The book of the week here at Soho the Dog HQ is Erik Satie, Pierre-Daniel Templier’s pioneering 1932 biography, translated into English by Elena L. and David S. French in 1969. (Dig the groovy pink cover at right.) Templier, working with Satie’s brother Conrad, produced a remarkably judicious account—although he did miss several of Satie’s works and one of his sisters. Still, it’s an impressive feat of putting an entire career in perspective, especially coming less than a decade after the subject’s death.
Templier, even at this early date, was already wrestling with one of the trickiest aspects of Satie criticism: is the importance of Satie due to the intrinsic quality of his music, or his role as a patron saint to one avant-garde movement after another? Templier warns us:
This book was not written to sing the praise of Satie the prophet: it is precisely this quality which has been used to mask the real musical value of his compositions.
True enough; but any assessment of Satie has to note his unusual talent for finding successive generations of enfants terrible to mentor. Ravel and the Société Musicale Indépendente, the Nouveaux Jeunes and Les Six, Cocteau and Picabia, Dada and Surrealism—Satie managed to get in on the ground floor again and again, and at twice the age of his young colleagues. Templier again:
When he had conceived and produced a work for which he adopted a new style, he would immediately perceive its drawbacks, its weak spots and deformations, as well as the processes by which his new idea would later be altered. This foresight may have prevented him from expressing himself more fully…. Never satisfied with his achievements, he was always searching for something new; at the age of 55 he said to his friends: “If anyone were to find something really new, I would start again at the beginning.”
What’s more, it was this association with each newer movement that finally brought Satie the stature he craved. You start to see the problem: if it wasn’t for Satie’s position as a proto-this and -that, Satie wouldn’t have written a lot of the music that his reputation should be resting on, rather than his position as a precursor to multiple streams of modern art. The dusty, traditional tripartite structure—life, personality, works—proves an aid to Templier in this regard. He’s able to discuss Satie’s career, speculate on his motivations, and talk about the music without having to decide exactly how they all fit together, if they ever even did.
You can sense Templier’s relief when he gets to talk about Socrate, the one major, high-profile work in which Satie seemed to be aiming for something timeless and personal. But even that is balanced by Templier’s recognition that the usual great-artist clichés crumble to dust as soon as they come in contact with Satie.
If [the ballets] “Mercure” and “Relâche” did not meet with great success, it is not because these works are inferior, but because they were overshadowed by “Socrate.” In the minds of “serious” people, Satie did not have the right to “sully his hands” with these two ballets, which appeared to them as a regression. To forgive such ups and downs, they could only have invoked the excuse of genius, which is what they did in the case of Picasso and Stravinsky. Satie, however, was considered to be not an artist of genius but simply a practical joker….
A worthwhile read, the book is out of print, but not terribly hard to find. (All good people spend inordinate amounts of time in libraries and used book stores anyways, right?) One more interesting thing: it often seems that either Templier or his translators are consciously aiming for a literary analogue to Satie’s musical style: aphoristic and solidly constructed sentences that put the more eccentric and poetic touches into higher relief for being stated so directly. (I once read somewhere that John Cage hated this translation, but Cage was known to be rather touchy and protective regarding all things Satie-related.) Again, Satie himself complicates this judgment: it may very well be that the author(s) were emulating Satie’s own prose style, of which there is an ample supply. But I would guess that, for such a stylistic experiment, Satie would prove a good subject. The only other similar exercise I can think of is that recent classic, Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger’s The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky— although Jerrold Northrop Moore’s Elgar: A Creative Life, which intriguingly attempts to reconstruct Elgar’s compositional thought process, sometimes approaches this territory.
Finally, I can’t resist this passage, which Templier quotes. For a time, Satie contributed to a neighborhood newspaper, writing little squibs promoting local events and businesses. Here’s his ad for a dancing school:
BEING BITTEN BY A MONKEYis less fun than a visit to 60 Rue Emile-Raspail—chez l’Ami Jacob—the dancing school “La marguerite.”