I should confess straightaway that I am no expert on classical music. This journey into classical music is one that I hope to take with the reader, barely a step ahead most of the time, and possibly even a few steps behind sometimes.
So why am I taking this journey? Because, as I’ve found myself developing more of an interest in classical music, I’ve also found myself in a vain search for a guide. The only ones I’ve found either swan off miles ahead of me, making absurd presumptions that my knowledge-base has foundations as solid as theirs, or hammer me into a coma with a steady thwock-thwock-thwock of terms that mean close to nothing to the uninitiated. Take this from the Naxos website’s introduction to the Renaissance Period:
“This was also something of a golden period for choral composition as a seemingly endless flow of a capella (unaccompanied) masses, motets, anthems, psalms and madrigals flowed from the pens of the masters of the age.”
Meaningless, I’m sure you’ll agree.
So, what do I propose? Well, I propose looking at one composer at a time, writing about them in an accessible way, trying to provide a window into their life and some of their works. I propose finding some people to come along on this journey with me — so if other people want to contribute to this column, I would be more than happy for them to do so. Just leave a comment below or get in touch through my profile.
Erik Satie (1866-1925)
The first piece of classical music I ever heard and wanted to hear again was Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1. I think part of its appeal was how “unclassical” it sounded. As a child, traipsing into primary school assembly every morning, I thought classical music was a deafening menagerie of strings and clashing cymbals all fighting for precedence over one another, the kind of thing to start a war to. It was what adults listened to because adults were, well, the kind of people who liked to start wars… with children. For my headmistress, Gustav Holst’s The Planets were the lighter fluid for the fires in the pit of her stomach, ensuring every chastening she doled out would be a chastening to be remembered.
Gymnopédie No.1, on the other hand, is an almost careless dropping of notes from the stave to the piano, one by one; a sort of anti-bombastic statement. Satie wrote it in 1888, towards the end of what is known as the Romantic Period of classical music. This ran from roughly 1825 to 1900 and is characterised by the emergence of artists who took themselves pretty seriously, viewing themselves as visionaries, geniuses, people designed for another strata of life — as was fitting with the social stratification that came about on the back of the industrial revolution.
Take for one Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the much maligned anti-semite, whose operatic marathon the Ring Cycle runs for about 17 hours. Not only was the Ring Cycle a kind of world in itself, but Wagner wanted a special opera house designed for its premiere – and he got one: the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
Then take Satie, whose Gymnopédie No. 1 — there are three in all — counts as one of his longer piano pieces, at three minutes. He came along and tried to stick a pin into the inflated earnestness of the Romantic Period, and not only by stripping down music to its bare essentials, but by coming up with titles such as Pieces to Make You Run Away and Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear — which he concocted after being accused of writing music that had no form — and musical directions such as “like a nightingale with toothache” and “don’t be proud”.
Indeed, he called for “music without sauerkraut”, and an escape from “Teutonic seriousness”, and he didn’t just do this with fragile little piano pieces (most famously the Gnossiennes, as well as the Gymnopédies). In 1917, he collaborated with Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Serge Diaghilev on the ballet Parade, composing a 15-minute clatter that veers from the apparently quotidian into shattering bouts of foghorns and typewriters and through loop-the-loops of ragtime riffs. There was a riot on the opening night — possibly because of Satie’s music, possibly because of Picasso’s cubist set and costumes — and Satie gained recognition, or rather notoriety, far beyond that which he garnered for his Gymnopédies. Parade is also credited with opening the door that would result in all sorts of industrial music entering our collective ears.
Yet it is his piano works that have probably had a greater influence. Satie’s Vexations — a short musical phrase that could, in theory, be repeated indefinitely — is an obvious precursor to all sorts of loop-based music, particularly Brian Eno’s Ambient series, such as Music for Airports, and Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works. The Gymnopédies can even be heard in more up-tempo electronic music, such as Grimes.
Satie also had an influence on art, hanging around with Surrealists and Dadaists. Man Ray came up with the idea for his famous “Cadeau” (“Gift”) — a flatiron with a line of nails glued to the bottom, robbing both items of their sole purpose — after going drinking with Satie, and Satie helped him buy the materials in a hardware store after Man Ray’s French proved inadequate.
Muppets creator Jim Henson once said, “The most sophisticated people I know – inside they are all children,” and Satie certainly had a lot of the child’s spirit, energy and unselfconsciousness inside him. And the more I find out about classical composers, the more I discover that many of them were childish, obsessive, bizarre, and probably not the kind of people you’d want to spend time with. Indeed, Satie fan Alistair McGowan found out as much while working on a Radio 4 documentary about the composer, when two leading Satie scholars told him they wouldn’t have wanted to meet the man because he was “too quixotic and unpredictable a character” and they’d have found him too difficult to talk to.
Stories about Satie include:
- He had seven identical yellow corduroy suits, one for each day of the week, so he never had to waste time choosing what to wear.
- When it rained, he kept his umbrella under his coat to keep it dry.
- For a time, he ate only white foods, hoping their simplicity and purity would inform his music.
- He carried a hammer around in case anyone attacked him.
And I suppose this is part of why I have found myself attracted to classical music and musicians; because it and they can be anarchic, daft and childish. Because even among normally serious adults, it can create a spirit of rebellion. Back in my primary school, with my Holst-loving headmistress, I was given for a term the daunting duty of pressing play on the stereo as everyone filed in for assembly, and of changing the name on the board displaying the composer of the week. One teacher, let’s call her Mrs T — who later usurped the headmistress at the summit of that provincial primary school pyramid — took the opportunity offered by 1 April to expose her rival’s foolishness and faux knowledge in front of the whole school. Mrs T gave me a piece of card bearing the name of that week’s star composer, a name I had never seen before, one that was some sort of concatenation of two Formula 1 drivers — Prostalesi, I think. “Just put any old music on,” Mrs T said. “She’ll never know.”
And she didn’t know: not while she announced the composer of the week, not while she read out a paragraph about Prostalesi provided to her by Mrs T, not while she told us how much she loved his music and nodded her head as she made us all listen. But she did know when Mrs T revealed her ruse at the end of assembly and hundreds of children, and several teachers, started laughing. It wasn’t 1917, and it wasn’t quite a riot, but I think it was something of which Satie would have approved.