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To date, Satie scholarship has neglected the intriguing topic of his long-standing attraction toward America, perhaps because Erik Satie never actually traveled farther from Paris than Monte Carlo and Brussels (apart from a family holiday to Brighton at the age of one). Yet he was fascinated from the 1890s onward by the opportunities that America offered and his quest for recognition there can be contextualized within the modernist identification with "exotic" cultures and the concept of "otherness." But only to a limited extent, because Satie's extreme left-wing views dismissed the French contemporary penchant for exoticism as bourgeois (and better suited to Ravel or Debussy). He showed no real interest in politics or imperialism and, apart from the Gnossiennes written in the wake of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, no musical interest in superficial "orientalisms." Rather, his revolution was a fundamental one that is still relevant in a postmodernist era. It involved a complete rethinking of every aspect of the nineteenth-century Romantic traditions that he had inherited. Which is why his iconoclastic ideas so appealed to John Cage from the mid-1940s onward, especially those concerning the way music functioned in time and space and the effects of cellular repetition, duration, and deliberately induced boredom. Paradoxically, these ideas also help to explain why Satie's restrained and unpretentious music received greater posthumous recognition in the United States than it ever did in France (especially in the 1980s when it approached cult status and was taken up by everyone from Chick Corea to Blood, Sweat and Tears). Indeed, this recognition was at least on a par with that of Milhaud and Stravinsky, who had enhanced their American reputations through personal visits, and the postwar American experimental school venerated Satie far more than their French contemporaries, and especially Boulez, ever did.
For Satie, the impoverished professional composer, any journey away from Paris meant a major upheaval and the necessity of financial aid. However, without any of the typical "imperialist" prejudices of Debussy, he saw America as the land of potential fame and fortune, with New York being at least as chic and exciting as Paris. He saw American audiences as less likely to be prejudiced toward his iconoclastic art, and the United States as an important new market to be cultivated. This he did, through friends, musical and literary publications, and the American tour he planned in 1918 with the aid of Henri-Pierre Roche, the subsequent author of Jules et Jim. Satie's transatlantic interests can be seen as predating the postwar period of the esprit nouveau, and to have been stimulated by his activities as a composer, arranger, and performer of popular material around the turn of the century. Moreover, the process of expanding on what is already known about Satie and America of necessity involves a reappraisal of both Satie's reception of American culture, and America's critical reception of Satie.
Debussy, Satie, and the Lure of America
In December 1913 Satie compiled a unique account of his life and works for a Bulletin circulated by his recently acquired publisher, Eugene Demets. By then, Demets had brought out seven sets of his "humoristic" piano pieces (and was demanding more) so this aspect was uppermost in Satie's mind. In his usual unpredictable manner, he quoted himself as saying, "My humour recalls that of [Oliver] Cromwell. I also owe a great deal to Christopher Columbus; for American wit has sometimes tapped me on the shoulder, and I have felt, with joy, its ironically frosty bite."(1) But, while his first claim seems deliberately misleading (Cromwell being renowned for his Puritan lack of frivolity), his second was not. For irony was a crucial factor in the "fantaisiste" spirit of Satie's humor, and if Columbus had not "discovered" America, its wit could never have crept up on Satie as he described. Moreover, Satie saw in Columbus's self-imposed mission of discovery a parallel to his own aesthetic quest, and the true (prophetic) irony of the situation was that neither explorer ever set foot in America, despite their best intentions.
The stimulating challenge of the United States dated back to the early days of Satie's long friendship with Debussy, who planned an American tour in 1892 when he was, apart from winning the Prix de Rome, still little known as a composer. Debussy's contemporary letters show how important this tour was to him. As he liked to demonstrate his superiority over the then-inexperienced Satie, he would surely have discussed his forthcoming plans with him during their weekly meetings which had begun the previous year. Satie's later proposal to Roche enumerated the works he had chosen for America in much the same optimistic manner as Debussy proposed his Trois scenes au crepuscule, his Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, and La damoiselle elue to his wealthy backer Prince Andre Poniatowski in his long letter of September 8/9, 1892.(2) Several other factors seem to have lodged themselves in Satie's mind. First, the way that Debussy "coolly" considered the question of his "commercial value on the American market,"(3) though we find Satie more confident of his likely success in 1918. Second, the way that extensive financial backing was essential for the trip to take place, and how vital enlightened sponsors were. Third, how important the choice of performers was if his works were to come across at their best. And last, how hopeful Debussy was that things would be better away from "the so-called artistic environment of Paris" where "to make it, however it's done and however you understand the word, means secretly relying on everything that's mediocre, shabby, and shamefully deficient."(4) But again, if Satie equally longed to escape the philistinism and low standards prevalent in Paris, he showed himself less willing to compromise his principles than Debussy and later developed a much wider circle of influential American friends whose extroversion he found invigorating.
Ragtime, "La Mort de Monsieur Mouche," "La Diva de l'Empire," and "Le Piccadilly" (1900-1904)
The first sign of Satie's musical interest in America comes as early as 1900 in his piano overture for a now-lost three-act play by his friend J. P. Contamine de Latour entitled La Mort de Monsieur Mouche. Although it is not a "rag" as such, it does contain a passage of ragtime syncopation, as Steven Moore Whiting has discovered. Moreover, this passage (ex. 1) was the first that Satie sketched, and as the overture was registered for copyright purposes on April 18, 1900, "he must have written it several months before John Philip Sousa supposedly introduced these distinctive rhythms to Parisians in May 1900."(5)
[Example 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Whiting cites Gabriel Astruc as the most likely source for Satie's early acquaintance with American cakewalks and ragtime. During his visit to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Astruc arranged for friends to send him the latest American popular music after he returned to Paris, and Kerry Mills's "At a Georgia Campmeeting" (1897) and other such pieces duly arrived in advance of their popularization by Sousa in 1900 and their Parisian publication in 1901. As Astruc worked for the publisher, Wilhelm Enoch, from 1897 onward, bringing out songs by composers of the Chat Noir circle with whom Satie was closely connected, it seems likely that this resulted in his "earliest contact with syncopation."(6)
In 1902-3 the American cakewalk was the craze of Paris, and Satie responded in 1904 with two syncopated compositions, La Diva de l'Empire and Le Piccadilly. Although both refer to London (the first to the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square), both have American connections. La Diva de l'Empire, a "Marche chantee" written for Paulette Darty, was rather oddly titled Stand-Walk Marche in the piano solo version (BN MS 10066), and was later subtitled "Intermezzo Americain" when Rouart-Lerolle reissued it in 1919; Le Piccadilly (another march) was originally called La Transatlantique.(7) As such, this portrayed the stereotype of the wealthy American heiress who sailed from New York by transatlantic liner to barter her fortune for an aristocratic title in Europe (of which Satie's later patroness, the Princesse de Polignac, nee Winnaretta Singer, was a typical example). Steven Moore Whiting argues that a song by Satie called La Transatlantique was performed by Paulette Darty in the one-act Revue sans fiches at the Theatre des Mathurins on November 6, 1904, and that, with the strains in reverse order, the unpublished text about "Miss Dollar" (whose fortune is in lard) fits the tune of Le Piccadilly.(8)
Even if Satie was in the wake rather than the vanguard of current trends as he mounted the popular bandwagon in 1904, he was several years ahead of Debussy and his Golliwogg's Cake Walk in giving American syncopation serious status as an art form. Again it seems likely that they must have discussed such American matters together, and that Satie's financially necessary cabaret work helped to stimulate his interest in American popular art.
In August 1905 Satie also registered a syncopated march-song called Legende Californienne (whose words by his friend Contamine de Latour have since been lost), and he attached sufficient importance to this to orchestrate it as the "Grande Ritournelle" in his "fantaisie serieuse" La Belle Excentrique in 1920. But then in October 1905 Satie enrolled for Vincent d'Indy's seven-year course in composition at the Schola Cantorum and, for a while at least, his interest in things American took second place to his need to turn himself into an accredited professional composer whose contrapuntal skills could not be questioned.
The Events of 1911: Ravel, Debussy, and Caplet
In January 1911 Ravel's performance of Satie's early works at a Societe Musicale Independante concert put him on the Parisian musical map, and if Satie would have preferred the acclaim for the pieces he was composing at the moment, Ravel's rediscovery did encourage Demets to accept his latest "humoristic" …