(For Erik Satie’s birthday, I’ve revised and reposted something written for his 150th birthday in 2016)
No composer is as loved for all the wrong reasons (is there a German word for that?) as Erik Satie.
Now that we are are once again at his birthday (May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925), promiscuous love can be found all over. This listicle is indicative; no need to look past the title “Composer Erik Satie Was So Much Weirder Than You Realize”—Satie as an object for those who make a fetish of an eccentricity or quirkiness that stands in opposition to their own consumerism.
I imagine Satie would have enjoyed that attention, though in his particular irreverent and ironic way. Quite the opposite of eccentric, he was acutely aware of his audiences and his social milieu, and had the calculating self-consciousness to present himself to differently to each audience, as the bohemian, the mystic, the bourgeois master. Those were guises, uniforms, and they continue to effect those who lack the curiosity to hear the music itself. And I do mean hear: another complete misapprehension is that Satie created simple background music, like a naïve outsider artist.
Satie was a skilled composer who put in the hard hours. His music is made with craft and rigor—the apparent simplicity is a challenge to pull off. Repetition of minimal material is the easiest thing to do as a composer and one of the hardest things to do well, and to make interesting.
He is both graced with and suffers from music that Virgil Thomson said “…can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the history of music.” The result is that millions and millions of people have heard and loved the Gymnopédies, or an arrangement of the Gnossiennes on the soundtrack of Diva, and maybe a few tens of thousands of people have heard one piece beyond that. (His catalogue is here. Maybe a few thousand have listened through all this works.)
Satie, the pop-cult figure, was also Satie, the serious and important artist. His 2016 sesquicentennial had, as anniversary seasons tend to in classical music, a good number of new and collected releases that treated his legacy seriously and show many different facets of his work. (I would recommend the Erik Satie volume in Reaktion Book’s Critical Lives series as a fine, compact biographical and critical introduction.)
Because we all know them, the Gymnopédies are the place to start. Even already interested listeners will likely be surprised to find that there is an interpretive argument over this music, that seems so lovely and simple. The nub is captured by the title of a relatively recent release, Satie Slowly.
This is a fascinating collection of piano pieces put out by Philip Corner, who makes the argument that musicians, like the great Aldo Ciccolini, have been playing Satie too fast for decades. And technically he’s not wrong. The tempo most commonly heard from pianists is moderato, a kind of slow stroll. Yet the markings for the Gymnopédies are, respectively, lent et douloureux, lent et triste, lent et grave. Faster tempos brighten the music, and while that is pleasing in and of itself, Satie wanted sadness and seriousness, there can be no argument over that.
The flaw in Corner’s recording is that he is not that good a pianist, he can demonstrate the argument but he can’t quite make it work; playing slowly is more difficult than playing quickly, it means phrasing, not agility, has to work, and phrasing is the thing that separates the greats from the also-rans.
Jeroen van Veen is a great pianist who has no such problems with Satie. He has recorded all of Satie’s piano music on the Brilliant Classics label, and it is fantastic, superseding all previous collections, including those from Ciccolini (yes, I have loved it too) and more recent ones from Jean-Yves Thibaudet, et al.
Van Veen plays the music slowly, more slowly than Corner, with exceptionally graceful, limpid phrasing. Each line and the accompanying counterpoint flows along like a gentle, mesmerizing country stream, rippling steadily. In great sound, this set is utterly gorgeous and completely fulfilling, making and winning the implicit argument that this is all great music.
Van Veen has also accomplished the seemingly impossible, of producing a complete recording of Vexations, all 840 repetitions, sitting at and playing the piano straight through for 23 hours and 51 minutes.
(There’s a live streaming performance of Vexations going on through 6pm EST, May 17, “Satie pandémie collective Vexations)
This may seem a stunt, the piece a gimmick, and some people think so. An article at Hyperallergic, “Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane” takes as its premise that the music is nothing but an effect. But it’s a report on a rumor, something someone heard about, like taking an urban myth seriously. It’s about an attitude about Vexations, because the writer has never experienced the entire work.
If the music was ever to drive anyone mad, it was Satie himself. Written in the difficult aftermath of a failed love affair, it is tonal but unsettled, packed with diminished chords and with a solo theme that hints at constant modulation. This harmonic ambiguity, free of Wagnerian drama and without inherent meaning, is the epitome of Satie’s art. The command of 840 repetitions is a natural part of his irreverence, and there is more than a little wisdom in the idea of constant repetition of a harmless, meaningless task as a way to soothe the mind and soul. It turns out to be surprisingly easy and pleasurable to have Vexations playing for 24 hours—the music not only is lovely, but the constant flow makes for an actual realization of the musique d’ameublement concept, especially because the digital files are played from an object that is part of our contemporary furniture.
There are other excellent recent recordings of Satie. Noriko Ogawa’s two volumes of Satie’s piano music (on the Bis label), has something of a superficial gimmick: she plays the music on Satie’s own piano. But like Corner and van Veen, she has thought this through.
Her approach is the fast one, and it is superb and absolutely convincing. Ogawa’s approach to rhythm—different than any I’ve heard with Satie—shows how to make a quicker pace work. Like van Veen, her phrasing is terrific, and Satie’s piano turns out to be far drier than the ones contemporary ears are used to, as well as far drier than those heard on other Satie recordings (you’d think that Satie indicated reverb in all his scores for the way they are engineered). All these elements combine in a view that is a revelation for the composer’s construction of rhythm and pulse; his scores often eschewed bar lines, and Ozawa’s is pretty much the only playing I’ve heard that makes the music sound that way. This is essential as Van Veen’s take.
Satie also wrote songs, many of them stepping out of the classical tradition and into the popular styles as they existed in the theater and dance hall in turn of the century Paris. He also wrote Socrate, a work for voice and piano (or voice and orchestra) he ironically called a “Symphonic drama.” It may be better known as the springboard for John Cage’s Cheap Imitations (Cage was a deep admirer of Satie and made a two-piano arrangement of Socrate).
Soprano Barbara Hannigan has recorded the piece, accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw, and it is another exceptional new release in the Satie discography (Reaching this point, I’ve reached the conclusion that there was a consensus in the 2015-2016 musical zeitgeist to rethink Satie, go back to his core, and present him anew, and van Veen, Ogawa, and Hannigan have made that happen). This is a lovely recording all around, sung and played with simple grace, and it filled out by two other sets of songs and by Hymne. Absolutely recommended on its own qualities, not just for the value of hearing some of Satie’s vocal music.
These recordings don’t invalidate the older ones, Ciccolini and Pascal Rogé still deliver pleasures. And Sony has dug through their considerable back catalogue and put out a superb 13 CD collection, Erik Satie & Friends – Original Albums Collection. This is one of the most enjoyable archival releases of the past few years. It is Satie, with a generous helping of piano, vocal, and orchestral music, and friends (or at least colleagues); there are pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Ibert, Milhaud, and others, with the special highlight being Francis Poulenc. Poulenc was indeed a true friend, and he is represented both as composer and artist, playing his own piano music and that of Satie.
Those albums are particularly wonderful, but so is everything else in one way or another. There is something special about hearing the great pianist Robert Casadesus and his wife Gaby playing Satie, or Regine Crespin singing his songs. Those performances represent how at one time the composer was at the core of the modern, and especially French, repertory. The new thinking in all these recordings seems to have fallen by the wayside, after we passed that nice round number, but listen to it to help it endure.