Erik Satie of Paris: His World and His Influence on It
Patricia Redman Fuller ‘65
“I came into a very young world in a very old time.” – Erick Satie
It became clear in the final decades of the nineteenth century that the romantic impulse had exhausted itself. The lavish and the lyrical had run their courses, culminating in the overblown gestures that mark the decline of a tradition. Composers reaching artistic maturity in the last decade of the century could but feel, as Satie did, that they had indeed come into the world in a “very old time.” Some critics of the twentieth century point out that the historic task of these men was bridging the gulf between a dying romanticism and a burgeoning twentieth century. Creative artists, however, seldom (if ever) think of themselves as “bridge” composers or of their time as one of mere transition. “It is the nature of things,” wrote Stravinsky, “that epochs which immediately precede us are temporarily further away from us than others which are more remote in time” And so it was that the artists of the first quarter of the twentieth century felt impelled above all else to shake themselves free of the oppressive heritage of the nineteenth-century romanticism. These composers fought not only the romanticism of the past but the romanticism within themselves.
Erik Satie, innovator extraordinaire, classes himself among the fantaisistees who were, in his opinion, highly respectable people. He earned a living as a pianist in a Montmartre cabaret. He did not hesitate to write popular songs for music-hall entertainers and sometimes introduced popular elements into his serious works. His contemporaries were so puzzled by his music, with its outlandish titles and whimsical instructions, that they could not accurately measure his importance. Yet Satie was a serious artist who exerted a powerful artistic force. His innovations should be viewed as evidence of his sharp critical penetration into the weaknesses of the mannerisms which romanticism and impressionism had often accumulated. In his earnest attempts to correct these excesses, he sometimes incurred excesses in the opposite direction. Satie anticipated much of the harmonic writing of Debussy and his music suggests some of the experimentation of the so-called twentieth-century modernist group. He rebelled against composers who were pompous, self-centered, and overly serious about their roles in music. His revolts against excessive emotionalism, overblown forms, and pretentiously romantic writing brought to music a refreshing simplicity. He led French music in a new healthy direction, a direction soon adopted by the French groups Les Six (Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre) and L’ Scole d’ Arcucil (Roger Deeormiere, Henri Clicquot-Pleyel, Maxime Jacob, and Henri Sauguet), as well as by Maurice Ravel.
An eccentric, a wit, a deliberate enigma usually finds a following in the comparatively small and closed world of Parisian art. That Satie opposed all authority and resisted every traditional form of aesthetic government enhanced his charm in those sophisticated circles where the Gallic love of insubordination was predominant. Because Satie was a clown, “a strange being who seemed to have come down from the heavens” (as Cocteau put it), he baffled the general public who saw only this superficial aspect of his personality. The average man did not bother to look beneath the bemused twinkle in Satie’s eye. Had the public probed deeper, it would have discovered one of the most profound and fascinating personalities the artistic world has yet produced. Such is the tragedy of Satie.
An anonymous remark overheard as Jean Cocteau put it, at the premiere of Parade on May 18, 1917, sums up rather benevolently the surprise and stupefaction of many simple souls: “Had I known it was so silly, I would have brought along children.” Only an extremely insensitive person could have found insolence (as did critic Pierre Lalo) in the grippingly clear music of the “velvet gentleman.”
A few of Satie’s contemporaries, however, were perceptive enough to sense that their interest in Satie’s music was based on more than mild curiosity: that beneath Satie’s bizarre and satirical exterior there boiled and bubbled a vitally essential substance, that a small but persistent and important voice was struggling to be heard–a voice of clarity, of poignancy, of integrity. Those who listened were drawn irresistibly to that voice and became Satie’s personal friends and faithful disciples who preached relentlessly the gospel of their bon maitre. It was no mere coincidence that Satie’s finest work was a portrait of Socrates, for in the tragedy Socrate, Satie was unconsciously recounting his own story.
Satie had the misfortune of coming into the world of culture at an inopportune moment. His aesthetic was an obvious anachronism. Milhaud has called him “a man in advance of his time.” Debussy has referred to him as “a gentle medieval musician, strayed into this century.” Wherever the truth may rest, he struggled to swim upstream against the prevailing current of Wagnerism and was thus ironically bypassed in the flow of the mainstream of music. He called for “native music, if possible with sauerkraut.” Cocteau, reaffirming this, said: “All Music which one listens to with one’s head in one’s hands is suspect.” Satie achieved his greatest triumph in the scandal and controversy engendered by Parade. Says Georges Auric: “But as for me, I thought of 1917, of the ‘boos’ at the Chalet, of the articles by these gentlemen. I also thought of the bon maitre.” Could he have wished for more? Should he have wished for more? Perhaps not. But then again, was not this a rather hollow victory? Now that Satie was known by the bewildered majority and appreciated by a thoughtful minority, was he any more nearly understood by anyone? He thought not. The true Erik Satie was not the ardent young mystic of the Rosicrucian works or the good-humored wit of the music-hall burlesque, or even the inventor of sets of humorous piano pieces. The essence of Erik Satie reveals itself rather in certain of his gently cynical and disillusioned comments and in the entirely serious works of both his very early and very late periods. The Sarabandes, the Gymnopediea, the whimsical Gnossiennes, Socrate, and the Nocturnes for piano these are the works of the real Satie–the Satie who could state with a poignantly sincere simplicity:
Listen my friends: when I leave you like this and must go home on foot, it is towards dawn I come near Arcueil. When I pass through the woods, the birds beginning to sing, I see an old tree, its leaves rustling. I go near; I put my arms around it and think: What a good character, never to have harmed anyone.
Today, scarcely forty years, [now eighty!] after Satie’s death, Scholars have begun to see the Master of Arcueil with the increased insight that historical perspective brings. Forty years hence the historical perspective should have widened, and the influence of Satie may well have broadened, too. In practice, however, the analysis of influence is necessarily a subtle and subjective process. For this reason, it is not entirely possible to predict the measure of influence Satie will yield four decades from now. Despite the historical perspective which has accumulated since 1925, Paul Rosenfeld’s expressive characterization of Satie, written two years before the composer’s death, remains the most perceptive analysis available. Says Rosenfeld:
[Satie’s work] is a vein of sudden visitations only…and it does not trickle often. Were Satie not as cute as he is; were he without his healthy humility, his good natured perspective on himself, it might easily have been abused…Fortunately, he has not needed to see himself writing “great” music. He has been able to listen for his diminutive vein; to let it murmur its few measures where it will; and then to set them down for what they may be worth!
Erik Satie “came into a very young world in a very old time.” And Erick Satie, together with his disciples, has helped to revitalize music of this world and has prolonged its youthfulness for a while.
 Joseph Machlis, The Enjoyment of Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1957), p. 319
 Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography (New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1936), p. 91
 William Austin, “Satie Before and After Cocteau,” The Musical Quarterly, XLVIII (April, 1962), pp. 216-233.
 Donald N. Ferguson, A History of Musical Thought (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959), pp. 342-343.
 Gerald Gwen, The Complete Book of 20th Century Music, (New York: Prentice-Hill, Inc., 1952), pp. 342-343.
 Paul Collaer, A History of Modern Music, trans. Sally Abeles (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1961), p. 206.
 Martin Cooper, French Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), p. 181.
 Morgenestern, ed., Composers on Music (New York: Pantheon, 1956., p. 520.
 John Cage, Silence, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1962), p. 82.
 Paul Hosenfeld, Musical Chronicle (1917-1923) (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1923), pp. 178-179.