Monday, July 1, 2013

100 years ago today

We interrupt our regularly scheduled series on composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk and pass up the opportunity to reflect on the 150th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg to offer up an anniversary of a different sort today. We'll get to Gettysburg on Wednesday. By the way, thank you to all of you who were at my concert yesterday.

It isn't often that a composer puts a date on their manuscript. Most don't--some, more recent, are pretty consistent about doing this, which will save future musicologists a lot of work, and torpedo their chances of constructing interesting theories about their chronology, for which I'd like to say on their behalf yeah, thanks a lot, guys!  

But some time ago, I happened to notice that a peculiar little set of three piano pieces by composer Erik Satie sports such dates. The first is dated June 30th. I was busy giving a completely unrelated concert yesterday. The second of the set proclaims its birth on "July 1, 1913," which happens to be a Monday, and thus conveniently lines up with our regular blog date, and the third took its good old time and appeared on July 4th. So I thought as an anniversary nod to these strange but fun pieces (one audience member after a concert of mine opined that the composer "must have been drunk when he wrote them!") I'd post the set for your listening edification. (By the way, I remember sight reading another piece in college and discovering at the end that it was dated a hundred years ago that very day! What a curious sensation that caused! I've forgotten know what piece is was. I think it was Russian.)

They are called Embryons Desseches, or "Dried Embryos" which is possibly Satie's way of poking fun at the question of compositional technique in music (it's a long story, but it usually has to do with his friend Debussy). The poetry which precedes each movement is also a bit absurd; each movement is titled after a different Crustacean (you read me right; this might be the only set of piano pieces in existence who movements are titled after Crustaceans.)

I have had some fun in the past asking people to draw pictures of said Crustaceans based on the way the music inspires them (without looking at the animals). Here is one my wife drew many years ago:

It is certainly more fun than the drawings I just saw on Wikipedia. There is an entire article there if you'd like more information on these pieces, though it is short on whimsy.

Satie certainly wasn't. Here is his poetry and the music that is attached to it:

Satie: Dried Embryos

I. The Holothurian
Ignorant people call it "sea cucumber."
The Holothurian usually climbs up rocks or blocks of stone.
Like the cat, this sea animal purrs; moreover, it spins dripping threads of silk.
The action of light seems to disturb it.
I observed a Holothurian in the Gulf of Saint-Malo.

II. The Edriopthalma
Shellfish with sessile eyes.
Very sad by nature, these sea-creatures live,
withdrawn from the world,
in holes drilled through cliffs.

III. The Podopthalma
Crustaceans with eyes placed on moveable stalks.
They are skillful and tireless hunters
They are found in all the oceans
The flesh of the Podopthalma is tasty food.

Happy listening. And happy birthday, you silly old pieces!

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