Satie: Embryons Desséchés

performed by Aldo Ciccolini, or below by Daniel Varsano

second and third

(cover image by Zhu Xihua)

In contrast with what seemed last week like pretty genuinely serious music from Satie, we have something today that really embodies what most people may think of when Satie is mentioned: a kind of tongue-in-cheek, if not completely satirical, sarcastic nature.

Embryons Desséchés (desiccated embryos) was written in 1913 and is in three movements, as follows:

  1. of a Holothurian (30 June 1913), dedicated to Suzanne Roux
  2. of an Edriophthalma (1 July 1913), dedicated to Edouard Dreyfus
  3. of a Podophthalma (4 July 1913), dedicated to Jane Mortier

If you want an entirely different version of these works, go check out Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s recordings.

John Keillor gives the pieces a more noble explanation than elsewhere, saying at AllMusic:

… the real focus is invertebrates, such as sea cucumbers, pictures of which Satie found in a school textbook. Stirred by these fantastic creatures, he produced three movements that are eminently typical of his style — alive with jokes and quirky lyricism, and evocative of the proto-Surrealism prevalent among Parisian bohemians at the time.

There are interesting things to note about references to other music, such as “making fun of Loïsa Puget’s song Mon rocher de Saint-Malo (“My rock of Saint-Malo” – a then popular salon composition, which Satie had probably played numerous times in his cabaret pianist career),” per Wikipedia. In fact, even in the score, there are markings that wink or poke fun at this piece.

The second movement refers to a piece that even more people would recognize even more readily: Chopin’s funeral march from his second sonata. It’s not directly quoted, but it’s darn close. As if the reference weren’t enough, the composer refers to it in the score as ‘a famous mazurka of Schubert.’ Clearly this isn’t the case, as it’s certainly not am mazurka, and even if it were, Schubert never wrote one. Odd, isn’t it?

If you had to think of an animal to represent a hunter, I doubt it would be a Podophthalma (the ten-legged crustaceans now referred to as decapoda), but in either case, we apparently have a hunter, and Wikipedia reminds us that “hunts have quite a tradition in classical music, from early baroque keyboard music, over Vivaldi, several classical era composers and romantic opera composers…” This movement ends with an almost smart-alecky grandiose gesture, an “obligatory cadenza.” Wikipedia says:

Consisting, as it does, of more than half a page of fortissimo F-major chords and arpeggios, this grandiose flourish is hilariously incongruous with the modest proportions of the piece as a whole.

Gosh, is ‘incongruous’ not the perfect word for just about everything in this piece? His poking fun at popular music, but also to classical, intentional misattributions, absurdly grandiose gestures throughout… and all in the context of relating these ideas to various (and very obscure) types of sea creatures. What an odd bird (or crab) Satie indeed was. I do, get the impression, though, that he is just a nonconformist, or perhaps a contrarian by nature. Who knows?

But you can’t say there’s no comedy in classical music, can you? Keillor finishes by reminding us of a point that you may also have found difficult to appreciate or remember:

With so many musical references and allusions, one might think that Embryons desséchés amounts to little more than a pastiche; but this is not so. The charming suite has a spirit that is fully representative of Satie‘s brilliant imagination. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the suite is that the passage of time has not diminished its comedic qualities; even though the quotes are no longer well known, the music is still engaging and communicative.

You must indeed give him that. I’ll admit I did almost use the word ‘pastiche’ in this article, but had decided against it. It is indeed humorous and charming, and for three pieces of such brevity, that’s more than enough reason to give them a listen.

Stay tuned for more brief music this week, including two pieces from arguably the most obscure composer we’ll be seeing this month. Thanks so much for reading.

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