Entertainment Music

Thursday 23 January 2020

Satie: from Parisian cafes to supermarket aisles

Satie: His music has stood the test of time
Satie: His music has stood the test of time

George Hamilton

If I'm ever in Paris, I try to fit in a visit to a restaurant in Montparnasse. La Coupole gets its name from the art-deco dome of stained glass that sits above the dining room where a curry featured on the menu on the opening night in 1927, and is honoured still in the presence of turbaned waiter and a hostess trolley that delivers the one Indian speciality of the evening.

I was reminded of La Coupole and the music that would have been made there when I was rummaging around at home recently.

It was the arrival of a new piano in our house that prompted my research. All manner of forgotten delights turned up. And there, in all its faded glory, was the manuscript for a shillings-and-pence purchase from a music store now long gone.

Erik Satie's wonderful little waltz Je Te Veux is a number that would have wowed them in the brasseries of Montparnasse once upon a time.

With the title translating as 'I Want You', it was pretty risqué for its day - the turn of the 20th century.

It was conceived as a song for the singer that Satie would play for. You'll still hear the vocal version, created for Paulette Darty, and there's a full orchestration as well.

But it's as a piano solo that it gets aired mostly now. Deceptively simple, it has a lovely positive, lilting feel. So much so that it's hard to bracket it with the bulk of Satie's output - which was pretty earnest, and heavy enough.

This, after all, was the man who dreamt up not one but two distinctive styles of piano piece - the gymnopédie and the gnossienne.

Then there was what he termed his musique d'ameublement - literally "furniture music" - music not meant to be actively listened to but something that was simply there, as part of the furniture. If there had been the technology, not to mention the business model, Satie would have been the soundtrack to supermarket shopping.

There is still debate about what he was actually up to. Nobody really knows what gymnopédie or gnossienne actually mean.

And how do you come up with a title like The Dreaming Fish or advise a performer to play a piece hypocritically, superstitiously, or like a nightingale with toothache? Satie did.

The term avant-garde could have been invented for him. And it applied to his life in general.

He lived alone in spartan accommodation which housed a piano that, unlike my own, never got played.

His one indulgence was a set of seven identical corduroy suits, one for each day of the week so he didn't have waste time in the morning thinking about what to wear.

There was only ever one serious relationship, a tempestuous affair with a lady who was an acrobat. It lasted only a matter of months.

He earned a crust playing in the cafés of Paris, in Montparnasse, and, most regularly, in the one near his home in Montmartre.

Au Lapin Agile is still there, and you'll still hear music played. And wherever the piano is played, there will always be space for Satie.

His work may lack the sparkle of a Chopin, or the lustre of a Liszt, but, earnest or not, it has stood the test of time.

And there's always Je Te Veux, that sweetest of tunes, that attests to a lyricism in this most eccentric of composers. It's a joy to the ear.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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