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Stringent economy

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


 << Continued from yesterday 

The third and last of these ballets, Relâche, was written in 1924, the year before the composer's premature death. The word relâche means no performance, nor was there one on the advertised opening night. This of course is a joke, though not a musical one: as is indicated in Picabia's account of the work's intentions, or lack of them. He claimed that the piece represented 'life with no tomorrow ... car headlights, pearl necklaces, the carved slender forms of women, publicity, cars, men in evening dress, movement, noise, and play'.

Satie's response was virtually to extinguish the discreet melodic, metrical, and harmonic inventiveness of the earlier ballets, replacing it with quotations from and adaptations of childrens runes, street games, and bits of commercial pop numbers such as he'd toyed with in his youth as cabaret pianist. The music 'doesn't mean anything, it is the pollen of our epoch ... one must think of it from a distance and not try to touch it'. But although the ballet is post-modern as well as postludial, it still displays Satie's courage, which encouraged him to remark, unabashed: 'le rideau se lève sur un OS!'

Although the score anticipates some of the drearier reaches of today's minimalist musics, it is nowhere near so remorselessly LONG. Moreover, it embraces the bonus of an Entr'acte cinématographique devised for a surrealistic film of René Clair: music which was intelligently prophetic in reference to the subsequent problems involved in creating music for both the silent, and to lesser degree, the sound film, since Satie's technique of patterned repetition and collage can counter the technically discontinuous images of the screen. Most of the more intelligent (and artistically successful) composers of film music - one thinks of Aaron Copland and Hans Eisler - betray the influence of Satie, whether or not they're aware of it.

The fill-up for the CD consists of the orchestral versions of the 3 Gymnopédies of 1888, the first two made by Debussy, the third (after Debussy's death) by Roland-Manuel. These pieces are by far the most familiar among Satie's compositions, since they now appear intermittently on TV commercials, advertising seductive sedatives. I've always thought these orchestrations misguided because anti-Satiean, since they turn Satie's chaste muse into picturesque quasi-medievalism in one of Debussy's own manners: though Debussy, if indubitably a greater composer than Satie, neither had nor needed Satie's knack of making melodies, or even tunes, thus memorable. These orchestrations are very pretty; but they are not Satie.


Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, October 10th 1999


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