Tag Archives: Satie

Sweet melancholy: Satie’s ‘Je te veux’

There is something almost unbearably melancholic about Satie’s elegaic song, ‘Je te veux,’ especially in this beautifully nuanced performance by Jessye Norman.

ScoreThe first phrase yearns upwards, starting on the mediant and moving E – G – D ; there’s no tonic in this first gesture, instead the phrase reaches beyond it to land on the ‘D’ before falling back to ‘C,’ although not for long: the phrase then descends D – C – B – A, with a brief trip to E before the B (the sweeping melody rising from the bass-clef beginning in bar 5). In fact, on closer inspection, the melody only articulates a ‘C’ once in its whole sixteen-bar duration; the leading-note, B natural, appears to have a greater significance, as though the melody is aspiring to, but canever quite attain, the tonic.

That initial gesture is the key to the whole piece – a yearning, a reaching for something (or someone), with the arch-shape of the melody going beyond the tonic and and moving over it. without staying on it for any significant length. The fact that the melodic line doesn’t dwell on the tonic gives the piece its rootless, moving quality. The only time we really feel at ease is at the end of the verse (and its subsequent reprises), when the line finally descends onto, and remains on, C, a fact Satie emphasises at the eventual end of the piece when the melody ends with those final three descending notes (E to C) transposed up an octave.

(You can see a copy of the score for solo piano here.)

Satie published it in several incarnations – piano and voice (1903), orchestra, brass and piano solo. For all his riotous tricks in the later ballet scores Parade and Relache, the quirky titles and in-score annotations for the performer to read in piano works such as the Sonatine bureacratique, Je te veux is perhaps a rare moment of Satie wearing his heart on his sleeve. It’s a short, lyrical, and somehow achingly sad moment amongst the rest of Satie’s challenging output.

Satie: the Classical style gone mad

In 1917, amidst the latter stages of the horrors of the First World War, with the guns echoing over the disastrous offences in Ypres and Passchendaele, and the introduction of a new weapon by the British called the tank, Satie was writing his Sonatine bureaucratique.

Representing a return to the civilised values of the Classical period (and anticipating Stravinsky’s much-vaunted neo-Classical phase by three years), the piece also confronts those same values head-on and takes them apart. The work is full of forbidden ostinati, passages of needless repetition, and juxtaposed blocks of material in Cubist fashion. All these techniques serve to undermine a Classical sense of order and organic unity, where material is unified through a system of related keys and formal principles.

The piece parades a series of parodies and inversions of well-known Classical ideas, especially melodic material from Clementi’s piano sonata Op 36 no.1.

Yet, as listening to the piece proves, it’s all done with a sound Classical sensibility; texturally, Satie’s evocation of the Classical piano sonata is rooted firmly in the appropriate sound-world. But other rules have been overthrown: there are no formal development or recapitulation sections, the system of related keys has been usurped, and the Classical sense of never repeating an idea in exactly the same way is confounded by blatant, almost defiant, passages of repetition.

Erik SatieComposed in  1917, at a time when the rest of the world had gone mad with wholesale slaughter and  mechanised forms of destruction,  Satie’s evocation of the Classical period is a reminiscence of, almost a hankering after, an old order where unity and structure prevailed; at the same time, his usurping of its principles reflects the breakdown of society and its values which was going on around him: despite its apparent jocular tone, the shadow of the Western Front is never far away.

A turn to neo-Classicism was on the cards musically for others: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella would not appear until 1920. Debussy’s re-appraisal of Classical principles in the very late set of instrumental sonatas, of which he only lived to complete three of a projected series of six, still had its foot firmly in the Impressionist world. Satie’s neo-Classical sonatina represented a much more deliberate assessment of Classicism’s sound as well as its forms. Of course, he had already taken on Mozart (and won) in his Tyroliene Turque written four years before, parodying Mozart’s famous Rondo alla turca. But his appraisal and ensuing dissection of Classicism is much more involved in the Sonatine bureaucratique; it may be poking fun at Clementi in a similar fashion to his earlier ribbing of Mozart, but this is much more serious. It’s not just about Clementi, it’s about the very essence of Classical values at a time when values seemed to be disappearing everywhere else.

Eat your heart out, neo-Classical Stravinsky: Satie got there first.

Send in the Clowns: Satie and … Take That ?

United across centuries: weird composer Erik Satie and Brit pop group Take That. Surely not ?

But yes. In Satie’s ballet-realiste Parade from 1917, three Actor-Managers set up a side-show outside their tent, in an effort to attract an audience to see their show. Sadly, their efforts prove in vain: the spectacle outside the tent becomes the main attraction, and no-one is enticed in to see the proper performance inside.

You can hear this sense of desperate futility in the episode of the Chinese Magician, where the jollity of the music and the whistling in the percussion are overwhelmed by ponderous orchestration and repetition leading nowhere. At the end of the piece, exhausted by their futile efforts, the characters slump to the ground in defeat.

This sense of desperation is also captured to great effect in the video to Take That’s Said It All, released in 2009, where all the energy and antics of the clowns cannot move the audience, because the tent is empty. There’s no-one there to appreciate their manic efforts: as with the Satie, the main focus of the show, the audience, is absent, and the characters can only act out their performances with a sense of forlorn hope.

Shot in muted and washed-out colours, thereby depriving them even of the imposed jollity of their colourful outfits, there are some beautiful sequences; there’s a sense of resignation about them as they dress for what they know will be a pointless show. Clowns are rescued from the ludicrous nature of their garb and their slapstick antics through audience laughter, redeemed through the mirth they create for others. There’s none of that here: no redemption for them at all.

(You can see the actual video to the piece here.)

In both works, futility is elevated to the status of art, and circus characters, whose very existence is to entertain, end up deprived of their ability to do so. The same sentiment expressed over a distance of over ninety years in two very different cultures.

Satie and Take That ? Absolutely.

Turkish Delight: Satie vs Mozart

1913 was a year of destruction: it saw the beginning of the First World War, and the première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which smashed the homogeny of the orchestra, as well as principles of rhythm and harmony.

Erik Satie
The Master of Arcueil: Erik Satie

But it also witnessed annihilation on a smaller scale: Erik Satie, the master of Arcueil, took on Mozart and destroyed him. Satie turned his satiricial eye on Mozart’s famous Rondo alla turca in his set of three piano pieces forming the Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois.

Satie’s exaggerated parody in the first of these, his Tyroliene Turque, skewers Mozart harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally.

Satie has introduced strange dissonances into Mozart’s harmonies, and altered the time-signature from Mozart’s original 2/4 to a rhythmic feel of three beats in a bar (although, by this stage, Satie had long abandoned anything so traditional as time-signatures and bar-lines, so the score has neither). The right-hand octaves in Mozart’s piece have been split by Satie, such that the melody is distended further by having each note repeated an octave higher.

And then: the music returns to the opening ostinato, which seems to be in G major, but with a prominent flattened seventh on the third beat of each repetition suggesting that the music may move to C major – which, being Satie, of course it does not. These repeating, endless patterns, implying harmonic motion on the one hand whilst denying it on the other, are typical of Satie: ” listen, I’m going to modulate: oh, wait, no I’m not!”

That’s the great thing about Satie: his music is murderous in a brilliantly concise fashion. Don’t underestimate him: there’s always more to Satie than meets the ear.