Some time ago, fellow blogger Brian Olewnick wrote about a weekend road trip accompanied by the entire five-CD Aldo Ciccolini recording of Erik Satie's complete piano works. This post contained a seed that, nearly a year later, has sprouted:
Something like the 4th Nocturne (still, gun to head, my favorite individual piece of music, as played by Ciccolini) utterly dies when pushed along too rapidly [emphasis added].IMSLP only has the first three, so a few months ago I picked up a Kalmus edition of the Five Nocturnes based solely on Brian's enthusiastic and forceful recommendation.
My previous experience with Satie was extremely limited. I have an old cheapo-cheapo album of piano works targeted at beginning pianists, which had the famous three Gymnopédies and three Gnossiennes, but the rest were all a bit odd. I was rebuffed by the strange titles ("Golf", "Tennis", "Fishing"), the tempo instructions had all been translated into English, and in any event I wasn't able to make enough sense of them via sightreading to pursue. I wasn't much interested in the famous works either, having heard them too many times during a Windham Hill phase, long ago in my callow youth. Satie's furniture music is one of the milestone predecessors of ambient music. And I knew that Cage greatly admired Satie, and maybe a couple of anecdotes about the two of them. Not much else.
I read through the nocturnes, and the fourth got under my skin. For several days my brain wouldn't let go of the melody, sort of pentatonic and harmonized with perfect parallel fifths, bane of the classic voice leading teachings. The bass line underneath was equally beguiling, propelled by a strange melodic meandering unrelated to the primary tune. I would never have connected this music with the composer of gymnopédies or gnossiennes. Thank you, Brian, for singling this piece out.
The local university library had some books about Satie, and I picked Mary E. Davis's recent short introductory biography so I could create some context. Davis's biography is very readable, although I wish it had an index and a list of Satie's compositions. The famous trios were among Satie's first compositions, written in the mid-1880s when Satie was in and (mostly) out of the Paris Conservatory, while Satie lived a bohemian lifestyle and hung out in Montmartre cafés. The nocturnes were the last major solo piano works Satie composed, thirty years later, after World War I. In between, Satie went back to school, the Schola Cantorum, where in 1908 he graduated with a diploma in counterpoint. All five of the nocturnes are characterized by the same strange intertwined melodic lines, and I didn't know that Satie was lacking this training when he composed the early works.
The story of the genesis of Cage's piano piece Cheap Imitation is reasonably well known. In order to evade the copyright posse, who wouldn't let Merce Cunningham's troupe use the two-piano arrangement of Satie's ballet Socrate, Cage used chance procedures to alter sufficiently the melody and harmony of Socrate, but retained all the rhythms so Cunningham wouldn't lose his cues. I didn't know that Satie himself used similar procedures on more than one occasion. His early piano piece, the second of his Pièces Froides, is based on a well-known Northumbrian folk tune The Keel Row. More importantly, the central dance of his ballet Parade was a ragtime number based from an Irving Berlin hit, That Mysterious Rag. Here again, according to Davis, he reorganized the melodies following various formulas but retained the overall rhythm.
I still don't have the Ciccolini set that Brian extolled. The only Satie recording I have is a selection of the most famous piano works played by Reinbert de Leeuw, which got a couple of approving nods in the comments on Brian's post. In any event, it's been fun playing the nocturnes, and I'm encouraged to continue exploring Satie's compositions.