One thing everyone knows about Erik Satie is that he was an eccentric. There are many kinds of eccentric and Satie was most of them. He presented himself as a nutty professor figure, not a composer but a ‘gymnopedist’ and ‘phonometrician’. He dined – or so he claimed in his autobiography – only on ‘food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals’. He walked around Paris in priestly robes, then swapped them for a wardrobe full of identical brown corduroy suits; his interests included rare sea creatures, impossible machines, forgotten local history and the occult. He was a romantic and a mystic, of sorts – his brother, Conrad, called him a ‘transcendent idealist’ – and his music, particularly his earlier works for piano, can make listeners feel so serene that the record industry has claimed him as a kind of guru. In the Satie section of the record shop you’ll find Satie: Piano Dreams, 25 Hypnotic Tracks and Chill with Satie, and his work appears on compilations of ‘classical music for babies’. But during his lifetime his mysticism was rarely presented unironically. He wrote a set of haunting, fragile, otherworldly pieces for piano and called them ‘pieces in the shape of a pear’; his attempt to start his own religion in 1893 looks like both a response to a genuine spiritual need and an elaborate prank. He seems to have felt uncomfortable being serious in public, the more so as the public warmed to him. His eccentricity became a disguise, an armour of winking and raillerie concealing a man nobody knew.
His upbringing didn’t dispose him to fit in. He was born in May 1866 in Honfleur, to a French father and an English mother who insisted that he was baptised into the Anglican Church. This turned out to be a false start. His father, Alfred, when he came home from the Franco-Prussian War, got a job as a government translator and moved his family to Paris. Satie’s mother, as well as his youngest sister, died soon after the move. Distraught, Alfred went travelling on his own, and Eric (the ‘k’ was a later affectation), aged six, went back to Honfleur to live with his grandparents, who immediately had him rebaptised as a Catholic. He started taking music lessons with the local church organist. His education was confusing too. When his grandmother died in 1878 Eric and his brother and sister, Conrad and Olga, returned to Paris to live with Alfred, who refused to enrol them at school. He took them to lectures at the Collège de France and the Sorbonne instead, and to the opera. His second wife, a pianist and composer, enrolled Eric and his brother at the Conservatoire. According to one teacher Eric was ‘the laziest student’ in the place, ‘gifted but indolent’ – another called him ‘worthless’. His first piece, for piano, was nine bars long, most of it a quote from a music-hall song called ‘Ma Normandie’. He seems to have found the sounds of the cafés and nightclubs more alluring than the classical tradition, and a ‘Fantaisie-Valse’ and a ‘Valse-Ballet’ followed.
By the mid 1880s Satie was excelling at the vie de bohème. In a photo from 1884 he looks like a startled owl: quizzical, his hair swept back from a glaring forehead, tufts around his ears, and eyes wide open behind his pince-nez. He is evidently still drunk. Like so many young ruined Parisians before him he’d fallen in with a dodgy Spanish poet – J.P. Contamine de Latour, real name José Maria Vicente Ferrer Francisco de Paola Patricio Manuel Contamine, from Tarragona. Years later, Latour managed to piece together the following recollection: ‘We didn’t eat every day, but we never missed an aperitif. I remember a particular pair of trousers and a pair of shoes that used to pass from one to the other, and which we had to mend every morning.’ By night they lived it up in Montmartre; at the Chat Noir especially, a cabaret decorated with a large picture of a cat above the slogan ‘Stop … Be modern!’ When Satie was kicked out of his family home after an affair – it’s alleged – with the maid, he moved into a flat round the corner from it. In 1886 he quit the Conservatoire and volunteered for the army, then got bronchitis more or less deliberately a few months later by spending a winter night outside with no shirt on. He was back in Paris within a year, and on his return he got a job as the Chat Noir’s second pianist. As soon as he was hired he destroyed his old clothes: according to Latour he ‘rolled them into a ball, sat on them, dragged them across the floor, trod on them and drenched them with all kinds of liquid until he’d turned them into complete rags’. Then he bought himself a top hat, Windsor tie and frock coat, initiating himself into dandyism.
Satie spent his apocalyptic hangovers lurking in Notre-Dame and reading Viollet-le-Duc’s treatises on architecture. Conrad remembered his ‘thoughts used to follow the curves of the vaulting and rise towards the Creator’. The result was the Ogives, a group of four piano pieces named after the technical term for the tip of a Gothic arch, all of them very slow, alternating very quiet passages with booming chords played by both hands in parallel, chunky as blocks of stone.He also set Latour’s poetry to music, and the Trois Sarabandes of 1887, Satie’s first suite, were inspired by Latour’s esoteric poem ‘La Perdition’ (‘Suddenly all was revealed and the damned fell/Shrieking and jostling in a whirl …’). These pieces aren’t dissimilar from the Ogives in mood: mostly slow and stately, alternating loud and quiet passages, both hands moving together. But the harmony is crunchier, full of unresolved sevenths and ninths. Unlike most of his contemporaries, who were still imitating Wagner, Satie used harmony to create texture rather than tension, a backdrop of vaporous colour. The chords don’t lead anywhere, they shade the melody. Satie seems to have invented the language of French Impressionism – both Debussy and Ravel praised and were influenced by his innovations – almost by accident.
His most famous pieces are thought to have been inspired by another Latour poem, ‘Les Antiques’, which compares the movement of ‘amber atoms’ in a fire to dancers ‘mingling their sarabande with the gymnopédie’ – the gymnopédie being, according to one popular 19th-century musical dictionary, ‘a nude dance, accompanied by song, which youthful Spartan maidens danced’. Satie started writing his Gymnopédies soon after he started working at the Chat Noir at the end of 1887, and completed them the following spring. They don’t sound much like sparks or like youthful maidens; they’re quiet, slow, poignant. It’s difficult to hear them afresh, particularly the first one, which is one of the best-known pieces of classical music ever (it was recently the sound of Bournville chocolate).But they’re extraordinary. In structural terms they’re very simple: in all three, the left hand plays a slowed down waltz accompaniment while the right hand picks out a melody. But this simplicity helps to conjure a strange feeling of resignation – music written in a state of gnostic exhaustion, when only the sweetest, most direct language would do. There’s so much space in them that they seem to hang in the air like crystal mobiles, fragile and scintillating. The smudgy harmonies and almost modal shape of the melodies makes them sound as if derived from an unidentifiable musical tradition: people suggested ancient Greek; Venusian might have been closer. Debussy, whom Satie befriended on the Montmartre scene, loved them: apparently he heard Satie chuntering through them one day and interrupted him saying, ‘No, let me show you how your music sounds.’ He would later orchestrate them.
It was perhaps inevitable that Satie – irremediably religious, but hardly a typical Catholic – should have found the occult. There was a lot of it about in the Paris of the late 19th century, and many of those involved hung out at the Chat Noir. Satie fell in with Joséphin Péladan, a cape-wearing Kabbalist from Lyon with a forked beard and hair like an electrified bird’s nest. He was the ‘Imperator’ and ‘Sâr’ (a title he claimed was bestowed on his family by a Babylonian king) of a Rosicrucian order called the Rose + Croix esthétique, which Satie joined as its in-house composer. For the inauguration of the Salon de la Rose + Croix, the order’s cultural wing, Satie composed three ‘Sonneries’ for trumpets and harps. No scores of the original version have survived, but Satie later adapted them for piano: the note lengths and the intervals between them appear to have been dictated by the golden ratio.
He broke noisily with the order in 1892 in a letter published in the satirical magazine Gil Blas. He’d never be a disciple, he said, and certainly not of M. Péladan. Soon afterwards he declared his intention to set up a religion of his own, the Eglise Métropolitaine d’Art, ‘a refuge where the Catholic faith and the Arts, which are indissolubly bound to it, shall grow and prosper, sheltered from profanity, expanding in all their purity, unsullied by the workings of evil’. He began to refer to himself as ‘Parcener and Master of the Chapel’, and it was then that he roamed Paris in long, flowing robes. His garret was now his ‘abbatiale’, from which he fired off a series of epistles written in Gothic script in red and black ink and covered with symbols of the church. Three of them are gathered in A Mammal’s Notebook, a nicely presented collection of his writing. In his first epistle an authentic, or authentic-sounding, cry of outrage at the modern world, and a plea for us to find salvation through the Gospel, constantly threatens to collapse into piss-take under the weight of its own hyperbole: ‘We live in a troubled time when Western society, daughter of the Apostolic Roman Catholic Church, is invaded by the shades of ungodliness, a thousand times more barbarous than in the days of Paganism, and seems near to perishing.’
Soon after the founding of the Eglise Métropolitaine, Satie and Latour wrote a ‘Christian ballet’ about the conversion of the pagan Uspud, an extraordinarily odd piece of theatre. A Mammal’s Notebook reprints the stage directions. It opens with Uspud playing knuckle-bones in the desert beside a semi-circle of statues. There are skeletons in the middle distance. Uspud crushes the bones, puts the powder in an incense burner, and the smoke turns into cherub’s wings, which flutter in the air. Uspud collapses. The air turns white. A beautiful woman appears: ‘It is the Christian church.’ She throws aside her cloak and stands there in a gold tunic, looking a bit like Wonder Woman. Uspud throws stones at her, which turn into fireballs. There’s a clap of thunder and the statues grind their teeth. A volcano rises up in the middle of the stage and spits stars. Uspud collapses again. When he comes to, he has a beard and his hair has turned white. That’s Act I. Somehow Satie managed to stage Uspud as a shadow theatre piece at the Auberge du Clou. He also petitioned the Opéra. When the director didn’t respond, Satie challenged him to a duel, which frightened him enough to give Satie a hearing; but then Satie declared that if he was going to allow the Opéra to take the piece, work on the production would need to be vetted by a committee of forty musicians, hand-picked by him and Latour. The plan seems to have stalled there.
In early 1893, Satie started a relationship with the painter and former trapeze artist Suzanne Valadon. She kept two cats to whom she fed caviar on Fridays and described as ‘good Catholics’, as well as a goat, who ate any art she wasn’t pleased with. Satie recognised a kindred spirit and the two fell in love. He nicknamed her ‘Biqui’ and wrote a jarring, utterly unromantic, four-bar piece for her called Bonjour, Biqui, Bonjour!: three diminished chords to be played ‘very slowly’. Their relationship fell apart after six months, leaving Satie devastated. He wrote to his brother: ‘I shall have great difficulty in regaining possession of myself … She was able to take all of me.’ Another composer might have poured his feelings into a tempestuous storm of a piece; Satie wrote the infuriating Vexations, a short, creepy-sounding motif which was intended to be repeated a mind-numbing 840 times. The piece wasn’t performed in full until 1963, when John Cage managed it with a relay team of 11 pianists: it took 18 and a half hours. The relationship with Valadon was, as far as we know, the last sexual relationship Satie had.
His despondency slowed down his rate of production. For at least two years, his friend Augustin Grass-Mick recalled, he ‘did absolutely nothing at all’. He came into some money in 1895, and immediately blew almost all of it on seven identical chestnut-coloured corduroy suits with matching hats, acquiring the nickname of ‘velvet gentleman’ from his friends. A couple of months later he was broke again. In 1897 he managed to finish a piece, the sixth Gnossienne (from gnostic? Knossos?), a series of piano pieces he’d started in 1889. It’s perhaps the most alien of the set, jerky and not exactly atonal, but of unstable tonality – one bar in one key, the next in another.But it wasn’t until he cleared out of his garret in 1898 and moved to the suburb of Arcueil-Cachan that he began to feel himself again. Walking seems to have helped. Every day he walked the ten kilometres from Arcueil to Paris, setting off in the morning with his umbrella tucked under his arm, and staggering back in the small hours. According to another friend, George Auriol, he carried a hammer in his pocket for protection as he crossed the bandit-ridden stretch between Glacière and La Santé. Friends would sometimes accompany him and Satie would entertain them with his knowledge of Parisian history. Pierre-Daniel Templier, his first biographer, painted a charming picture of Satie on the move: ‘When talking he would stop, bend one knee a little, adjust his pince-nez and place his fist on his hip. Then he would take off once more with small, deliberate steps.’
He got a job accompanying the popular chansonnier Vincent Hyspa, whose satirical lyrics Satie set to music. Their first song together, ‘Un dîner à l’Elysée’, is about a dinner party thrown by the president for the artists of Montmartre: the conversation is stilted, the wine runs out, and the artists, for all their revolutionary bluster, bow and scrape to the president. Hyspa wrote the lyrics, but the subject suited a composer who had just turned his back on the Montmartre scene, moved to the suburbs and got himself a ‘real’ job. He managed to work on a few serious-ish pieces on the side. One was Geneviève de Brabant, a spoof opera for the shadow theatre based on a famous medieval canticle about a duchess who is falsely accused of infidelity and exiled to the forest, where she befriends a deer. Another was La Mort de Monsieur Mouche, a three-act play by Latour for which Satie composed the music: all that remains of it are a few sketches which reveal that Satie was working with figures derived from ragtime, more than a decade before Debussy did the same in his ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’. But neither work was performed, and in June 1900 Satie wrote to his brother: ‘I’m dying of boredom … Everything I begin timidly fails with a certainty I’ve never known before.’ He began writing for the music-hall star Paulette Darty, with whom he had more creative freedom than he did with Hyspa, and the sentimental waltzes he produced for her, ‘Je te veux’ and ‘Tendrement’, are among the finest popular songs of the era. In 1903, he produced one of his best pieces, Trois Morceaux en forme de poire for piano duet. There are several theories of what Satie meant by ‘the shape of a pear’, the most elaborate of them being that it encoded his anti-royalist politics: poire – slang for ‘fool’ – was King Louis-Philippe’s nickname in the early 19th century. Another interpretation is that the title was intended as a playful rebuke to Debussy, who’d told Satie that though his music had genius it lacked ‘form’. It may have been the case that Satie simply liked the idea of music that made false statements about itself: the music isn’t in the shape of a pear, and the set contains seven pieces, not three.
Public acclaim still eluded him, and Satie began to feel that it was his lack of technique that was holding him back. ‘There is a musical language and one must learn it,’ he declared, and he changed his outfit again, swapping the corduroy suits for a conservative three-piece suit and a bowler hat, and enrolled at the Schola Cantorum, a prestigious music school in the Latin Quarter. The one-time laziest student in the Conservatoire, now forty years old, applied himself diligently to counterpoint, orchestration, chorale harmonisation and fugue writing – and despite Debussy’s comment that he wouldn’t be able ‘to shed his skin’ (Debussy could be quite patronising), he scored well in his exams. Among the fruits of his labours was En habit de cheval, a set of chorales and fugues which he was now able to orchestrate for an ensemble of wind, string and brass instruments.But Satie doesn’t seem to have thought the work was worth it. In January 1911, soon after his graduation, he wrote again to Conrad: ‘The things I wrote before had such charm! Such depth! And now? How boring and uninteresting!’
He had just received confirmation that his earlier work wasn’t worthless after all. The evening before he wrote that letter, Ravel, as head of the Société Musicale Indépendante, had showcased Satie’s music at the Salle Gaveau with a programme that included the second ‘Sarabande’ and the third ‘Gymnopédie’, played by Ravel himself. The programme notes referred to Satie’s ‘prescience’ and the ‘quasi-prophetical character of certain harmonic discoveries’. A few weeks later, Debussy conducted a rapturously received performance of his orchestrations of the Gymnopédies. A spread on the composer appeared in the Revue musicale, and several of his works were published for the first time, including Trois Morceaux en forme de poire and En habit de cheval. When a group of younger composers suggested to him that he should be known as the ‘Prince of Musicians’ he at first demurred, then changed his mind: ‘Music needs a prince … she shall have one, by God.’
Buoyed by his new celebrity, Satie produced a flurry of ‘humoristic suites’ for piano, a dozen of them between 1912 and 1915. These are miniature plays for the performer’s imagination: the scores have text running through them, and the music mirrors the words. ‘D’Holothurie’ is the first of the suite Embryons desséchés (at the top of the score there’s a short passage telling you what a holothurie is – ‘ignorant people call them sea cucumbers’). It begins with a simple semiquaver figure in the left hand; ‘It is raining,’ the score says, and Satie adds in a plangent descending figure in thirds in the right hand. ‘The sun is in the clouds’ and the right hand switches to a bright arpeggio. Later, the sea cucumber is described as purring ‘like a nightingale with toothache’ and both hands switch to chirrups.Sports et divertissements (1914), which appears in full in A Mammal’s Notebook, added pictures. It was commissioned by the fashion magazine La Gazette du bon ton, whose publisher Satie had been introduced to by a friend. Each piece has a picture at the top drawn by the illustrator Charles Martin in the style of a fashion shoot. The words and music stand in for captions. ‘Le Golf’, for example, tells a story about a cocky colonel’s comeuppance on the links:
The colonel is wearing shocking green ‘Scotch Tweed’.
He will be victorious.
His ‘caddie’ follows him carrying his ‘bags’.
The clouds are amazed.
The ‘holes’ are all a-tremble: the colonel is here!
And now he is playing his shot:
His ‘club’ flies into pieces!
At ‘He will be victorious’ the left hand plays a strident, tromping figure in octaves. The colonel’s club shatters with a rapid upwards run of semiquavers ending in shrill fortissimo.
After Sports et divertissements Satie began mixing with a more glamorous crowd, and the later suites premiered at chichi venues: Heures séculaires at the Galerie Barbazanges, an art gallery run by the fashion designer Paul Poiret, who pioneered trousers for women; Avant-Dernières Pensées at the Galerie Thomas, which was run by Poiret’s sister. Among the glitterati, Satie was introduced to Cocteau, with whom he had an immediate rapport. They started working together on a ballet based on the sideshow acts at a fairground: conjurors, acrobats, dancing horses. Parade was to be the ultimate synthesis of high and low art, combining fashion, advertising, cinema and popular music with classical modernism. There was no need this time to threaten pistols at dawn: the Ballets Russes readily took it on as the only new work in their one wartime Paris season. The costumes and decor were by Picasso. But despite the glamour, the press wasn’t convinced. Le Figaro accused Satie of laboriously reproducing ‘the burlesque effects that even a dozen fairground musicians can produce without effort’. Its lone defender in print was Apollinaire, who wrote of Parade’s ‘astonishingly expressive music, so clear and simple that it seems to reflect the marvellously lucid spirit of France’.
Still Satie continued his ascent. Cocteau wrote a piece about him for Vanity Fair, praising his ability to ‘marry the racket of a cheap music hall with the dreams of children’, and followed it up with a book, Le Coq et l’arlequin, which called for a new French music ‘based on the music hall, the circus [and] American Negro orchestras’. The Princesse de Polignac – the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, who’d married into the French aristocracy – commissioned him to write a setting of The Death of Socrates. An orchestral version of it premiered at a Festival Erik Satie sponsored by Count Etienne de Beaumont and attended by Paris’s wealthiest. La Belle Excentrique, a work of pastiche cycling through three decades of Parisian dance culture, from march through waltz to cancan, ended up at Poiret’s private garden club, l’Oasis, with Satie conducting. Then in 1923 Etienne de Beaumont booked the team behind Parade – Satie, Cocteau, Picasso – to produce the opening entertainment for his annual costume ball, the high point of the Parisian social calendar. Satie wrote his music for the newly restored 18th-century organ in the Beaumonts’ drawing room, but to prove that he was still the arch-modern, and not some backward-looking medievalist, he wrote to Beaumont: ‘The organ isn’t necessarily religious and funereal, good old instrument that it is. Just remember the gilt-painted merry-go-round.’ Beaumont funded more projects, the most substantial a ballet called Les Aventures de Mercure, which opened in 1924 at La Cigale in Montmartre, a venue notorious for its risqué all-girl revues.
But Satie wasn’t, perhaps, as clubbable as all that. Later that year he fell out with Cocteau, who had been attending opium parties in Monte Carlo with Poulenc and Georges Auric at the house of a critic who’d had the temerity to ignore Satie’s contribution to the Ballets Russes’ Grand French Festival. Satie was already mixing with a different crowd. He had met Man Ray at an exhibition of Ray’s work in 1921, and they’d gone drinking together. (On his way back to the gallery Ray bought a box of tacks and an iron, glued them together, and added them to the show – ‘This,’ he said, ‘was my first Dada object in France.’) Satie contributed to the Dadaist magazine Coeur à barbe. And in 1923 Tristan Tzara asked him to organise the music for a Dadaist soiree. Surrealist thugs gatecrashed it – one audience member recalled Breton rampaging around, clubbing people with his walking stick – and the police had to be called.
By the time Satie broke with Cocteau he was already working on a ballet with Francis Picabia called Relâche based on a script about Parisian nightlife by Blaise Cendrars, and in December 1924 it opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. It wasn’t unconfrontational. The set was studded with 370 mirrors and scrawled with graffiti telling dissatisfied audience members to fuck off, and the ballet began with a film of Satie and Picabia jumping up and down on top of the theatre then firing a cannon in the direction of the viewer. There was a scene in which a man in tails chased the female lead round the stage in a wheelchair; and another – the ‘Dance of the Revolving Door’ – in which she stripped to a rose-coloured body stocking and was then paraded round the stage. In the second half the men stripped to tights and top hats and the woman dumped their clothes in a wheelbarrow, then threw a wreath to a man in the audience who got to choose a ‘queen’ for the night. ‘Reactionary “muttonheads” will hurl their thunderbolts,’ Satie correctly predicted. In the Revue Pleyel Alexis Roland-Manuel wrote that ‘Dada waylaid Satie … Relâche is the most stupid and boring thing in the world.’
It was the last substantial piece of work he completed. In the winter of 1925 the vie de bohème caught up with him and he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. By February he was housebound, so friends put him up at the Grand Hôtel on the Place de l’Opéra; he hated it and moved to a hotel in Montparnasse that was shabbier but more fun. By April he had developed pleurisy and had to be hospitalised. On 1 July, after receiving the last rites, he died. His last words – was he mentally sketching another humoristic suite? – were ‘Ah! The cows …’ After the funeral at Arcueil, Conrad, Milhaud and some other friends gathered at Satie’s flat. They were the first people besides Satie to see it for decades. Milhaud was shocked by the state of it:
It seemed impossible that Satie lived in such poverty. The man … 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. In each corner of the room there were piles of old newspapers, old hats and walking sticks.
Satie had charmed away any curiosity about what his life alone in Arcueil might have been like. In the end, the dandy, priest and velvet gentleman owned nothing but his disguises.
As a composer who seemed to have taken pains to cleanse his work of seriousness, Satie’s reputation didn’t fare well in the heyday of high serialism. In his 1932 biography, Templier wrote: ‘Today his name no longer appears on concert programmes; and although we consider this to be an excellent thing, its consequence is that we cannot “judge” him.’ Sixteen years later, Satie’s second biographer, Rollo Myers, wrote that Satie’s name ‘is usually pronounced with either a sneer or an air of amused condescension … The neglect and oblivion by which his music has been shrouded are, I venture to suggest, unjustified,’ he declared, not because the music was any good but because Debussy and Ravel had inexplicably held it to be.
Satie was partly rescued by John Cage, who in the late 1950s took to championing his work. A tribute to Satie by Cage appeared in the Art News Annual of 1958. Much of it concerns the Musique d’ameublement, a proto-ambient piece from 1920 that Satie intended to be ‘part of the noises of the environment … softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself’. In Satie, Cage found another artist interested in letting chance into composition; a vindication of his own direction. But Cage’s endorsement meant that people became interested in Satie for his ideas, and the influence they had on the avant-garde of the second half of the 20th century, rather than for his music. That doesn’t seem right either. Perhaps the best way to see Satie is not as a classical musician who failed to become a great composer, but as an art-rock star avant la lettre. His career contained all the phases of 1970s art-rock history, though not in the same order: a proggy occult phase, a glam phase, a Bryan Ferryish lounge pop phase, a Brian Enoish ambient phase, a David Bowieish decadent nightclub phase; Bonjour, Biqui, Bonjour! was his punk phase. Debussy and Ravel (not to mention Poulenc, Fauré, Milhaud and others) may have written grander pieces. But while they were busy with concertos and sonatas, Satie was working on surreal pop operas, shadow plays and lo-fi Gesamtkunstwerken, experimenting with film, flirting with Dada and hanging out with the couture crowd. He may not have been a great composer, but he was a great Satie.