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Stringent economy

Satie's ballets discussed by WILFRID MELLERS
in the light of a new recording


Satie. Parade - Trois Gymnopédies - Mercure - Relâche. Copyright HNH International Ltd. 1999This new CD will make a splendid companion to Steven Moore Whiting's recently published, richly rewarding big book on Satie the Bohemian: from Cabaret to Concert Hall. The disc covers the three ballets, Parade, Mercure, and Relâche which, along with the drame symphonique, Socrate, count as his major mini-masterpieces, here presented in idiomatic performances. All three ballets incorporate elements from Low Life - circus, music hall, cabaret, café-concert, and (incipiently) American jazz and ragtime. All touch upon the theme that makes this apparently slight composer unexpectedly 'central' and even profound: the relationship, in our rapidly industrialized technocracies, between men and machines.

Such was the explicit theme of Parade for which - during the years of that First World War that threatened to (and perhaps did) destroy 'civilisation as we have known it' - Jean Cocteau devised the scenario, Picasso the sets and costumes, and Satie the music, while Massine acted as choreographer. Unsurprisingly, given that line-up, it was this 'ballet cubiste' that transformed Satie from a Monmartre eccentric into a significantly 'modern' composer. The score pays homage to those instantaneous 'moments' wherein we - like the young lovers, jugglers, and acrobats who, along with the cubistically and mechanistically abstract 'Managers' who control them, form the ballet's dancing personnel - precariously survive, teetering on tightropes over tiny abysses. The precision of Satie's patterned figurations, the meticulousness of his metrical structures, the simultaneous wit and pathos of his fragmented tunes exactly catch modern man's vulnerability and crazy courage: which must be why the score has worn so well. To achieve the right balance between human frailty and mechanistic continuity is not easy, though this performance passes the test in that the music sounds oddly disturbing, even a shade minatory, and certainly not funny-ha-ha.

In a general sense the music of this avowedly eccentric and comical character is seldom humorous, as were his intermittent verbal commentaries on it. More commonly the music, though calm, is also grave, even dolorous, in its lonesomeness. Parade was written in 1916 and produced the following year around the Great War's desperate climax. Mercure was composed in the war's aftermath, in 1920, and Cocteau was involved in it vicariously, since he was an avowedly mercurial character given to japes, jokes, and sleights-of-hand. Fortunately, however, Cocteau was not involved in the production, on which the choreographer Massine worked amicably with Picasso and Satie, free of the furies and fervours that the poet was apt to generate. Satie claimed that his music was 'simplement des personnages forains', and was therefore 'composée des rhythmes très particulières aux trétaux'.

Though the ballet has little in the way of a story-line, it involves mercurial transformation scenes, touching on the basic myth of Proserpine's descent to the Underworld and being, in effect, a post-war rite of spring, only a little later than Stravinsky's masterpiece. Satie makes no attempt to illustrate events, yet manages to embrace, within his music-hall idiom, the same precarious equilibrium between firmness and frailty that distinguishes Parade, possibly with even more stringent economy, both in its slightly surprising melodic definitions and in its sparely sonorous instrumentation. The 'Nouvelle Danse', because rather than in spite of its tenuous simplicity, is among Satie's most mysterious mini-creations; and the manner in which it is fused with the perky Polka des lettres to indicate Chaos is a mini-masterstroke.

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Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, October 9th 1999


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