Satie and Latour, a Parisian friendship of free spirits
Friday, March 17, marks the 150th birthday of José Maria Vicente Ferrer, Francisco de Paola, Patricio Manuel Contamine, better known to his friends — and history — as Patrice Contamine de Latour, a pseudonym adopted after the Spanish-born poet moved to Paris. Latour’s historical recognition is largely due to one of those Parisian friends: Erik Satie, the inventively eccentric and eccentrically inventive composer who came to personify Bohemian Paris while inspiring generations of composers to come.
They met in the 1880s, teenaged postulants to the artistic circle centered in Paris’s Montmartre neighborhood. They became inseparable, fellow impoverished free spirits, both “dreaming of sensational successes,” as Latour put it. “When I’m dead,” Satie joked to Latour, “you’ll write ‘Erik Satie, His Life and Works.’” In fact, Latour’s recollections of that time are a primary (although, having been written decades after the fact, hazy) source for Satie’s early exploits.
Artistically, they were an odd couple, Latour’s poetry being rather more extravagant in its style than Satie’s lean, stripped-down music. Still, Satie prefaced his first notable compositions, a set of “Sarabandes” for piano, with Latour’s verses. The inspiration went both ways. After Satie introduced himself to Rodolphe Salis, the owner of Montmartre’s Le Chat Noir cabaret, as a “gymnopaedist,” Latour took a liking to the word and included it in a poem. When, soon after, Satie produced his enduring “Gymnopédies,” the poem again became an epigram.
Their two most elaborate collaborations were contrasting, provocative mismatches. The ballet “Uspud,” a bizarre, numerologically esoteric potpourri of made-up myth and Christian mysticism, elicited an idiosyncratically condensed but unusually disciplined score. (It also inspired one of Satie’s most aggressively outré bids for publicity: challenging the director of the Paris Opéra to a duel — with Latour acting as one of Satie’s seconds — in order to get a hearing for the work.) The marionette opera “Geneviève de Brabant,” on the other hand, turned another, actual Christian legend into deadpan burlesque, Satie setting Latour’s lyrics in his breeziest music-hall style.
Satie and Latour shared a love of extravagant self-invention: Satie created his own, one-member yet elaborately hierarchical order of mystic chivalry; Latour spuriously asserted a Napoleonic ancestry. As their personae settled, they drifted apart, but remained friends. Latour was loath to disturb Satie’s increasingly hermetic lifestyle, but Satie would occasionally visit Latour for conversation that, as always, revealed the congruence of music and the man. “He spoke slowly, in a low voice, with a sort of intentness, as though he were afraid of damaging his internal dream,” Latour wrote. “But his remarks were full of wit and original humour.”