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The Mini-master

WILFRID MELLERS reviews a comprehensive new study of Satie

Not much more than a half-a-century ago Erik Satie was regarded, if at all, as a blagueur who wrote funny sentences in his scores, wore a pince-nez, never opened letters, and accumulated umbrellas, dustily stored in his dowdy apartment in the dreary suburb of Arceuil. Nowadays we have a book by Robert Orledge, as brilliant as it is big, discussing Satie's music in depth, along with hardly less comprehensive studies (in French) by Ornella Volta, and a clutch of smaller but interested and interesting enquiries into sundry aspects of his life and works. Clearly, Satie's reputation as a mini-master of historical as well as intrinsic significance is now undisputed; and an unexpected addition to academic respectability is the fact that snippets of Satie's music are now familiar to thousands of people who have never heard his name, since some of his early piano pieces frequently serve as aural wall-paper, hopefully promoting sales on TV commercials. That is an irony that Satie's twinkle-eyed ghost must relish; he, who invented 'musique d'ameublement', has the last as well as the first laugh.

Characteristically Satie, born in 1866, started with a dual identity: as a hermetically private Artist garbed in velvet jacket and floppy hat, and as a pop musician functioning in the café-concert milieu of Montmartre. In both roles he reacted against 'old' Europe's egomania: specifically against Wagner, whose Tristan and Parsifal had brought the wheel of European humanism full circle, seeking quasi-religious ecstacy from the identification of love and death; and against Debussy who, dealing in Pelléas et Mélisande with the same theme, substituted for ecstacy a tender but tough fortitude. But what, in this twilight of humanism, was an artist to do if he wasn't, like Wagner, heroic or bumptious enough to offer his inner life as surrogate for the destiny of the human race nor yet, like Debussy, brave enough to accept the impermanence of the senses as the only truth humanly apprehensible? If human experience failed him, he must seek the logic of geometry; and in the (Parisian) worlds Satie inhabited during the last decade of the 19th and the first two decades of the 20th century, that meant confronting the disturbing effects that machine technology was having in our industrialized communities, both on social institutions and on the human psyche. During the 1890s Satie explored a 'gothick' religiosity, no more than playfully for 'religious' reasons, but 'seriously' in pursuit of a self-effacing chastity of line; while he similarly made pseudo-archaic (classically 'Greek' or 'Cretan') dances for piano that seemed, in their gentle repetitiousness, almost void of temporal progression, and of human accident or distress. Both these aspects of Satie's early music have attributes in common with machines - albeit machines blissfully liberated from the minatoriness inherent in mechanization. That Satie wasn't consciously aware of what he was doing is the point; and was partly due to the fact that so much of his early professional life was spent in making songs, dances, and theatre pieces that didn't claim to explore, let alone to elevate, the human spirit but sought rather to wile away time agreeably, without doing too much harm.

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Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, September 11th 1999


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



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