Friday, 13 May 2016

Satie and the Performing Arts

Rodolphe Salis, the impresario-owner of  Le Chat Noir, died in 1897.  The subversive culture of his Cabaret club had contributed to the development of the pleasure seeking culture of La Belle Époque. Folies Bergère.

Fleur de Lotus Jules Jules Chéret 1893

Folies Bergère Photo: HRNet

and Le Moulin Rouge where Jane Avril and the Can Can girls danced were all the rage.

This spirit was immortalised in the pictures of Toulouse-Lautrec

Satie 1891 painted by Ramon Casas
Satie, coming into a small inheritance, had blown all his money on a collection of identical suites and was now affectionately known as "the Velvet Gentleman". Even though he lived in poverty he met everyone as he made toured the Cabaret bars and private salons accompanying singers and writing songs, his most prolific collaboration during these years was with the philosopher-turned-lyricist Vincent Hyspa.
Vincent Hyspa 1906

The high life of La Belle Époque was not enough for Satie, he craved the same recognition given to his close friend Debussy, a kindred spirit and close friend who had achieved great success in the world of art music.  Satie was left behind, only appreciated as a minor composer of sublime and beautiful cabaret and salon songs.

In these years Satie’s behaviour became more eccentric, he even started a religion called the "Metropolitan Art Church of Jesus the Conductor" which had services in his cupboard.  As its only member, in the role of "Parcier et Maître de Chapelle", he composed a  Mass for the Poor.
Satie blamed his lack of success on his laziness as a student and in 1905, at the age of forty, he set to put this right by enrolling in the Schola Cantorum where he became "an assiduous student". His teachers were reluctant to teach him, saying he was already a very knowledgeable and gifted musician, but Satie refused to be put off.

In 1911, Satie’s luck began to change, this was made possible by Debussy and Ravel, both of whom performed his works for a larger and more elite audience than Satie could have arranged on his own. By now Satie had changed his dress to that of a civil servant with a bowler hat and umbrella.  On one occasion Darius Milhoud met him in the street walking through driving rain with an umbrella folded under his arm.  Asked "why are you not using your umbrella" Satie replied "Mon cher, my umbrella is much to valuable to get wet".

Igor Stravinsky drawn by Picasso

The rediscovery of Satie by the public created opportunities in the final decade of his life.  He came into contact with Igor Stravinsky who thought Satie was  "the strangest man I have ever met".  Stravinsky had become famous for his part in the "successful scandal" surrounding the The Ballet Russe's production of The Rite of Spring

Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau introduced Satie to Diaghilev, Picasso and the choreographer Massine with the promise that together they could create another "successful scandal"


Cocteau and Diaghilev

Picasso 1923

Massine, Leonide (1895-1979) by Leon Bakst

The first of these collaborations was "Parade",  the cubist ballet production. 

Parade, which brought together Erik Satie’s first orchestral score, Pablo Picasso’s first stage décor and Massine’s first cubist choreography, challenged the presumptions of Parisian society which was being devastated by the ravages of the first world war.

Pablo Picasso - Artist salon at rue La Boétie - Jean Cocteau, Olga, Erik Satie, Clive Bell (1919)

Picasso's red curtain for Parade
In the programme notes, written by Guillaume Appolonaire, Satie's score which included noise making instruments; a typewriter, a pistol, splashy noises made with sponges and a  'bouteillophone' ('bottlephone'- made of milk bottles) is described as "astonishingly expressive music, so clear and simple that it seems to reflect the marvelously lucid spirit of France.".  Appollonaire's programme notes, which used the word surrealist for the first time in history,  later became the manifesto of an art movement called  "l’esprit nouveau" (The New Spirit). 

the Conjurer, 'Parade' 1917
Parade and Satie's behaviour afterwards, became the "successful scandal" they had planned making  Satie the darling of the rich bohemian salons and avant-garde art movements.

Satie, Massine and Picasso collaborated again on other ballets, Mercure "The Painters Ballet" which was commissioned by the Soirées de Paris Stage Company and performed at the Théâtre de la Cigale in Paris on June 15, 1924

Count Étienne de Beaumont

Picasso's set design for Mecure with music by Satie

Picasso's set for Mecure
Satie also wrote the scores for the Avant-garde Ballets Suédois, which made its home at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris from 1920 to 1924.

Ballet Suedois
"Relâche," was a Dadaist exercise that united the zany talents of Erik Satie and painter Francis Picabia.

Ballets Suédois went out of there way to be scandalous and openly offensive to their audiences.  The ballet is now best remembered for the of the wacky 20-minute film called "Entr'acte" that the young René Clair made to be shown before the ballet started.  The films starts with Satie and Clair firing a canon at the audience and has the first synchronous, shot-by-shot film score in history.

René Clair and Satie during filming of "Entr'acte"


Satie had been unwell while Relâche was being made and he died a few months later, aged 59, of Cirrhosis of the liver .

After his death Darius Milhaud, a fellow composer, told us what he found when he went to clear his possessions from a room. 

"A narrow corridor with a washbasin in it, led to the bedroom into which Satie had never allowed anyone, not even his concierge to penetrate.  It was with a  feeling akin to awe that we approached it now.  What a shock on opening the door! It seemed impossible that Satie lived in such poverty. The man, whose faultlessly clean and correct dress made him look rather like a model civil servant, had literally nothing worth a shilling to his name: a wretched bed, a table covered with the most unlikely objects, one chair and a half-empty wardrobe in which there were a dozen old-fashioned corduroy suits, brand new and almost identical.....a broken-down piano with its pedals tied up with an old cigar box more than four thousand little pieces of paper on which he had made curious drawings and written extravagant inscriptions...."  Satie had 84 identical handkerchiefs, and dozens of hats and umbrellas

Satie is buried was buried in Arcueil

Photo © 1998 Ennio A. Paola

Photo © 1998 Ennio A. Paola
The plaque translates as:  "Here lies a great musician, a man of heart, an exceptional citizen".

Darius Milhoud

but Satie's influence simply went on growing and contributing as a precursor to numerous artist movements that flourished long after his death : minimalism, Surrealism, repetitive music, and the Theatre of the Absurd


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