Erik Satie

 

I promised some time ago that I would write a little bit about Erik Satie (1866-1925), the French composer, (and one of the characters in my novel The Man Who Stole Satie), so here is that little something.

My fascination with Satie’s music began many years ago, decades, in fact, when I was in Paris for 4 months. I was 18, living alone for the first time and scared out of my wits that I’d have to be communicating daily in French! I’d been studying the language in school for years, but it’s one thing to study and another to practice. Anyway, there I was with a fair amount of free time on my hands. I went to French classes, wandered around the streets of Paris, watched films and went to theatre performances by myself and would regularly meet some family members who lived in Paris. I’m not too sure when I actually became aware of his music, but it was there that I first listened to one of his most well-known pieces, Gymnopedie No.1 and, soon after that, his other very famous piano piece – Gnossienne No. 1. The gentleness in his melodies, the feeling that I was taking a peek inside his mind and was allowed to dream, grabbed me immediately and I was captivated. I have been ever since!

I still didn’t know much more about the man behind the music until I started writing my novel, The Man Who Stole Satie, but in order to find out a bit more about him, I read a number of books and articles about his life and eccentric character. (I shall include a list of the books I used as research at the end of this blog post.)

To say the man was quirky would be underestimating his unique take on life and his utter genius. I have no doubt in my mind that Erik Satie was the forefather of modern music and, as such, was not openly received by all. There were critics and professors at the Paris Conservatoire that thought he was a complete failure, and in fact, kicked him out twice calling him lazy and untalented.

One particular critic and journalist, Henri Gauthier-Villars (more commonly known as Willy and the mentor and first husband of the French novelist, Colette), had frequent altercations with Satie. On one such occasion, Satie threw Willy’s hat on the floor, and Willy hit him with his cane. The city police was called and took Satie away.

Of course, there were music critics that saw Satie’s talent. One such man was W.H. Mellers. In his Studies in Contemporary Music (Dobson, 1948), he said:

“...there is no music like it; because never before has the artist felt so apathetic – not antipathetic, which is a different matter – to humanity as to make such a strange achievement possible. Only a very remarkable personality could attain to the degree of impersonality which makes this music, not one man’s loneliness, but an aspect of the modern consciousness, transformed into sound.”

I won’t bore you with every single thing that happened in his lifetime, (for a purely historical take on his life there are plenty of sources online and in books), but I shall give you a general idea of who the man was in short little anecdotes and facts.

  1. vErik Satie was born Eric Alfred Leslie Satie on 17th May 1866, in Honfleur, France. After 1884, he started signing his name as Erik, to stress his Viking lineage.

 

 

Eric Satie, circa 1898 (Photo credit: public domain)

  1. vHe was a solitary man, and both aware of his surroundings but also indifferent to them.

 

Roger Viollet/Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

  1. vIn his life, he only had one recorded love affair, to the painter and artists’ model, Suzanne Valadon, (and the mother of the painter Maurice Utrillo). Their affair lasted only 6 months but it was intense and passionate. She painted a portrait of Satie and gave it to him.

 

 

Portrait d'Erik Satie, Suzanne Valadon, 1892 (Photo credit: public comain)

  1. vIn fact, there was one event reported, whereby Satie and Valadon argued and he pushed her out of the window. She fell to the ground and Satie was sure he’d murdered her. So, he went to the police station and ‘gave himself up’. But, to his good fortune, (and unbeknownst to Satie), Valadon had been a circus acrobat in her youth and, thus, she avoided being harmed!

 

Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) (Photo credit: public domain)

  1. vIn 1896, Satie bought 7 mustard-coloured velvet suits – all identical with matching caps – and he wore them for seven consecutive years. He was known as ‘The Velvet Gentleman’.
  2. vHe frequented various cabarets in Montmartre, such as Le Chat Noire and Le Divain Japonais. There, he would hang out with artists and musicians.
  3. vSatie always carried a small black book in his pocket, where he kept his notes.
  4. vHe would send himself postcards as reminders to do something, or to give himself an idea, as well as to present to himself his own daydreams, in the style of small advertisements.
  5. vThrough his music, Satie wanted to find and re-introduce the forgotten sounds of ancient Greece.
  6. vFor a while, he was a member of the Salon de la Rose & Croix – an artistic religious movement which included many prominent Symbolist painters, writers and composers of the time. It was established by Joséphin Péladan who was fascinated by the Medieval Rosicrucian secret society.
  7. vSatie did not remain for long with the Salon de la Rose & Croix. He founded his own church, L'Église Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur in 1892. The aim of this organisation was: “...to fight against those who have neither convictions nor beliefs, no thoughts in their souls nor principles in their hearts.” It was also: “...a defence of Art and the regeneration of Western society.”
  8. vHe was attracted to mystical and medieval notions.
  9. vSatie hated the sun. He called it:

“...a brute and a criminal who, not content with toasting our prison windows amuses himself by wickedly burning up the peasants’ crops. What a crashing bore he is! He looks like a great calf with a head as red as a cock’s! He ought to be ashamed of himself!”

  1. vHe enjoyed drinking cognac which was served in small graduated conical-shaped carafons. These were carafes divided into three supposedly equal portions. However, Satie observed that the bottom section contained slightly more cognac than the other two, so he would ask for an extra glass, saying he only wanted to drink the bottom portion of the carafe. When waiters told him all sections were the same, he would reply:

“I prefer the underneath portion because it hasn’t been exposed to air; and, what’s more, I am legally entitled to drink only the middle portion if I choose; and if I don’t, it’s solely so as not to cause you any inconvenience.”

So, he would empty the top two portions and pour the remainder in his coffee.

  1. vSatie never washed his hands with soap but with pumice stone.
  2. vHe was a gourmet and an insatiable eater, but he also went through strange phases. In Mémoires d'un amnésique, he said he lived entirely on white food: “...sugar, grated bones, salt, the mildew from fruit, cotton salad, and certain fish without skin.”
  3. vSatie suffered from chronic bronchitis all his life. By the time of his death of his death, he also had pleurisy and cirrhosis of the liver, from his excessive drinking.
  4. vHe wore a top hat, suit, and a black silk ribbon attached to his pince-nez. But he wore old army boots and tattered trousers. So, he was called, ‘Monsieur Le Pauvre’ – ‘Mr Poverty’.
  5. vA great number of his musical scores have no bars or time signatures. Instead, Satie wrote down very unusual phrases, meant to guide the pianist on how the music should be played. Here are some of his annotations:

Detached but not dry

Put yourself in the shade

Looking at yourself from afar

Continue without losing consciousness

On the tip of your mind

Almost invisible

Fall till you are weak

Do not look disagreeable

Quiver like a leaf

Full of subtlety, if you believe me

Avoid any sacrilegious excitement

And my two favourites:

Like a nightingale with toothache

Behave yourself, please: a monkey is watching you

 

All these fascinating facts I have found in the following books and articles at the Music Library of Greece – Lilian Vidouri. I would like to take this moment to thank two wonderful ladies, Alexandra Tsakona and Rinio Chrisadakou, who made my research possible:

  1. vErik Satie by Ornella Volta
  2. vErik Satie by Rollo H. Myers
  3. vSatie: Seen Through his Letters by Ornella Volta
  4. vA Mammal’s Notebook: Erik Satie. Writings edited by Ornella Volta
  5. vThe Strange Case of Erik Satie by Rollo H. Myers
  6. vErik Satie’s Poetry by Peter Dayan
  7. vThe Life and Times of Erik Satie by Jack Marshall

 

I have come to the end of this blog entry. I hope it has served as a small teaser, and has interested you enough in Satie’s unique character to want to find out more about him. And, if his person does not appeal and intrigue you, then, I have no doubt his music will definitely hold you captive! 

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