ogives,
published in 1886, echo Satie's fascination with the Gothic and medieval, and in
particular with the architecture of Notre Dame.
The three Sarabandes, later revealed to a wider public by Ravel, were products of 1887,
but anticipate in their adventurous and novel harmonies music that Debussy was to write at
the dawn of the next century.
The Hungarian pianist Klára Körmendi was born in Budapest and
studied under Kornel Zempleni at the Bartok Conservatory, later becoming a student of
peter Solymos at the Liszt Academy, where she received her diploma with distinction in
1967. She enjoyed early success in a number of international competitions, before
embarking on a career that has taken her to the major musical centres of Europe, with
broadcasts in Vienna, Paris and London, as well as Basle, Cologne, Lausanne and Ljubljana.
Klára Körmendi has a wide repertoire, and has always shown particular interest in
contemporary repertoire, both Hungarian and foreign. Her recordings for Hungaroton include
music by Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio and Heinz Holliger. For Naxos she
has recorded works by Debussy and Ravel and will also record the complete piano music of
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SATIE: Piano Works, Vol. 1