Satie: Ogives

performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet

(cover image by Sophie Sollmann)

It has been some time, about three and a half years now, since we’ve seen anything from Satie on the blog, and we’re remedying that now (and again later in the month). If you know anything of his work, you know how perfectly much of his compositions it into an idea like this.

What is an ogive, you ask?

Merriam-Webster gives us the below definitions:

a a diagonal arch or rib across a Gothic vault
b a pointed arch

You may think of this as the groin, “the projecting curved line along which two intersecting vaults meet,” and maybe you wouldn’t be wrong. In any case, what this title conveys to us (or me) musically is a kind of high, vaulted spaciousness, cavernous, even, where music floats and resonates solemnly.

The four ogives were the first compositions not published by Satie’s father’s publishing house, and were published in 1889. As with much of Satie’s work, the pieces are written without bar lines. Also as with much of his work, it’s pretty straightforward in that it’s made up of repeating shapes or figures. If you’ve listened to the Gnossienes or Gymnopédies, you’ll recall there’s a little figure, a contour that shapes the pieces in a set, like a heartbeat, and everything more or less works from that basic building block.

The composer is said to have been inspired by the windows of Notre Dame, but what I hope you’ll see, regardless of what specific image or building may come to your mind, is that there’s a general shape that’s ‘constructed’ in the first Ogive, that serves as the basis for the others, in kind of the way that a shadow cast by an object would change as the sun moves across the sky.

The harmonies and sound produced by the piano here are very sonorous, echoey. The music is open and spacious, and this sound was meant to reflect the fullness and churchiness of an organ in a cathedral.

Even the works themselves are kind of in an arch form. Listen to the first one and how it points upward and then moves back down, at first softly, before making the same trajectory in an almost thunderous sonority, how the music hangs and reverberates in open space.

Listen to how the second Ogive sort of echoes the shape of the first, what I’d consider to be the most straightforward, arch. The rhythm and phrasing are slightly different, but the overwhelming silhouette of grand cathedral-like architecture, a clean, sturdy arch, still dominates.

The third is a little more chromatic, with more stepwise motion than the previous installments, and the fourth, in adding to this stepwise motion, seems also to hint at the Dies Irae, which doesn’t seem at all out of place in a setting like this, does it?

Maybe it seems silly to do any kind of analysis of this music, but if you’ve heard any of Satie’s work before, you know how atmospheric, or moody, it is. If you can read music, I urge you to go download the sheet music for this set of pieces. They’re largely static, and a single listen tells you there’s nothing rhythmically challenging about them, no real counting to be done, but it’s a great study in harmony and shape; it’s all so simple, but it’s also very effective. I should hope every piece we discuss this month resonates with its listeners like this one does. See what I did there?

As a side note, Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s reading is much heavier and more deliberate than Ciccolini’s (who recorded some/all of Satie’s work on both a Steinway and a Bösendorfer, making it a great chance to compare the sounds of those pianos). I do prefer Thibaudet’s more solemn-sounding reading. He breathes an even greater grandness into these simple little works, which strike me as far less tongue-in-cheek than some of his other pieces.

Anyway, there’s lots more little music to hear this month, and Satie is one of only a few composers we’ll be seeing twice this month. All the composers featured on Sundays for chamber works have midweek piano works featured, but only Satie and Bartók (spoiler alert) have two midweek pieces featured. Stay tuned for this and more, and thank you so much for reading.


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