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The Mini-master

WILFRID MELLERS reviews a comprehensive new study of Satie

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We have known for a long time that the youthful Satie played piano in sundry café-concerts, most notably the Chat Noir, celebrated because of its artily distinguished and to a degree intellectually precocious clientele; and we've recognised affinities between Satie's early piano dances, especially the Gymnopédies and the elegant valses chantées he wrote for the famous cabaret artiste Paulette Darty. Now here comes this big book on Satie the Bohemian: from Cabaret to Concert Hall, which radically modifies our perspective: for in not far short of 600 pages Steven Moore Whiting, an American university professor who originally embarked on the book as a doctoral thesis, investigates in depth the musical, literary, pictorial, sociological, psychological and even economic-legal aspects of Satie's contacts with the caf'cons, as it was in his own day, but not forgetting its antecedents in the Second Empire. The tentacular roots out of which, living in a given time and place, Satie became what he was spread over a wide area in a diversity of fields; and Whiting makes even the most recherché details seem illuminating, hilarious, or touching - or a combination of all three qualities. For instance, his chapter on the entertainer Vincent Hypas demonstrates how, with his parodic deconstruction of familiar material and his deadpan humour, Hypas had no less to offer to Satie than did 'greats' like Debussy, Ravel, Cocteau, and Picasso with whom he's commonly associated. Moreover, this applies not only to the music Satie made when he was actively employed in the Montmartre café world, but to most of his music, throughout his working life. The triptiques of little piano pieces, written around the years of the First World War, are hybrid in that the verbal text, though not meant to be read out loud, offers another and often contradictory dimension to the musical sounds; while the work that belatedly made him famous, the ballet Parade - commissioned by Diaghilev and made in collaboration with Cocteau, Picasso and Massine - incorporated elements from the Low Life of the circus, music hall, and 'nigger minstrel' show in becoming the most exciting, if also alarming and in the long run chilling, instance of Satie's involvement with the relation between men and machines.

Conceived and mounted during the years of the (first) Great War, Parade paid homage to those 'instantaneous' moments in which we - like the lovers, jugglers and acrobats who are the work's dancing personnel - may nervily and precariously survive, given a modicum of physical dexterity and rather more emotional integrity. This is why the music (and Picasso's costumes and décor) have in no way dimmed with the thud of the years, though the ballet is now seldom staged in the theatre.

Professor Whiting doesn't, however, restrict his attention to pieces with narrative or programmatic dimensions; his comments on the most ostensibly abstract of Satie's creations - such as the austerely 'drained' Socrate and the related, sculpturesque piano Nocturnes (written in the mid-twenties, not long before his death in 1928) - are no less committed and no less pertinent to Satie's (latent) themes. Whiting helps us to understand why this apparently slight, peripheral composer now seems central to the world we live in. As John Cage put it, 'Satie is indispensable'; without him, the 20th century would be inconceivable.

But if we are now where, all those years ago, Satie intuitively knew we were destined for, some people must regard our 'predicament' as regrettable. Regret is a useless indulgence; we should rather be grateful to Satie for hinting at how we might accommodate to a world we ourselves helped to create, showing us, in the process, that machines, in their pseudo-paradisal perfection, may have beauty and grace. There remains, of course, the daunting division between their infallibility and our human fallibility: so, as we totter into our New Millennium, we need to listen ever more attentively to Satie in order to understand why his kind of Cool matters so much. Whiting's brave, beautifully written book will offer succour to our listening; and although it's a pity - notwithstanding the handsome production, meticulously printed music examples, and scholarly apparatus - that the price had to be so high, I can say with sober fervency that this is a book that needs to be read not only by specialists, but by anyone who cares about the future of 'civilization' and 'culture', and deprecates, as I do, the use of those nervy quote-marks. Satie, throughout his working life, fought hard - but on the whole with good humour - for their erasure: a small but militant saint wearing bowler hat, pin-stripe suit, and a pince-nez, armed with his rolled umbrella.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, September 12th 1999


Steven Moore Whiting
Satie the Bohemian: from Cabaret to Concert Hall
Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
ISBN 0198 164580



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