10 May 2007

Eric Satie, Socrate

Gymnopédie is, I think, unusual as a French word. In English the OED lists only "gymnopaedic, a., The distinctive epithet of the dances or other exercises performed by naked boys at public festivals." LSJ of course reference the Spartan gumnopaidi/ai.

But it's not entirely clear what Satie meant by the word, or whether he meant anything at all having to do with ancient Greece:

The anecdote of Satie introducing himself as "gymnopedist" in December 1887 runs as follows: the first time Satie visited the Chat Noir cabaret, he was introduced to its director, Rodolphe Salis, famous for serving sharp comments. Being coerced to mention his profession, Satie, lacking any recognisable professional occupation, presented himself as a "gymnopedist", supposedly in an attempt to outwit the director.
Thus Wikipedia (wikipedie?), and corroborated by Grove.

We all know Satie's three Gymnopédies. But did you know that his most influential work is considered to be his three-act "symphonic drama", or quasi-opera, entitled Socrate?

I didn't know that, until Victor Caston yesterday told me about his find, in a used record shop, of:
Eric Satie, Socrate: Drame Symphonique avec voix (1919)

which includes
  • Portrait de Socrate (Le Banquet)
  • Bords de l'Illissus (Phédre), and
  • Mort de Socrate (Phédon)
with a text based on the translation of Victor Cousin.

Victor pointed me to the lengthy article in Wikipedia and an old site for discography. "Originally it's for four voices and chamber symphony," Victor wrote, "but the version I found (on Nimbus, 1977) is just for voice (Hugues Cuenod) and piano (Geoffrey Parsons)."

I later discovered in Grove that Virgil Thomson conducted the American premier in 1922-3 when he was an undergraduate at Harvard; and the world premier of a stage version was in Hartford ("a famous production designed by Alexander Calder, with Eva Gauthier and Colin O’More") in 1936.

Satie's Socrate inspired John Cage to write a piece with an appropriately Platonic title, Cheap Imitation (1969). (Excerpts from both may be heard here.) I'm quite sure, however, that John Cage's use of the I Ching in composing the piece is incompatible with Plato's understanding of technê.

Last year I had blogged on Leonard Bernstein's Symposium for solo violin and orchestra. Victor Caston's discovery (for us at least) of Satie's Socrate raises the question: What other musical works are based upon ancient Greek philosophy?


Leon said...


I owe the reference to my former professor, Kirk Sanders, who had posted the song on a course website; maybe it can be found through some file-sharing programs?