Erik Satie's Crystal Ball

4. Quotation, parody and invocation

‘Satie is looked upon in this country as a farceur and an incompetent dilettante’ wrote Constant Lambert in 19481 and it is unfortunate that by many he is still regarded as such. Satie took his art very seriously and even if many of his compositions contain musical jokes, or have humorous titles, the basic premise behind them is always serious. He used satire as a means of distancing himself from musical styles, or from borrowed material, but he was also capable of writing exceptional pastiche, as can be seen from the recitatives which he wrote for Gounod’s opera Le Médecin malgré lui. These are examples of completely serious pastiche: there is no satirical element at all. In other works, however, such as the third of the Trois Mélodies of 1916, the music of which is based on the ‘Chanson de Magali’ from Gounod’s opera Mireille, he parodies that composer’s style mercilessly. Perhaps the most famous of Satie’s satirical pieces is the one which is most often cited when the composer is mentioned in connection with Neoclassicism: the Sonatine bureaucratique. This piece is a satirisation of Clementi’s Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, No. 1, a simple work frequently taught to young pianists.

Satie’s humorous quotation and invocation of other composers’ music and styles reached its peak in the ‘humoristic’ piano suites of 1912-15. Practically every work contains some reference to an earlier piece of music: standard classical repertoire pieces, songs from operettas popular at the time, music-hall numbers, folk songs. The humorous texts of these works usually tie in with the satirical quotations, such as his quotation of the music-hall song ‘Mon rocher de Saint-Malo’ (‘My rock of Saint-Malo’) at the remarks ‘What a nice rock!’ and ‘It was a very nice rock! very sticky!’ in ‘d’Holothurie’ from the Embryons dessécchés. The most famous example of this comes in the second movement of the Embryons dessécchés, ‘d’Edriophthalma’. Here Satie quotes two bars (31-2: Ex. 6 (a)) from the ‘Marche funèbre’ of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor , Op. 35 at the words ‘Ils se mettent tous à pleurer (Citation de la célèbre mazurka de SCHUBERT)’ (‘They all start to cry (quotation of the celebrated mazurka of Schubert)’).

Ex. 6
(a) Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor: ‘Marche funèbre’: bars 31-2

(b) Satie: ‘d’Edriophthalma’ from Embryons dessécchés: line 4

The humour of this part of the piece is emphasised by Satie’s use of Chopin’s distinctive dotted quaver – semiquaver rhythm (Ex. 5 (a)) with his opening melody :

Ex. 7 (a)
‘d’Edriophthalma’ from Embryons dessécchés: line 1

and, more distinctly still, at the words ‘Un père de famille prend la parole’ (‘A father of the family begins to speak’) :

Ex. 7 (b)
‘d’Edriophthalma’ from Embryons dessécchés: line 3

Satie’s satirisation of Chopin’s ‘Marche funèbre’, both in ‘d’Edriophthalma’ and in Cinéma, is a curious one because, unlike many of the composers he mocked in his own music, it is known that Satie was very fond of Chopin’s music. It seems, however, that within the six years that followed the writing of ‘d’Edriophthalma’, either Satie’s style matured or his outlook changed a little. With the composition of the Cinq Nocturnes in 1919, he appears to have written a homage to Chopin, not – it should be noted – a Chopin pastiche, but a completely serious, purely Satiean group of pieces. These works are probably closer to the main body of neoclassical music than most of Satie’s output as they adopt a nineteenth-century musical genre and reinterpret it using twentieth-century harmony and Satie’s own particular methods of development instead of traditional functional harmony and theme development. Satie’s methods are much the same as in his earlier pieces, but by restricting himself through the use of an historical form, there is much less scope for him to let the development of the melody, or his trademark continuous modulation run wild, as in the Gnossiennes or the Fils des étoilespreludes. The melody in the Nocturnes is still derived from short fragments and it is still ‘developed’ by unexpected modulations, but these modulations are confined to certain areas of the piece (for example, bars 25-35 of the Première Nocturne, or bars 9-11 of the Troisième). As a general rule, however, Satie tended to avoid traditional musical forms. He used quasi-traditional sonata-form only three times , but this did not mean that form was an irrelevant concept to him – far from it. He simply did not wish to subjugate his musical material to traditional forms with their invocations of centuries of musical tradition and instead took great delight in creating new forms of great complexity, such as the mammoth mirror-form used in his final ballet, Relâche.


  1. (Return to text) Constant Lambert: Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline