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ClassicsOnline Home » SATIE: Parade / Gymnopedies / Mercure / Relache
Erik Satie (1866-1925)
Parade; Gymnopédies; Mercure; Relâche
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 shipping broker, while his mother was of Scottish origin. Something of his later eccentricity seems to have been derived 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 unsatisfactory pupil, lingering on, as a friend alleged, to avoid the obligatory five years of military service, reduced for students to one year, which, in his case, was reduced still further by illness deliberately courted.
After his discharge from the infantry, Satie had his first pieces published by his father, who now had a small publishing business and stationer's shop. In the early 1890s he came under the influence of Joséphin Péladan, self-styled Sâr Merodack of the Rose+Croix, breaking with him by 1892. Eclectic medieval preoccupation led him to establish his own mock religion, the Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor. Of this he fancifully described himself as Parcier et Maître de Chapelle, the first title sheer invention, and now published Le cartulaire, a vehicle in which he might pontifically inveigh against those of whom he disapproved. At the same time, paradoxically, he was involved with the bohemian cabaret of Rudolf Salis at the Chat Noir. The same years brought contact with Debussy, with whom he remained on good terms, in spite of the latter's tendency to patronise him.
In 1905, after a period earning his living as a café pianist, Satie enrolled at the Schola Cantorum, where his teachers included Vincent d'Indy and Roussel. Here for three years he tried to remedy his perceived technical defects as a composer, particularly by the study of counterpoint. It was through Ravel's performance in 1911 of the Sarabandes of 1887 that the original nature of Satie's genius began to be acknowledged. Still further public recognition came through his association with Jean Cocteau and his collaboration with Dyagilev and others. In the years after the war, thanks to Cocteau, he became the centre of attention of a group of young composers, Les Six, originally known as Les nouveaux jeunes and then, in 1923, on the prompting of Darius Milhaud, of a group that took the name l'Ecole d'Arcueil, called after the relatively remote district of Paris where Satie chose to live in stark simplicity. Here his room was barely 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. Satie died on 1st July, 1925, after an illness of some six months.
Parade was the inspiration of Cocteau. It is described as a Ballet réaliste en un tableau (A Realist Ballet in One Scene). The curtain, costumes and décor were by Picasso and the choreography by Leonid Massin and it was first performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 18th May 1917 by Dyagilev's Ballets russes, with Lydia Lopokova, Massin, Leon Woizikovsky and Nicholas Zvereff. Cocteau's idea was to offer a stage-work that represented the principles of Cubism, and in this he succeeded. The scene is outside a fairground booth, where barkers and performers try to attract an audience. The work opens with a Choral, followed by a fugal exposition, Prélude du Rideau Rouge (‘Red Curtain Prelude’) and the entrance of the first Manager. The Chinese conjuror does tricks with an egg and eats fire, with imminent danger to all around as sparks scatter and have to be stamped out, the whole achieved by the use of unusual percussive effects from flaques sonores (water noises) and lottery-wheels. The Petite fille Américaine (‘The Little American Girl’), which is derived from the films, imitates Charlie Chaplin, is accompanied in a silent film episode by the sound of typewriter, shoots a thief, dances to the Ragtime du paquebot, is wrecked on the Titanic and enjoys a spring morning. The Acrobats are introduced, sad clowns, as it were, of Picasso's blue period, accompanied first by the xylophone and then by what the score describes as a bottle-phone. The harsh sound of a siren is heard with the return of reminiscences of what has passed, and the show comes to an end, merely a Parade, a poor representation of the real thing, now closed by a short reference to the Red Curtain Prelude.
The three seminal Gymnopédies of 1888, their title suggested by the ritual games of naked boys in ancient Greece, perhaps in a contemporary fresco or from a reading of Flaubert's Salammbô, were later orchestrated by Debussy and Roland-Manuel and have been variously used in the theatre for ballets. Here they are followed by music for the ballet Mercure, described as Poses plastiques en trais tableaux, a collaboration with Picasso and Massin mounted at La Cigale in Paris in June 1924. The choice of subject, or rather title, was aimed at Cocteau, whose fascination with the mythological figure had led him, among other things, to assume the necessary costume at a masked ball. The venture was sponsored by the Count de Beaumont, to whose wife the score is dedicated, but now Satie and Picasso could work together without the intervention of Cocteau. The ballet is intended to represent various aspects of Mercury, as god of fertility, messenger of the gods, a cunning thief, a magician and agent of the Underworld. It was Picasso's share of the work that drew most attention, vocally from his many supporters.
The twelve scenes are preceded by a March-Overture. Night sets the love-scene of Apollo and Venus and the lovers are surrounded by the Signs of the Zodiac. Mercury is jealous and intervenes, severing Apollo's thread of life, but immediately bringing him to life again. In the second scene there is a waltz for the Three Graces and Mercury. The Graces bathe and Mercury steals their pearls and makes his escape, pursued by the angry three-headed dog that guards the Underworld, Cerberus. The third scene brings a festival of Bacchus. Mercury invents new dances and discovers letters. Among the guests is Proserpine, who is carried off by Pluto, God of the Underworld, with the help of Chaos, in music-hall style. In music of apparent naïveté, a disappointment to many, Satie offers a score with popular elements, avoiding obvious illustration, although the music, of course, fits the action, with Chaos offering a combination of the Polka des lettres and the Nouvelle danse that had preceded it. Poulenc was among those who criticized the music, as his friend Auric did Relâche, having already offended Satie by jokingly sending him a baby's rattle with a beard that seemed to resemble him, a hint at the childishness of his recent music.
Relâche (‘Theatre Closure’), a ballet instantanéiste en deux actes; un entracte cinématographique, et la queue de chien, was a collaboration with Francis Picabia, who contributed the libretto and décor, while the cinematographic entr'acte, using the artists concerned in the project, among others, was the work of René Clair. Satie made use of popular tunes in his score, an act of deliberate provocation, as, in its Dadaist way, was the whole ballet. In Picabia's words it was "life with no tomorrow, life of today, car headlights, pearl necklaces, the curved slender forms of women, publicity, music, cars, men in evening dress, movement, noise and play. "Relâche," he wrote, "like the infinite, has no friends. To have friends, one must be quite ill, too ill to avoid them. If Satie liked Relâche, he liked it in the same way that he liked kirsch, a leg of lamb, the way he liked his umbrella! Relâche does not mean anything, it is the pollen of our epoch. A little dust on the tips of our fingers and the picture disappears… One must think of it from a distance and not try to touch it." The ballet was staged first by the Ballets suédois and Jean Börlin on 29th November 1924 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
After the Overture, with its slow introduction and sprightly march and the Projection, the curtain rises. The scene is backed by a pile of enlarged gramophone records, reaching to the height of the proscenium. The Woman makes her entrance, stopping to look at the scenery. There is music, as she sits down, smokes a cigarette and listens, after this dancing without music. The Man enters, dances and then joins the Woman in a waltz with a revolving door. The Men make their entrance and dance, followed by the Woman's slower dance and the ebullient close of the first act. In the second act the Men return, to a reminiscence of their first entrance, followed by the Woman, with a return to her original music. The Men undress and the Woman dresses again, with hints of Cadet Roussel in the orchestra and the Man and Woman dance to a waltz. Hints of a fanfare and a funeral march allow the Men to return to their places and take up their coats. After this the Woman and the Dancer dance a lop-sided wheelbarrow dance. The Woman alone performs the Crown dance, and places the crown on the head of a spectator, before, to her own melody, resuming her seat. The finale is a mimed song, the Dog's Tail, suggesting, as so often, the world of the café or the music-hall in a score that in so many ways foreshadows the minimalism of the later twentieth century.
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SATIE: Parade / Gymnopedies / Mercure / Relache