Erik Satie's Crystal Ball

3. The renunciation of subjectivity

Socrate was one of Satie’s great achievements in his turning away from the intense emotionalism and subjectivity of nineteenth-century romanticism, and of early-twentieth-century impressionism, but it certainly was not the only one. Practically all of his works aim for this ideal of complete emotional removal, and most of them achieve it. Throughout his life, he experimented with various was of reaching this goal, and in doing so, came to many different conclusions.

One of Satie’s trademarks was writing sets of pieces which looked at what was essentially the same musical material from a number of different aspects. This has been called a ‘cubist’ or ‘sculptural’ style of composition because it treats music as if it were a solid object. The works in which Satie used this sculptural idea were all solo piano works, usually consisting of three movements, and include the Gymnopédies (discussed in the previous chapter), the Ogives and the Danses de travers. It was a very effective way for the composer to ‘keep his distance’ from the composition: the idea of recomposing a piece, looking at the material from a different perspective each time, completely negates the romantic concept of the ‘artist-as- genius’ and the idea of the finished product being the one ‘perfect’ product, with no variation possible. Perhaps Satie was able to succeed in the ‘cubist’ composition only because of his total abandonment of traditional melodic development, but it certainly produces an objective form of art: one which does not restrict itself to the existence of only one (or three) equally valid possibilities out of a multitude. It is conceivable that a composer looking at his work in this way could spend his whole life recomposing the same piece over and over again, each time making subtle new variations which shed a bit more light on the melodic, rhythmic or harmonic possibilities of the material.

Satie’s idea of ‘functional music’ also helped him to retain objectivity in his music. This category includes works such as the Musique d’ameublement, his sole film score Cinéma, and his incidental music for a variety of theatrical productions. These pieces have varied functions, but in each case there is a set of limitations imposed upon the composer which serve to promote objectivity in the resultant work: in the Musique d’ameublement, Satie’s self-given brief was for music which would be pleasant to the ear but which would not be intellectually demanding or draw attention to itself; Cinéma had the usual requirements for a film score: that it enhance the visual part of the film without intruding on it; and the theatrical music had of necessity to fit around the action of a play, sometimes (as in Le Piège de Méduse) including whole pieces, such as dances, within the score. Of course, other composers have approached the limitations imposed by functional music in completely different ways and some have come up with extremely emotive scores, but Satie’s solutions invariably sacrificed the possible independence of the music in favour of making a greater contribution to the complete work of art.

The Musique d’ameublement is one of Satie’s more famous experiments. His idea was to write music for performance in public places as an aural background to various events or occasions (for example, ‘for the arrival of guests (grand reception). To be played in a vestibule’ or ‘at a contract of marriage’). This was probably a forerunner of modern ‘muzak’, but instead of arranging complete popular melodies for the chosen forces, Satie fragmented his source material so that he ended up with very short (only a few bars long) sections which he ordered the musicians to repeat over and over again. There was no attempt at musical continuity, and no reason at all for the people in the room to treat any differently that they would treat the physical furniture. As far as objectivity is a factor, it cannot really go any further than this, for when the composer is not trying to express anything at all, if he is only aiming to produce sounds which are consonant for an aural backdrop to a lunch or a contract of marriage, neither emotion (subjectivity) nor the ‘thematic’ can exist as there is no development of musical ideas or imposition of any extramusical element. This is music so pure as to barely be music at all.

The same can probably be said for the film score Cinéma, written to accompany René Clair’s film Entr’acte which was made to be shown in the interval of the Satie-Picabia ballet instantanéiste of 1924, Relâche. The score is really nothing at all without the film: it lacks any kind of melodic development and there is not logic to it in musical terms. After seeing the film, however, it becomes apparent why Satie created this particular score for Clair’s film. The main function of film music – both in the ear of the silent film and today – is ‘to underline and interpret the narrtives, with careful reflections of a film’s settings, characters, actions and moods.’1 Entr’acte, however, has no real narratives, no fully developed characters, and certainly no ‘moods’. The whole film is a celebration of the beauties of the visual – shape, line, form and movement – and of the effects obtainable with the cinecamera – slow motion, vanishing figures, decaying letters on the screen. There is barely a single shot in the whole film which has not some sort of notable movement, whether of the camera or of the actors. Satie’s music responds to this visual movement with aural stasis, dividing his music (and so the film) into nine sections, marked in the score as follows:

  1. cheminées; ballons qui explosent (Chimneys, deflating [exploding]2 balloons)
  2. Gants de baxe et allumettes (Boxing gloves and matches)
  3. Prises d’air, jeux d’échecs et ballons sur les toits (Scenes from the air; chess came and boats [balloons] on the roofs)
  4. La Danseuse; et figures dans l’eau (The female dancer and figures within water)
  5. Chasseur, et début de l’enterrement (The hunter and the beginning of the funeral)
  6. March funèbre (Funeral march)
  7. Cortège au ralenti (Funeral procession in slow motion)
  8. La poursuite (The chase {culminating in the fall of the coffin})
  9. Ecran crevé et fin (Broken screen and the end)3

While some of these divisions were obviously taken from the divisions in the film, a number of them appear at first to be purely arbitrary. The end of Section 3, for example, divides the soundtrack (by the insertion of an ‘ironically emphatic cadence’4 ) at a point where the film is visually continuous. Marks explains the visuals of this part of the film thus:

Clair cuts back and forth between shots of the paper boat and the ballerina which holds center [sic.] stage in Section IV. His point is to stress the metaphorical resemblance of their movement … and thereby to establish continuities beneath the film’s choppy surface.5

This to a certain extent explains why Satie has placed the division at this point. For the main part of the film, the music lends continuity to the rapid and disconnected series of images, mainly through the composer’s use of closely related motifs. At this point, however, the film is attending to its own continuity and providing a transitional section to the ballerina-dominated Section 4, so the music need not reinforce that, but instead start the new section and introduce the new musical material which will be associated with the ballerina. This retains the smoothness of the visual transition into Section 4.

The nature of the visual part of the film, being non-narrative, is essentially objective in itself, and this helps to promote detachment in the score too. As a result, Satie was able to allow himself the liberty of including a satirical paraphrase of the opening of Chopin’s famous funeral march from the Piano Sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 35 in the March funèbre section of the score:

Ex 5(a): Chopin: Piano Sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 35: (1-2)
musical example

Ex 5(b): Satie: Cinéma: Entr'acte Symphonique de "RELÂCHE": March funèbre: (3-4)
musical example

The reference is immediately identifiable, but the humorous use of the quotation, underlined by the visuals, prevents the usual emotional connotations of the piece from taking effect. The quotation of othr composers’ music in his own pieces was another technique Satie frequently employed to maintain objectivity in his music, usually by parodying the quoted composer, but occasionally by writing serious pastiche or appropriating an historical musical genre and reinterpreting it by using his own harmonic idiom and techniques of development.


  1. (Return to text) Martin Marks. 1983, ‘The well-furnished film : Satie’s score for Entr’acte‘,Canadian University Music Review (Revue de Musique des Universites Canadiennes), No. 4, pp. 245-277, p. 248.
  2. (Return to text) Square brackets indicate literal translations as these do not always correspond with the picture on the screen which is described in the freer translation.
  3. (Return to text) French from the piano score of Cinema : Entr’acte Symphonique de “RELÂCHE”, Editions Salabert, Paris, 1972. Translations adapted from Marks. 1983, ‘The well-furnished film : Satie’s score for Entr’acte‘, p. 254.
  4. (Return to text) Marks. 1983, ‘The well-furnished film : Satie’s score for Entr’acte‘, p. 257.
  5. (Return to text) Marks. 1983, ‘The well-furnished film : Satie’s score for Entr’acte‘, p. 257.