La Belle Excentrique – Erik Satie

Erik Satie

Erik Alfred Leslie Satie (17 May 1866 – 1 July 1925) was best known for his 1888 work ‘Trois Gymnopédies’ which is a set of three placid-sounding yet hauntingly beautiful and reflective piano compositions (although in my estimation, the first piece being the best and when you have finished hearing the last piece, you would be left wondering what was going on his mind at the time he penned those works.

Yes, the hallmark of Satie is unpredictability – and in these days, you’d term such character as ‘random’.

Here’s just a sample of the titles which he gave some of his works – In 1912, he wrote ‘Préludes flasques (pour un chien)‘ (‘Flabby Preludes for a Dog’); in 1913 came ‘Embryons desséchés’ (‘Desiccated Embryos’); and in 1914 his charming ‘Les trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté’ (roughly translated as ‘Three Distinguished Waltzes of a Jaded Dandy’) with the exquisite second piece ‘Son Binocle’ (His Monocle) is to be played très lent, s’il vous plaît (Slowly, if you please).

 

I started off with his best-known work as stated above. My immediate impression of Satie was good back then and in 1996, I was treated with the orchestral work ‘La Belle Excentrique’ (‘The Eccentric Beauty’) which is a ‘fantaisie sérieuse’ that he wrote for the dancer Elise Jouhandeau who was better known in her day (we’re looking back at the 1920s Paris here) simply as ‘Caryathis’.

Satie conceived this work as a tour through three decades of dance entertainment in the city. For this work, Satie had also visualized the degree of eccentricity that he wanted for Caryathis. The famous costume designer and poster artist, Léon Bakst captured the vision beautifully –

caryathis

The work was premiered in July 1920 at the Théâtre du Colisée for a small orchestra and is in four movements of distinct character each –

Toulouse Lautrec - Dancing Moulin Rouge 

(i) Grand Ritournelle (Grand Ritornello) – a bold showpiece of boisterous and daring cabaret music, so prevalent in that era, but under the controlled guidance of Satie nothing is spared as far as grabbing the audience’s attention is in concern. The principal key is F major;

(ii) Marche Franco-Lunaire (French Moon-March) – not the best of the lot but enough to still carry on the infectious mood to the next piece. To be honest, I don’t know quite what to make of this movement and it serves little link to the next piece in line;

(iii) Valse du Mystérieux Baiser dans l’Oeil (Waltz of the Mysterious Kiss Within the Eye) – this waltz movement is a personal favourite of mine. Loud arresting chords are quickly dissipated with a vague tune so typical of Satie. When the waltz proper starts, you are treated with a beautiful yet pensive melody which would never be resolved even at the end of the movement;

(iv) Cancan grand-mondain (High-society cancan) – what is Paris dance entertainment without the naughty and energetic cancan? This flighty movement rounds this ‘serious fantasy’ with verve and flair. The First World War had just ended not long before and France bore the brunt of the most horrendous scenes, but in Paris it seems, life has resumed as normal (to Erik Satie at least).     

Cancan - Toulouse Lautrec 

Paris_Montmartre_in_1925

Recommended Recordings

The first recording I listened to was part of a compilation called ‘Holiday Classics’ by Decca and was performed by the London Festival Players. The theme was ‘Carnival’ and there was this goofy-looking guy with a toothy grin clad in a sailor suit at the front cover. I bought the disc primarily because of a Johann Strauss Jr., waltz (Bei uns Z’Haus op. 361) featured. The Decca version only had the first and the third movements with the even-numbered ones shifted out, thereby clocking in at a shade over 4:45 minutes. The playing was excellent and the tempi were spot-on.

I’ve also listened to a piano version which I found somewhere online and the performance was wonderful, if a tad fast on the third movement. I’d favour the neat execution and the flair present on this piano version than the orchestral one.

I can hardly find any other versions of this hidden gem of French modern classical music. In fact, barely anything substantial and comprehensive has been written about this near-forgotten piece but if you do have the chance, spend some time listening to this shameless piece and you’ll get a feel of why Satie’s music is quite attractive in its own quirky way. And I meant it in favourable terms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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