Sue Young Histories

Eric Alfred Leslie Satie 1866 – 1925

April 16, 2009

Eric Alfred Leslie Satie 1866 – 1925 was a French composer and pianist.

Satie was raised by his uncle Adrien Satie, who was an ardent advocate of homeopathy, and he founded a homeopathic journal.

Satie was the official composer and chapel master of the Rosicrucian Order, and a close friend of Josephin Peladan, the brother of Adrien Peladan

Satie was also a friend of Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Pablo Picasso, Joseph Maurice Ravel, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, and he knew many of the intelligentsia assembled at the bookshop of Edmond Bailly.

Erik Satie’s youth was spent alternating between living in Honfleur, Basse Normandie, and Paris. When he was four years old, his family moved to Paris, his father (Alfred), having been offered a translator’s job in the capital.

After his mother (born Jane Leslie Anton, who was born in London to Scottish parents) died in 1872, he was sent, together with his younger brother Conrad, back to Honfleur, to live with his paternal grandparents. There he received his first music lessons from a local organist.

When his grandmother died in 1878, the two brothers were reunited with their father in Paris, who remarried (a piano teacher) shortly afterwards. From the early 1880s onwards, Satie started publishing salon compositions (by his new wife and himself, among others).

In 1879 Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was soon labelled untalented by his teachers. After being sent home for two and a half years, he was readmitted to the Conservatoire at the end of 1885, but was unable to make a much more favourable impression on his teachers than he had before, and, as a result, resolved to take up military service a year later. However, Satie’s military career did not last very long; within a few weeks he left the army through deceptive means.

In 1887 Satie left home to take lodgings in Montmartre. By this time he had started what was to be an enduring friendship with the romantic poet Patrice Contamine, and had had his first compositions published by his father. He soon integrated with the artistic clientèle of the Le Chat Noir Café cabaret, and started publishing his Gymnopédies. Publication of compositions in the same vein (Ogives, Gnossiennes, etc.) followed.

In the same period he befriended Claude Debussy. He moved to a smaller room, still in Montmartre (rue Cortot N° 6), in 1890. By 1891 he was the official composer and chapel master of the Rosicrucian Order, led by Josephin Peladan, which led to compositions such as Salut Drapeau!, Le Fils des étoiles, and the Sonneries de la Rose+Croix.

By mid 1892 he had composed the first pieces in a compositional system of his own making (Fête donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l’Honneur d’une jeune Demoiselle), had provided incidental music to a chivalric esoteric play (two Prélude du Nazaréen), had had his first hoax published (announcing the premiere of Le Bâtard de Tristan, an anti Wagnerian opera he probably never composed), and had broken with Josephin Peladan, starting that autumn with the Uspud project, a “Christian Ballet”, in collaboration with Contamine de Latour.

While the comrades from both the Chat Noir and Miguel Utrillo’s Auberge du Clou sympathised, a promotional brochure was produced for the project, which reads as a pamphlet for a new esoteric sect.

Satie and Suzanne Valadon, an artists’ model and artist in her own right, and a long time friend of Miguel Utrillo (and mother of Maurice Utrillo), began an affair early in 1893. After their first night together, he proposed marriage. The two did not marry, but Suzanne Valadon moved to a room next to Satie’s at the Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, and writing impassioned notes about “her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet”.

During their relationship, Satie composed the Danses Gothiques as a kind of prayer to restore peace of mind, and Suzanne Valadon painted a portrait of Satie, which she gave to him. After six months she moved away, leaving Satie broken hearted. Afterwards, he said that he was left with “nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”. It is believed this was the only intimate relationship Satie ever had.

In the same year he met the young Joseph Maurice Ravel for the first time, Satie’s style emerging in the first compositions of the youngster. One of Satie’s own compositions of that period, the Vexations, was to remain undisclosed until after his death.

By the end of the year he had founded the Eglise Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur (the Metropolitan Church of Art of the Leading Christ). As its only member, in the role of “Parcier et Maître de Chapelle” he started to compose a Grande Messe (later to become known as the Messe des Pauvres), and wrote a flood of letters, articles and pamphlets showing off his self assuredness in religious and artistic matters…

In 1895 he inherited some money, allowing him to have more of his writings printed, and to change from wearing a priest like habit to being the “Velvet Gentleman”.

By mid 1896 all his financial means had vanished, and he had to move to cheaper lodgings, first at the Rue Cortot, to a room not much bigger than a cupboard, and two years later (after he’d composed the two first sets of Pièces froides in 1897), to Arcueil, a suburb some five kilometers from the centre of Paris (in the Val de Marne district of the Île de France).

At this period he re-established contact with his brother Conrad (in much the way Vincent van Gogh had with his brother Theo) for numerous practical and financial matters, disclosing some of his inner feelings in the process. The letters to Conrad made it clear that he had set aside any religious ideas (which were not to return until the last months of his life).

From the winter of 1898 – 1899, Satie could be seen, as a daily routine, leaving his apartment in the Parisian suburb of Arcueil to walk across Paris to either Montmartre or Montparnasse, before walking back again in the evening.

From 1899 on he started making money as a cabaret pianist (mostly accompanying Vincent Hyspa, later also Paulette Darty), adapting over a hundred compositions of popular music for piano (or piano and voice), adding some of his own…

In his later years Satie would reject all his cabaret music as vile and against his nature (although he revived some of the fun of it in his 1920 Belle excentrique), but for the time being, it was an income…

In October 1905 Satie enrolled in Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum to study classical counterpoint (while still continuing his cabaret work). Most of his friends were as dumbfounded as the professors at the Schola when they heard about his new plan to return to the classrooms (especially as Vincent d’Indy was an admiring pupil of Camile Saint Saens, not particularly favoured by Satie)…

In the meantime, other changes had also taken place: Satie had become a member of a radical (socialist) party, had socialised with the Arcueil community (amongst other things, he’d been involved in the “Patronage Laïque” work for children), and he had changed his appearance to that of the ‘bourgeois functionary’ (with bowler hat, umbrella, etc.).

Also, instead of involving himself again in any kind of medievalist sect, he channeled these interests into a peculiar secret hobby: in a filing cabinet he maintained a collection of imaginary buildings (most of them described as being made out of some kind of metal), which he drew on little cards. Occasionally, extending the game, he would publish anonymous small announcements in local journals, offering some of these buildings (e.g., a “castle in lead”) for sale or rent.

From this point, things started to move very quickly for Satie. First, there was, starting in 1912, the success of his new “miniature”, humorous piano pieces; he was to write and publish many of these over the next few years (most of them premiered by the pianist Ricardo Vines)…

But the real acceleration in Satie’s life did not come so much from the increasing success of his new piano pieces. In fact, it was Joseph Maurice Ravel who (perhaps unwittingly) triggered something that was to become a characteristic of Satie’s remaining years and part of each progressive movement that manifested itself in Paris over the following years.

These movements succeeded one another rapidly, at a time in which Paris was seen as the artistic capital of the world (long before London or New York would achieve much significance in this regard), and the beginning of the new century appeared to have set many minds on fire.

In 1910 the “Jeunes Ravêlites”, a group of young musicians around Joseph Maurice Ravel, proclaimed their preference for Satie’s earlier work (from before the Schola period), reinforcing the idea that Satie had been a precursor of Claude Debussy.

At first Satie was pleased that at least some of his works were receiving public attention, but when he realised that this meant that his more recent work was overlooked or dismissed, he looked for other young artists who related better to his more recent ideas, so as to have better mutual support in creative activity. Thus young artists such as Roland Manuel, and later Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau, started to receive more of his attention than the “Jeunes”.

As a result of his contact with Roland Manuel, Satie again began publicising his thoughts, with far more irony than he had done before (amongst other things, the Mémoires d’un amnésique and Cahiers d’un mammifère).

With Jean Cocteau, whom he had first met in 1915, Satie started work on incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (resulting in the Cinq Grimaces). From 1916, he and Cocteau worked on the ballet Parade, which was premiered in 1917 by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso, and choreography by Léonide Massine.

Through Pablo Picasso, Satie also became acquainted with other cubists, such as Georges Braque, with whom he would work on other, aborted, projects.

With Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, and Germaine Tailleferre Satie formed the Nouveaux Jeunes, shortly after writing Parade. Later the group was joined by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud.

In September 1918, Satie - giving little or no explanation - withdrew from the Nouveaux Jeunes. Jean Cocteau gathered the six remaining members, forming the Groupe des Six (to which Satie would later have access, but later again would fall out with most of its members).

From 1919 Satie was in contact with Tristan Tzara, the initiator of the Dada movement. He became acquainted with other artists involved in the movement, such as Francis Picabia (later to become a Surrealist), André Derain, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, among others. On the day of his first meeting with Man Ray, the two fabricated the artist’s first readymade: The Gift (1921). Satie contributed writing to the Dadaist publication 391.

In the first months of 1922 he was surprised to find himself entangled in the argument between Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton about the true nature of avant-garde art, epitomised by the failure of the Congrès de Paris. Satie originally sides with Tristan Tzara, but manages to maintain friendly relations with most players in both camps.

Meanwhile, an “Ecole d’Arcueil” had formed around Satie, with young musicians like Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob, Roger Desormiere and Henri Cliquet Pleyel.

Finally he composed an “instantaneist” ballet (Relâche) in collaboration with Francis Picabia, for the Ballets Suédois of Rolf de Mare. In a simultaneous project, Satie added music to the surrealist film Entr’acte by Rene Clair, which was given as an intermezzo for Relâche.


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