An evening in the presence of pianist Joanna MacGregor is always guaranteed to be both enjoyable and informative so we didn’t hesitate when we saw the Capstone theatre advertising ‘an evening devoted to the eccentric genius of Erik Satie’, presented by MacGregor.  We were not disappointed.

As well as being a solo artist who has performed around the world, collaborating with great orchestras and instrumentalists from many musical fields , such as saxophonist Andy Sheppard and Arabic singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef, Joanna MacGregor has released over 30 albums and has held several teaching posts, including a Professorship at Liverpool Hope University and the Royal Academy of Music, where she is currently Head of Piano.


Joanna MacGregor

Her involvement in education as well as performance explains why, at her concerts, she always takes time to explain the context and significance of the music she will play. Last week at the Capstone, before she had played a note, MacGregor began by setting out the idea behind the evening’s programme – that Erik Satie was not simply an eccentric composer of exquisite miniatures for the piano, but that he had a significant influence on contemporaries such as  Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky by incorporating elements of jazz and ragtime, while his general non-conformism and experimentalism (seen in his association with Surrealists and Dadaists) was taken up by later composers such as John Cage.  But above all, he should be seen as ‘the godfather of minimalism’, influencing composers such as Philip Glass and a whole genre of music associated with the ECM music label – including the new music of Arvo Part, and jazz musicians such as Tord Gustavsen.

Erik Satie
Erik Satie

Joanna MacGregor sketched some piquant details from the life of Erik Satie, a distinctively colourful and eccentric figure on the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde scene. She pointed out that the term ‘gymopédies’ that he attached to his three most celebrated piano pieces was a made-up one: being pressed to state his profession, Satie described himself as a ‘gymnopaedist’.  A few months later, he composed the miniatures that bear the name.

Satie once said, ‘I have come into the world very young into an era very old’, and it seems that everything he did represented an attempt to cut himself loose from the conventional 19th century ‘salon music’ environment of his father and stepmother. Satirically, mockingly, he maintained the appearance of a ‘bourgeois functionary’, always kitted out in bowler hat, umbrella and grey velvet suit, whilst being  a member of a radical socialist party and consorting with Dadaists and Surrealists and other wild members of the Paris avant-garde.

I particularly liked Joanna’s story of Satie purchasing seven identical grey suits in 1895 with part of a small inheritance. He wore one suit at a time until it was threadbare, then he put on a new one.  He would emerge from his home, in a working-class suburb of Paris, immaculately groomed and wearing one of the identical suits for the daily 10 kilometre stroll to his favourite cafés and haunts in central Paris.

Erik Satie par Jean Cocteau

Erik Satie by Jean Cocteau

Sate was a close friend of Claude Debussy, and during the First World War also befriended Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso. His association with the Cubists resulted in a ballet, ‘Parade’, written in collaboration with Cocteau and Picasso.

Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie (dess

Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie drawn by Mikhail Larionov 

After years of heavy drinking (including consumption of absinthe), Satie died on 1 July 1925 from cirrhosis of the liver. At no time in the 27 years that he lived in Arcueil in the southern suburbs of Paris, had anyone ever visited his room. After his death, Satie’s friends discovered a squalid and chaotic apartment, filled with unsorted papers, a collection of over one hundred umbrellas, and two grand pianos placed one on top of the other, one used as a receptacle for letters and parcels. Six of the grey velvet suits still remained, unworn, in his room.

The Studio of Erik Satie by Santiago Rusinol, 1891

The Studio of Erik Satie by Santiago Rusinol, 1891

Joanna MacGregor began her performance with the first two of Satie’s Trois Gymopédies, composed in 1888, and closed with the last, each of them having that familiar, beautiful simplicity that was radical in 1888.  As the Wikipedia entry on these works puts it:

The first few bars of Gymnopédie No. 1 consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chords, the first on the subdominant, G, and the second on the tonic, D. The melodies of the pieces use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece “painfully”, “sadly” or “gravely”

As MacGregor insisted, Satie’s status today goes well beyond the ethereal floating of the Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies, or the quirky Cocteau-Picasso ballet Parade. His sonic experiments anticipate those of John Cage and the American minimalists almost half a century after Satie’s death.

Santiago Rusiñol - Portrait of Erik Satie Playing the Harmonium

Portrait of Erik Satie Playing the Harmonium by Santiago Rusiñol 

Roxanne Classen writes:

Satie was an eccentric perched on the fence between low and high art and was one of the earliest artists that legitimized the musical vernacular of Dance Halls and Taverns to elite listeners in the Concert Hall. His friendship and influence with French composers of serious art music included Debussy, Ravel and the group of composers known as Les Six. The liaison between Satie and these other composers of high art became a creative conduit that merged two culturally divergent worlds. Years later, in the 2nd half of the 20th century, Satie was again discovered, championed by the Father of Chance Music, John Cage and others such as Ambient Music composer Brian Eno. In today’s world the barriers between serious art and popular culture have eroded and one wonders if Satie was the first chink in the wall.

Beginning with the elegantly mysterious Gymnopédies, Joanna MacGregor set out to demonstrate Satie’s profound impact on twentieth century music in a programme that ranged from Stravinsky’s Sonata for Piano, a fusion of the Baroque and blues, to John Cage’s Cheap Imitation, and the delicate stillness and silences of Arvo Pärt’s Fur Alina and Fur Anna Maria.

Sports et divertissements cover (1914)

Sports et Divertissements cover, 1914

In the twenty tiny movements of Sports et Divertissements (1914), MacGregor provided the backing track to Stephen Pratt’s narration, bringing to life to the gentle social satire of the images which they illustrated. Before this commission, Satie had already created a sensation on the French musical scene with witty and satirical pieces bordering on the ridiculous such as Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (1903) and Vexations (1893), whose performance directions dictated that the work was to be performed 840 times – exactly to the point of vexation.

The suite of vignettes Sports Et Divertissements was commissioned to accompany a volume of artworks by Charles Martin, witty and exuberant drawings of popular bourgeois pastimes such golf, fireworks, tango dancing, swimming, picnics, tennis, hunting and fishing. MacGregor raised a laugh when she described how the commission was first offered to Stravinsky, who turned it down because the money was insufficient. Satie also declined the project initially – as he felt the fee offered was too handsome.

Sports et divertissements Le Tango Sports et divertissements Le Flirting Sports et divertissements La Peche Charles Martin, La balancoire, from Erik Satie and Charles Martin, Sports et divertissements (1914)

Charles Martin, Sports et Divertissements: Le Tango, Le Flirt, La Peche, La Balancoire 

Next we heard two short pieces by Arvo Part. Für Alina was first performed in Tallinn in 1976, and was the first to introduce his new signature style of composition, referred to as the tintinnabuli style. Für Alina was, MacGregor explained, dedicated to a family friend’s eighteen year-old daughter who had just begun music studies in London. Fur Anna Maria is a fairly recent piece, composed in 2006; listening to it, a comment by Arvo Pärt himself seems relevant: ‘Hidden behind the art of connecting two or three notes lies a cosmic mystery.’ Dominy Clements writes of this work on the Brilliant Classics website:

Sparsely printed on two pages, with about 15 bars and very few notes, this is music which invites meditative exploration. It represents an ‘extreme reduction of sound materials and a limitation to the essential: minimalism with maximum effect.’

Arvo Pärt: Für Alina, Für Anna Maria, Variations for the Healing of Arinushka (Diana Liiv, piano)

The first half of the concert concluded with Stravinsky’s Sonata for Piano, composed in Nice in 1924. Introducing the work, MacGregor said that Stravinsky had incorporated within its three movements ‘the history of classical music’, along with elements of ragtime and jazz, and encouraged us to listen for references to Beethoven and much more.

Igor Stravinsky plays Stravinsky Piano Sonata (1924)

The second half began a screening of René Clair’s 1924 22-minute surrealist film Entr’Acte for which Erik Satie wrote the score, described as ‘a model of film music‘. The film was screened to piano accompaniment by Joanna MacGregor.

Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray in René Clair's 1924 film Entr'acte

Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray in René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte

Satie composed the score in 1924 for the avant-garde film written and produced by Francis Picabia, and directed by René Clair. It was a sort of bizarrely comic, surrealist multimedia extravaganza, involving music, dance, and film. The cast included Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Satie himself. This was the first time a ‘shot-by-shot’ musical composition had been written for a film. Satie meticulously examined the film and wrote a composition designed to synchronize exactly with it and to have rhythms match the flow of the editing of the film.

Rene Clair, Jean Biorlin, Picabia & Satie repetent le prologue de Relache

Rene Clair, Jean Biorlin, Picabia and Satie in an early scene from Entr’acte

The film utilizes cutting-edge montage editing techniques of the time, which now appear rather clumsy and dated.  The second half – a sort of mad, extended chase sequence in which various formally-dressed members of the Paris bourgeoisie pursue a coffin until it comes to rest in a field and they disappear one-by-one – is the most entertaining.

Cheap Imitation is a piece for solo piano by John Cage, composed in 1969. It is an example of Cage’s ‘indeterminate’ pieces and was created using the I Ching while being based, rhythmically, on Socrate by Erik Satie.

John Cage: Cheap Imitation I, played by Rodney Lister

It was Part III of Satie’s Socrate – Mort de Socrate – which followed. According to BBC Radio 3 website, Socrate ‘is generally considered the composer’s masterpiece – a unique, poignant, stunningly beautiful work for voices and chamber orchestra, setting Plato’s account of the death of Socrates’.

With Joanna MacGregor accompanying on the piano, the mezzo-soprano Vanessa Williamson showed that anything can be sung with the right musical direction and skill: the text she sang being prose taken directly from a translation of Plato’s dialogues.  The Capstone’s programme notes offered an extract from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues; this is the final section:

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.

Then, with Gymnopédie No. 3, the concert was drawn to a close. I felt that I had learned a great deal.

See also


4 thoughts on “Joanna MacGregor and the eccentric genius of Erik Satie

  1. Very interesting. MacGregor is the new direct director of the Dartington Summer School (near here) and she is already having a big effect on the summer programme.

    1. The event programme mentioned that fact, Philip; I did wonder about the impact she might have. Her public concerts will definitely be worth your consideration – I notice at one she is performing with a Dutch jazz trumpeter and poet Alice Oswald. Intriguing!

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