Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Musico-Poetic Form in Satie's "Humoristic" Piano Suites (1913-14)

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Musico-Poetic Form in Satie's "Humoristic" Piano Suites (1913-14)

Article excerpt

Erik Satie has become an almost iconic figure in the jagged landscape of contemporary musical aesthetics. His anti-Romantic rejection of the sublime, his glorification of the homely and the commonplace, his highly refined sense of the absurd and the whimsical are the primary qualities that have endeared him to the more iconoclastic members of the critical fraternity. A parody of the bohemian dandy, the strange little man from Normandy emerges as the quintessential modernist.

Stylistic analysis is, of course, fundamental to any critical evaluation of a composer's oeuvre, but with an artist of Satie's strange and fanciful nature there is a strong temptation to substitute anecdote for analytical perception. Consequently the composer's musical achievement has been obscured by a plethora of fascinating documentation concerning his life and times, his literary activities, and his connections with sundry painters, poets, and men and women of the theater. This is an understandable tendency, for like most progressive music composed between 1890 and 1920 Satie's resists traditional analytical methods. Despite its deceptive simplicity his music - as much as Debussy's or Ives' - requires its own analytical framework, one that recognizes the fragile juxtaposition of multiple layers of aesthetic meaning.

It is important to recognize from the outset that Satie was more than simply a musician. The recent publication of his considerable body of writings1 shows him to be a literary figure of some importance and unquestioned individuality. His whimsical drawings and striking calligraphy have received nearly as much attention. And when these literary and artistic fantasies are married to the musical, as in the extraordinarily Satiean Sports et divertissements of 1914, we have a score that properly belongs as much on the walls of an art gallery as on the shelves of a music library. Satie's is an exceedingly fragile art form, a delicate interweaving of individual strands of artistic experience suspended in exquisite balance, and any attempt to define this elusive art is like trying to dissect the proverbial butterfly. As Lothar Klein has noted: "It is useless to comment on any specific work, for Satie's work eludes musical analysis. One must contemplate the whole oeuvre and the thought behind it; comprehending this, the swerving movements of modern music can be followed more easily" (Klein 1966: 25-26).

The series of whimsical piano suites composed in quick succession between April 1913 and July 1914 are not only among Satie's best known keyboard works, they remain the purest examples of the composer's peculiar genius, revealing in abundance the endearing qualities that have become virtually synonymous with his name: wit, parody, irony, fantasy. The most beguiling and perhaps most controversial Satie mannerism - the droll and often nonsensical commentaries sprinkled liberally throughout the scores - is exploited in the suites of 1913-14 and carried to a new level of imaginative fancy. The short, cryptic phrases which began to appear sparingly as early as 1890 in the Gnossiennes where, for example, he instructs the pianist to "think right," "wonder about yourself," play a passage "on the tip of the tongue," or "with amazement," give way to a veritable barrage of bizarre annotations and performance directions. By 1914, beginning with the Heures séculaires et instantanées, the verbal quips are replaced by virtually continuous monologues of a strange, frequently surrealistic nature. The fact that the composer prefaced this work with a "Warning" forbidding the text to be read aloud during performance has fed a certain amount of controversy. Most Satieans are inclined to take the composer at his word in this instance. A notable exception is the American critic Carl Van Vechten, who expressed the opinion as long ago as 1917 that Satie's comments, like the stage directions in a Bernard Shaw play, should be a vital component of the performance, that the audience should be allowed to share in the fun. …

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