Without doubt this is the most useful and intelligent book on Satie’s life in English. Robert Orledge, an authority on French music who has already written the best book on Satie as composer, has brought together a wide range of fascinating reminiscences from friends, acquaintances, collaborators, fellow musicians and family. Although some of this has appeared in various French periodicals – some defunct for many years – more than half the texts appear in English (in very good translations) for the first time. The brilliance of the book means that it can serve simultaneously as serious scholarship and as a thoroughly entertaining read. None of the stories are longer than 2 or 3 pages so it makes it, equally, something to dip into each night before sleeping.
Many of the writers confirm our picture of Satie as living, by choice, in continual poverty in order to devote himself to his art (“Monsieur le Pauvre”) and the self denial and solitude of his life. At the same time he emerges as a convivial, if somewhat prickly, companion and there are several stories of his stopping to drink in his favourite cafés walking at night to his tiny room in the suburb of Arcueil after missing the 1 AM tram from Paris. George Auriol remembers that, on these journeys, “our musician carried a hammer in his pocket, by way of a tomahawk” because of the “prowling apaches“. Satie was a vigorous supporter of younger artists and several writers testify his importance in advancing their careers. George Antheil’s account of how the violent applause of Satie and Milhaud repulsed rioters at his recital is very lively – “I suddenly heard Satie’s shrill voice saying ‘Quelle précision! Quelle précision! Bravo! Bravo!’ and he kept clapping his little gloved hands…”
There are inevitably contradictions when people remember from different perspectives, but this often enriches the implied narrative. Patrick Gowers’ precise researches on Satie’s time at the Paris Conservatoire are a useful counterbalance to Templier’s famous, but impressionistic, version. Given too that most accounts of Les Six talk about the group’s short-lived existence during 1920, it is striking that five of them (Louis Durey, we learn earlier, had moved to St. Tropez in 1921) were there. But there then follows a curious letter from Raymonde Linossier to Poulenc (one of Les Six who is listed as being there) describing the funeral to him in great detail!
What emerges throughout is the considerable artistic quality of Satie’s colleagues and the high regard in which they held him. The great sculptor Brancusi was a particularly close friend and other visual artists such as Léger, Man Ray and Picabia offer valuable insights. From the musical side Poulenc talks interestingly of Satie’s “innate feeling” for the piano and of “the novel directness of his writing” for the instrument. Charles Koechlin hits the nail on the head with an acute comparison between Satie and Kipling’s story The Cat Who Walked by Himself: “His music has the same elegant suppleness, the economy of gesture, the precise paw movements in his witty inventions …..and especially, the same instinctive, absolute independence”. Anyone who only knows Satie as composer of the Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes and Sarabandes will have their horizons vastly enlarged and the Satie specialist will be constantly stimulated. I, for example, had never come across Satie’s bohemian chum from the 1890’s with the amazing name of Augustin Grass-Mick….