Reading: 'SATIE, Eric (Erik) Leslie'
by Dr Henry Prunières
from A dictionary of modern music & musicians. 1924, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London & Toronto: p.437
Fr. compr. (mother English); b. Honfleur, 17 May, 1866. One of the most original characters in modern music. After studying for some years at the Paris Conservatoire where he made the acquaintance of Paul Dukas, Satie, in his passion for Gregorian music, sought original effects from the use of ancient forms, and ventured to risk harmonic combinations and sequences which the boldest of his contemporaries, even a Chabrier or a Lalo, would not have dared to write. Les Sarabandes (1887), Les Gymnopédies, Less Gnossiennes (1889), introduce the harmonic style which definitely took its legitimate rank in music in the masterpieces of Debussy.
Debussy made the acquaintance of Satie about 1890 in a Montmatre cabaret where the latter was a pianist. At a time when Debussy was still wavering, Satie saw clearly that Wagerianism was dead, and that the rhetoric of the leit-motiv must be abandoned. In the incidental music to the Fils des Étoiles, he endeavoured to create a sonorous atmosphere and background. His ideas, much more than his music, seem to have helped Debussy to find himself.
Satie has remained poor and obscure all his life. Ravel, who came very much under his influence during his youth, did his utmost to secure just recognition for him, but the public refused to take him seriously. One must admit that Satie, with his whimsical humour, seemed to make mock of the public with his absurd titles, which often disguised pianoforte pieces of rare charm and originality: e.g. Pièces froides (Cold Pieces), Morceaux en forme de poire (Pear-shaped Pieces), Préludes flasques (Limp Preludes - to a dog) (Rouart, Lerolle, etc.)
Satie, who to a certain extent had foretold the coming of musical Impressionism, realised in 1913 that music was to follow an evolution similar to that of painting, and that subtleties of notation and fugitive nuances were to give way to strong outlines and poise. He himself composed an original work in this style, Socrate (La Sirène, 1918) consisting of fragments of Platonic dialogue in music. It is the chief work of his late period. The melody which consists of a very simple theme, rises clear above an accompaniment which is obstinately repeated. The total impression is strangely archaic. In spite of some pages of great beauty, his work has never been appreciated at its true worth, because the public insists on seeing Satie merely as a humorist. He has been adopted as a "totem" by the younger French musicians, but only Poulenc and Auric have really shown signs of his influence. In Parade and various orchestral works, Satie tries, as they do, to draw his inspiration from jazz and café-chantant music; but his last compositions in this style are very mediocre.
Consult: A. Cœuroy, La musique française moderne (Paris, 1922); J. Cocteau, Le Coq et l'Arlequin (Eng. transl. London, Egoist Press). - H.P. [Henry Prunières]