Erik Satie's Crystal Ball

5. Satie and form

During his Rosicrucian period, Satie went through a phase in which he was called ‘Esoterik Satie’. This was said purely in jest but it is singularly appropriate in any examination of his use of form. He rarely used pre-fabricated forms (as we have seen above, he only used sonata form very occasionally), preferring instead to create his own obscure methods of organising his musical material. The result is that sometimes on first glance his works seem to be randomly organised, but in most cases closer investigation will reveal a complex system of order which has been imposed upon the musical material. He was interested in the mystical significance of various numbers, the use of various proportional systems, including the ‘golden section’, mirror forms, and the reworking of traditional musical genres, such as the fugue and the chorale.

From his very earliest pieces, Satie can be seen to have an obsession with the number three. Like the composers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, he saw in it the representation of the Trinity and consequently most of the pieces which he wrote in groups contain three parts: the Sarabandes, the Sonneries de la Rose + Croix, the Trois valses distinguées du précieux degoûté. With the Nocturnes, too, he appears to have intended to write two sets of three pieces each, the Quatrième Nocturne acting as a transitional movement between the two groups. Only five of the proposed seven pieces were completed but the notebooks testify to the composer’s original intentions. Satie’s harmony is mainly triadic (although quartal harmony is used to great effect in some of the Rosicrucian pieces) and when he adds notes to simple chords, it tends to be superimposed thirds, creating seventh, ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth chords, retaining their triadic base, as opposed to the ‘wrong-note’ harmony used by members of Les Six. Also bound up with the composer’s trinitarian obsession is his extensive use of ternary form. This very simple form appears continually throughout his life, from the Gymnopédies onwards. All five of the Nocturnes are in ternary form, but Satie rarely uses it with the harmonic conventions it commanded in previous eras or with traditional melodic development. Numerological details were considered to be vital to the creation of a perfect work of art in the ancient Greco-Roman civilisation. The ancient concept of golden section proportions, which was often applied to architecture and the visual arts, can also be applied to music. Satie first began to use it in his music in the 1890s and Debussy too was very interested in golden section ratios but it is not known which of the pair became aware of it first. The golden section occurs when ‘a fixed length [is divided] in two so that the ratio of the shorter portion to the longer portion equals the ratio of the longer portion to the entire length’. Mathematically, this is expressed as the ratio b/a = a/(a+b) and in numeric terms this comes to about two-thirds of the total length. Orledge and Gillmor both show diagrammatically how this principle can be seen at work in the first movement of the Sonneries de la Rose+Croix, but it can also be seen in other more complex pieces. To return to the Nocturnes of 1919, a very involved use of the golden section can be seen in the construction of the first set of three pieces. Satie has composed these in such a way that in each piece the golden sections A (occurring about one-third the way through the movement – the inversion of that found in the process described above) and B are to be found at the opening of a new section of the piece. The golden sections marked 1 and 2 in the following diagram are those which correspond to A and B for the entire set of three pieces.

Nocturnes diagram

Robert Orledge has shown, through an examination of Satie’s notebooks, that the composer even attempted, after a piece was completed, to show some evidence of proportion residing in the work. The facsimiles given by Orledge are just some of many Satie worked on after the composition of Relâche and show him trying to find a logic behind the music by dividing the whole into 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and even 10 sections. In this instance Satie failed to find numerological evidence of that logic, but it remains valuable for scholars as it proves that incidences of the golden section in Satie’s work are probably not coincidence, but the result of great attention to numerological details. Another musical form which held great interest for Satie was the mirror-image. Relâche is probably the best example of this, but Parade, his ballet réaliste written with Jean Cocteau for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, also shows this type of form being used by the composer back in 1915. This structure can also be seen to relate to Satie’s obsession with the number three, as a mirror form must have three main points for the idea of a ‘mirror’ to be at all logical: the points of introduction and conclusion, and the midpoint of the work towards which all the music is directed. In Relâche these points can be seen very clearly because of the nature of the ballet, being divided into two unequal acts around the presentation of René Clair’s Entr’acte. The musical material mirrors itself around this break in the performance. In Parade, the effect is less clear.

Parade consists of eight main sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. Prestidigitateur Chinois
  3. Petite Fille Américaine
  4. Acrobates
  5. ‘Suprême effort et chûte des Managers’
  6. Final
  7. Final repeat of Managers’ theme
  8. Suite de ‘Prélude au Rideau Rouge’

All of these (excepting Numbers 5, 7, and 8) contain other sections within them. For instance, the Introduction consists of a chorale, the ‘Prélude au Rideau Rouge’, a transitional section, and the Managers’ music. The Final contains repeats or paraphrases of the music used in the ballet’s three main sections: the ‘Prestidigitateur Chinois’, the ‘Petite Fille Américaine’, and the ‘Acrobates’.

The midpoint is around the start of the ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ section of the ‘Petite Fille’, but while this is numerically correct, the ‘Suprême effort et chûte des Managers’ seems a more artistically logical midpoint, as it is the second statement (of three) of the Managers’ theme, the other two appearances coming at the end of the Introduction and just before the return of the ‘Prélude du Rideau rouge’. In a work such as Parade this is possible, where it would not have been in Relâche because the mirror-forms used in the earlier work tend to be within the sections, as opposed to linking the whole in one giant mirror. The material used in the Introduction which recurs in the ‘Suprême effort’, and in the concluding section containing the final Managers’ theme and the Suite au ‘Prélude du Rideau Rouge’ is the only music in the ballet which makes no ‘internal’ connections. That is, it stands on its own as framework material into which the four main sections of the ballet are slotted. The three acts of the parade, the ‘Prestidigitateur Chinois’, the ‘Petite Fille Américaine’, and the ‘Acrobates’ all contain internal mirrors, and the fourth section, the Final contains material from these three earlier parts condensed, reharmonised or varied in some other way from the original statements. The connections between these four parts, then, and especially the use of the internal Entrance/Exit mirrors in each of sections 2, 3, and 4 join them loosely into a whole, so that the only really ‘objective’ midpoint can be one that has no connections with any part of that whole: which only leaves the ‘Suprême effort et chûte des Managers’ to perform the role. In Parade it becomes noticeable that Satie’s mirror-images are rarely numerically exact, even in cases where it would have been possible to make them so. This is a tendency that can be observed throughout his oeuvre. The plan for the expanded orchestral version of ‘Je te veux’, a music-hall-type waltz shows how simple it would have been for Satie to have made his mirror perfect: Ex. 8 To replace D1 with a repeat of C, or add another repeat of C to the end of the Trio section would have made it exactly symmetrical. It is this sort of situation which makes it appear less likely that Satie miscalculated in his beat-counting in a work such as the ‘Airs à faire fuir’ (the three sections of which have 188, 108, and 187 beats respectively, despite the first and third sections being practically identical) and a little more likely that he may have intentionally disturbed the symmetry of the work.

These sorts of involved processes which Satie used in devising the form of his works may not, at first, seem to have much to do with neoclassicism at all – they have no connections with surface gestures, or the use of older works within a new work, or anything else to do with Western musical history, but they do nevertheless represent a turning to the past for inspiration. Ideas of proportion in art were used in ancient civilisations but were neglected by composers until the innovations of Satie and his contemporaries in the late nineteenth century. Form in the romantic period was ruled more by the development of melody and the progression of harmony than by any esoteric means of ordering notes using numbers – the mathematical approach to music is one that the twentieth century has appropriated from the ancient world and so must also be viewed as neoclassical in the wider sense of the word.

Closer to the commonly accepted idea of neoclassicism is Satie’s reworking of traditional genres of music – in particular the chorale and the fugue. There are no examples of Satie attempting to reinterpret these forms before his enrolment, in October of 1905, to study counterpoint with Roussel at the Schola Cantorum and a number of these pieces appear to have grown out of his Schola exercises. It would seem that in this later period of his life, the chorale became the subject of his sculptural view of music as he seems to be composing the same chorale over and over again. In the earlier ones (1906-1912: the Douze petits chorals [1906-1908], the chorale from Aperçus désagréables [1908-1912] and the two from En Habit de Cheval [1911]), he restricts himself greatly in his use of rhythm as he did in the earlier ‘cubist’ pieces. He uses few of the nonessential notes that earlier chorale-writers, such as J. S. Bach, used to break the monotony of even note-values and the lack of any change of timbre (all the chorales from this period are written for solo piano or piano duet) only accentuates this starkness. In this, Satie reveals himself to be a true child of the twentieth century – there is something of the mechanical in his interpretation of this genre; the piano is treated more like a percussion instrument, in complete contrast to the traditional settings of chorales for voices. He uses no hymn tunes, but rather takes only the texture of earlier examples and turns it to his own ends. The harmony is non-traditional, too, and melody, for once in Satie’s music, is rather lacking (which also negates the traditional idea of a chorale as a setting of a melody). The chorales written between 1914 and 1919 – ‘Choral hypocrite’ from Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes), ‘Choral inappétissant’ (Sports et divertissements), and the opening chorale from Parade – are a little less austere, in part because the settings of the ‘Choral hypocrite’ and of the Parade chorale are for groups of instruments (respectively, violin and piano, and orchestra) which accentuate what little there is of melodic line in those works, than for any change from the earlier style. The ‘Choral inappétissant’ is a little more adventurous than the earlier ones, but remains characteristically concise and still more mechanical than lyrical.

The fugues have been similarly transformed from the traditional fugue. The third movement of the Aperçus désagréables is probably closest to the traditional model, but the harmony that Satie has used is so far from that used centuries before that the fugal movement is entirely lacking in the extreme control that a composer such as Bach seemed to exercise over his notes. This fugue could well be described as an aural version of going cross-eyed, as the unvarying rhythm combined with seemingly random modulations and a fugal subject that does not keep within one key or mode combine so that the listener loses all sense of musical direction. The two fugues of En Habit de Cheval – the ‘Fugue litanique’ and the ‘Fugue de papier’ – take the form in the other direction: they are not purely fugal pieces, but works that are made up mostly of fugal elements, but with sections of non-contrapuntal music interpolated.