Saturday, May 17, 2014

‘A Saturday Satie memory’

For some reason—I don’t know why, and I’m not necessarily proud of it—many of my earliest memories are of things seen on television. Bill Jorgensen with that day’s Vietnam body count on the Ten O’Clock News. Nixon’s resignation speech. Munich. A snippet of some cartoon showing anthropomorphized vegetables (e.g. an ill-tempered tomato) splashing down inside a stomach, or maybe a garbage can, and bickering among themselves about it.
One day at age three or four—definitely before kindergarten—I squeezed in a full morning of Sesame Street and other such programming before it was time for a nap. I abandoned the television in the master bedroom, but left it turned on, and walked a straight line of no more than twenty feet to my bed. Sacking out for a while and still able to hear the TV, I held still as haunting music reached my ears. A melody so laden with pathos that it made me afraid and sad. My eyes began tearing. I listened for maybe a minute more, feeling very uneasy, before venturing back to my parents’ room to see whatever trouble the program was. It showed wild animals, in slow motion, running through the grass and trees of some jungle-like setting. Which animals I do not remember; the music stayed with me for life.

Erik Satie
It was Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1, as I would learn some 35 years later, in an arrangement—if I really can recall correctly—for guitar.

Erik-Alfred-Leslie Satie, says Encyclopædia Britannica, was a French composer “whose spare, unconventional, often witty style exerted a major influence on 20th-century music, particularly in France.” If you’re a fan of John Cage, you are acquainted with the sparse composition style and unconventional harmonies that are Satie’s legacy.

My proper introduction to M. Satie came courtesy of the Rose Circle Research Foundation, specifically Trevor Stewart’s lecture at our first conference, held in April 2006. Trevor spoke at length on the Salon de la Rose + Croix movement, led by Joseph Péladan in fin de siècle Paris. In short, it was an artistic movement wed to Péladan’s self-styled Rosicrucianism, a highly idiomatic esoteric Christianity indeed. (Now that is a subject any Rosicrucian ought to explore for personal edification.) The goal of the annual art salons was to restore the expression of spirituality to the Paris art scene, which at the time was devoted almost entirely to Realism. The art itself expressed themes from mythologies, mysticism, dreams, and other such intuitive inspirations. We can tell these paintings were generations ahead of their time because today they are merely awesome. A hundred and twenty years ago they were explosive.

Armand Point's poster promoting the 1895 Salon de la Rose Croix depicts Greek mythical hero Perseus, slayer of Medusa the Gorgon, holding up decapitated Emile Zola. 

In the liner notes of the CD Musique de la Rose-Croix (LTMCD 2469), James Nice summarizes Satie’s involvement with this arts movement:

A Templar Knight Rose Croix meets
Leonardo da Vinci in this Salon poster.
For a short period Erik Satie was appointed official composer for the esoteric Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique du Temple et du Graal, founded in Paris by the flamboyant mystic ‘Sar’ Joséphin Péladan. The first Salon de la Rose-Croix was held in March 1892, at which Satie’s solemn Trois Sonneries de la Rose + Croix were performed for the first time. Satie also composed music for Péladan’s play Le Fils des Étoiles (Son of the Stars), as well as two preludes for a chivalric play, Le Nazaréen. Satie subsequently broke from the Order in August 1892.

It would be too wonderful a coincidence for the sublime melody that upset me in a moment of early childhood to be among the composer’s Rosicrucian works I enjoy in middle age, and that is not the case, but I am delighted—très content—to connect the pieces and enjoy them. Erik Satie was born on this date in 1866, and when today settles down enough so I may sneak off with some tobacco and a glass of whiskey, I surely will toast his memory.

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