If you forgot to celebrate Erik Satie’s 150th birthday on May 17, he forgives you. Really, he does.
What’s that, you speak of a legacy worth honoring? A sesquicentenary? One imagines the urbane French composer in one of his gray corduroy suits — one of the seven identical gray-brown corduroy suits he owned — erupting in laughter at the pomposity these words suggest. “There is no school of Satie,” he once declared. “Satieism could never exist. I would oppose it.”
Well, the school’s founder may have revoked its charter, but the graduates mysteriously keep coming. Yes, living-room Cliburns far and wide still flock to those pearlescent and oh-so-playable “Gymnopédies”and “Gnossiennes,” his best known music. But also incubated within this school’s nonexistent walls have been the innovations of countless artists and, indeed, entire movements. Surrealism, minimalism, ambient music, Brian Eno, John Cage, Philip Glass: It’s hard to picture any of them without Satie.
“I was born very young in a very old world,” the composer once wrote, and the line has been prized by biographers ever since, no doubt for its compound resonance. Satie’s art — and the charismatically eccentric personality that was at once its extension and its shield — managed to preserve this childlike quality over the course of a lifetime. His music gained in worldliness, but never lost its sense of plainspoken poetry.
And even when Satie’s works convey a certain melancholy, the high spirits of the Montmartre café world are never far away. That’s where Satie found his voice as a cabaret pianist, while Paris, newly transformed by Haussmann, was trying desperately — theatrically — to shake off its own status as “a very old world.”
Small wonder that Roger Shattuck in “The Banquet Years,” his classic study of the birth of the French avant-garde, singles out Satie as one of the Belle Époque’s defining personages. The enduring seduction of that whole period — and by extension, of its music — is as understandable as a nostalgia for one’s own youth, because, as Shattuck writes, “those years are the lively childhood of our era; already we see their gaiety and sadness transfigured.”
In much popular writing (Shattuck excepted), Satie’s eccentricity receives more than its fair due, surely for the simple reason that it’s hard to resist mentioning when the composer you are writing about happens to have founded his own church, or moved across Paris in a wheelbarrow.
Yet the seriousness of Satie’s art, and the reach of his influence, should not be obscured by talk of umbrella fetishes or his professed love for exclusively white foods. And the anniversary crop of Satie materials should help keep things in balance. It includes Caroline Potter’s clear-eyed and insightful “Erik Satie: A Parisian Composer and His World” (Boydell Press), which recasts the corduroy sage not as a lone maverick but as a musician deeply of a piece with his city. During his lifetime, it was a place exploding with new social and political ideas, with new sounds and new technologies.
While reading Potter’s opus, for about the price-per-disc of a madeleine, one can also listen through “Tout Satie,” a recently released 10-disc complete edition that collects performances by pianists long associated with this music, including Aldo Ciccolini and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (whose own Satie recordings have also been reissued as a separate box set).
In truth, among the Satie anniversary harvest, one should also include the essential new collection of John Cage letters published last month by Wesleyan University Press. Satie’s life and music are a leitmotif running through this volume, and they command more real estate in the book’s index than does Cage himself. And of course, through that mysterious process by which later artists reshape their forebears in their own image, Satie comes to sound more ur-Cagean with every letter.
Satie’s short satirical piano works, Cage writes in one instance, “conserve their fantasy and magic waiting patiently to glow any time any one lets them.” And in another delightfully simple description, Cage touches on something profound beneath his own view of music history: “Webern and Satie,” he writes, “are distinctly the composers of the century who V out instead of V’ing in. I mean they open the doors, they do not focus in to deadness.”
Satie had a way of doing just that, of helping 20th-century music open its doors and discover boulevards to stroll beyond the well-trodden avenues of Stravinskian neo-classicism or Schoenbergian revolution. He made a potent case for the grandly small instead of the grandly grand. He did so through his music, but also through the dizzying artistic world in which he moved. Potter tells us Satie lunched with Debussy every week for almost 30 years (mutton cutlets, washed down with a white Bordeau, bien sûr!)
The way forward for French music, Satie insisted, was not through the bloated mythologies of Wagner. Debussy concurred, considered, and wrote “Pelléas et Mélisande.”
Satie also advised the young Ravel, he collaborated with Picasso and Cocteau, and after Debussy’s death, he was there to encourage the next rising generation. The brash young pianist George Antheil recalled the bearded Satie in 1923, looking like a “beneficent elderly goat,” cheering on Antheil’s own pugnacious futurism from a center box at the Champs-Élysées Theatre as riots brewed below.
Satie lived just two years after that, and died in a state of near poverty. If his vision outpaced his own time, the insouciant charm of his music requires no special pleading today — and not just because something about its solitude and intimacy makes it prepackaged for the age of the earbud, or because his notion of passive listening to music as “furniture” (“musique d’ameublement”) anticipated the ubiquity of sound streaming down from the cloud throughout our days.
Satie may have championed brevity and concision, but he lived into an era that was not ready to part with its fantasies of grandeur, or its performances of political power intended to enchant the masses. One might imagine an enormous, pounding work like Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” and how gleefully its balloon could be pricked by just one of Satie’s delectably wry miniatures from “Sports et divertissements.” The best of Satie is a kind of tonic for all varieties of bombast, a kind of modernism at the speed of life.
“I breathe carefully,” the composer once wrote, “a little at a time.”
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.