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Erik Satie and the ballet “Parade”

     Éric Alfred Leslie Satie (May 17 ,1866 –July 1, 1925, Paris) was a French composer and pianist, a colorful figure in the early twentiethth century Parisian avant-garde, who was born at Honfleur in Normandy to Alfred Satie and his wife Jane Leslie (née Anton).  When Satie was four years old, his family moved to Paris, but after his mother’s death 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 step-mother and himself, among others.

     In 1879, Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was soon labelled untalented by his teachers. Georges Mathias and Émile Descombes.  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 favorable 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 months he was discharged after deliberately infecting himself with bronchitis.  Satie moved from his father’s residence to lodgings in Montmartre in 1887. 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.

     Satie soon integrated with the artistic clientele 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 and moved to a smaller room, still in Montmartre in 1890. By 1891 he was the official composer and chapel-master of the Rosicrucian Order By mid-1892, Satie had composed the first pieces in a compositional system of his own making, had provided incidental music to a chivalric esoteric play, had had his first hoax published, and had started with the Uspud project, a “Christian Ballet.”  In 1893, Satie met the young Maurice Ravel for the first time. 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 started to compose a Grande messe (later to become known as the Messe des pauvres. 

     By mid-1896, all of Satie’s financial means had vanished, and he had to move to cheaper and much smaller lodgings in Arcueil, a suburb some five kilometres from the centre of Paris. From 1899 on, Satie started making money as a cabaret pianist, adapting over a hundred compositions of popular music for piano or piano and voice, adding some of his own.   Only a few compositions that Satie took seriously remain from this period such as Jack in the Box. music to a pantomime by Jules Depaquit; Geneviève de Brabant, a short comic opera on a serious theme; The Dreamy Fish, piano music to accompany a lost tale by Lord Cheminot, and a few others.  In October 1905, Satie enrolled in Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum de Paris to study classical counterpoint while still continuing his cabaret work.

     In 1910 the “Jeunes Ravêlites”, a group of young musicians around Ravel, proclaimed their preference for Satie’s earlier work from before the Schola period, reinforcing the idea that Satie had been a precursor of Debussy.  At first Satie was pleased that at least some of his works were receiving public attention, but when he realized 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.  Starting in 1912, Satie’s new humorous miniatures for piano became very successful, and he wrote and published many of these over the next few years. 

     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.   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).

     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, and he composed an “instantaneist” ballet Relâche in collaboration with Picabia, for the Ballets Suédois of Rolf de Maré. In a simultaneous project, Satie added music to the surrealist film Entr’acte by René Clair, which was given as an intermezzo for Relâche.  After years of heavy drinking. Satie died in Paris on July 1, 1925 from cirrhosis of the liver.  After his death, Satie’s friends discovered compositions that were totally unknown or thought to have been lost. They included the orchestral score to Parade which was thought by Satie to have been left on a bus years before. These were found behind the piano, in the pockets of his velvet suits, and in other odd places.

     The best-known of Satie’s orchestral works include:

                Mercure, Poses plastiques en trois tableaux (1924). 

                Parade, Ballet realist en un tableau (1917). 

                Relache, Ballet instantanteiste en deux actes, un entracte cinematographique (1924). 

                Trois Gymnopedies (1888).


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