Erik SATIE: Piano Music Vol. 8, Sports et Divertissements [TrackList follows] – Steffen Schleiermacher, piano – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 613 2208-2; 80:49 (7/9/2021) ****:
Thinking of the character piece, the short piano work that was a specialty of Romantic composers, Dvořák complained that Schumann had already used the best titles. Then again, Schumann himself maintained that his evocative titles occurred to him only after the fact. Anyway, I wonder what either of those composers would have made of the puzzling, amusing, studiously non-descriptive titles Erik Satie gave to his piano pieces. As with artists of the Dada and Surrealist movements, there is a large element of épater le bourgeoisie in the absurdist titles he chose, as well as in the equally off-the-mark texts he attached to his works.
But more, Satie’s titles and texts are a slap at the Romantic conceit that music and literature are allied, that music could tell a detailed story, and the Debussian idea that music could meaningfully convey sensory impressions of the material world. At the same time, of course, Satie gives us music stripped of any extramusical pretensions, so bare of expressive excursions that the composer is often cited as a forerunner of minimalism. Like the practitioners of minimalism, Satie is not everybody’s cup of tea. For me, Satie is best taken in small doses; the austerity and simplicity wear even thinner after a while. But an occasional dip into his music is refreshing and can be quite rewarding. So I had a good time listening to Steffen Schleiermacher’s obviously sympathetic performances. Schleiermacher specializes in 20th-century music and has, not surprisingly, recorded all of the piano works of another minimalist pioneer, John Cage.
The notes to the present recording, written by the pianist himself, include snippets of the aforementioned texts, including Satie’s rarely helpful instructions to the performer, that accompany the pieces on offer. (“Without your fingers blushing,” “From the tips of eyes and held back in advance.”) Schleiermacher also briefly discusses the music, to the extent it can be analyzed, and offers a sometimes-speculative biographical sketch of the composer during the years of composition (1913–17). By this time, Satie had completed his better-late-than-never musical studies. (He had graduated from the Schola Cantorum with distinction in 1908, at age 40). Among his teachers were Vincent D’Indy and Albert Roussel, important connections in French musical circles, and Satie was finally garnering some measure of success. Schleiermacher writes that Ricardo Viñes, a leading interpreter of Debussy and Ravel, had begun programming Satie’s music, and Eduard Steuermann, “the house pianist of the Second Viennese School,” played Satie in Vienna and Prague. Satie’s Avant-dernières pensées was dedicated to no fewer than three French musical heavyweights—Debussy, Dukas, and Roussel—all of whom returned the favor of Satie’s admiration.
Among the speculations that Schleiermacher floats is that the works of this period show some hesitancy by Satie to believe his own success. Most of the music on this recording is packaged in cycles of three very short pieces. I’m not sure that’s indicative of hesitancy on Satie’s part. Rather, it seems to fit in with his iconoclasm, his rejection of Romantic monumentalism. That’s part and parcel with Satie’s fleeting, and often comically garbled quotations of other composers: Chopin in Embryons desséchés (typically, Satie identifies the quotation as “a Mazurka by Schubert”), Chabrier in Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois, Clementi in Sonatine bureaucratique—one of Satie’s greatest hits, if there is such a thing (apart from the ubiquitous first Gymnopédie).
There are children’s pieces among the cycles as well; Schleiermacher notes that when Satie lived in Arcueil outside Paris, he was “a kind of member of the city parliament—took care of children, took regular walks with them, and also provided their musical education.” All of which sounds admirable, but Satie couldn’t restrain himself from pulling legs even in his pieces intended for children. What should kids make of the first piece in Menus propos enfantins: Le chant guerrier du Roi des Haricots (“The war song of the King of Green Beans”)?
As Schleiermacher notes, the most unusual work from this period is Sports et divertissements, written on commission to accompany a series of colored engravings by fashion designer Charles Martin. “The engravings depicted the aristocracy at the turn of the century with their sophisticated sports and entertainments.” As might be expected, Satie also supplied short stories and poems to go along with the engravings. As might be expected, too, the texts, and the music for that matter, often have nothing to do with the sport or entertainment depicted.
Which in all cases leaves us with the compositions and the playing of them, since having Satie’s texts or instructions to the performer in our hands would give us only a roadmap to nowhere. I had a couple of brief chuckles over the composer’s loopy bon mots and musical misquotes, but mostly I just enjoyed this often simple yet engaging music, with its sudden, quirky turns of phrase and out-of-the-blue changes in dynamics. Among my favorites? One of them is Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois, a musical travelogue that takes us to Spain (the fractured quotation from Chabrier) and the Tyrol by way of Turkey(!) (Tyrolienne torque). I also liked the slow waltzes of Les trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté, which, for some reason, concentrate only on the gentleman’s waist (Sa taille), glasses (Son binocle), and legs (Les jambes).
Throughout, Schleiermacher serves the composer well, capturing the composer’s dry wit with equally clear-eyed music making and without undue editorializing. Schleiermacher appears to understand that overinterpreting this music is a kind of betrayal, given Satie’s unique aesthetic. I think Satie would be pleased.
Descriptions automatiques (Automatic descriptions)
Embryons desséchés (Dried-up embryos)
Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois (Sketches and exasperations of a big wooden fellow)
Chapitres tournés en tous sens (Chapters turned every which way)
Vieux séquins et vieilles cuirasses (Old sequins and armor)
Menus propos enfantins (Childish chatter)
Trois nouvelles pièces enfantines (Three new pieces for children)
Enfantillages pittoresques (Picturesque childishness)
Peccadilles importunes (Tiresome peccadilloes)
Sports et divertissements (Sports and diversions)
Choral inappétissant (Unappetizing chorale)
La balançoire (The swing)
La chasse (Hunting)
La comédie italienne (The Italian comedy)
Le réveil de la mariée (The awakening of the bride)
Colin-maillard (Blind man’s buff)
La pêche (Fishing)
Le yachting (Yachting)
Le bain de mer (Sea bathing)
Le carnaval (Carnival)
Le golf (Golf)
La pieuvre (The octopus)
Les courses (Racing)
Les quatre-coins (Puss in the corner)
Le pique-nique (The picnic)
Le water-chute (The water chute)
Le tango (Tango)
Le traîneau (The sled)
Le flirt (Flirting)
Le feu d’artifice (Fireworks)
Le tennis (Tennis)
Heures séculaires et instantanées (Age-old and instantaneous hours)
Les trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté (Three distinguished waltzes of a disgusted dandy)
Avant-dernières pensées (Next-to-last thoughts)
Sonatine bureaucratique (Bureaucratic sonatina)