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What are we to make of Erik Satie? An original mind, very eccentric habits, a mass of contradictions, etc. The music? Whimsical, subversive, perverse, spare but piquant, etc. How long will last year’s 150th anniversary revival of interest last? His influence on 20th-century music, including the minimalists and John Cage, is indisputable, but how often do we hear any of his music except for the obvious piano pieces? Caroline Potter’s book is very welcome, essential reading without replacing existing biographies. I hope it will encourage us to listen to more of Satie’s music.

In the earliest chapters Potter discusses Satie’s environment in Montmartre, where he sometimes played as a café pianist, and mechanical music – with several pages on the barrel organ and its influence. Subsequent topics include Satie’s relationship with the Futurists; Repetition and Furniture Music (musique d’ameublement); Science, Society and Politics in Satie’s Life; The Provocative Satie and the Dada Connection; and Satie’s Death and Musical Legacy.

In common with several other French composers, however, he demands to be assessed on his own terms, rather than as part of a broader artistic movement. (Les Six, for instance, was very much a group of individuals.) Outside influences and associations were often temporary and did little to add to or detract from Satie’s uniqueness.

In Chapter 3 Potter examines Satie’s texted piano works. From 1912 Satie added texts of prose-poem character which are never actually spoken in performance, but the author wonders whether, given the composer’s multimedia leanings, this practice should be considered.

Satie’s music is an eclectic mixture and Ms Potter more than once mentions its ‘humility’, a surprising word but strangely apt. Satie’s love of musical repetition is mirrored in his obsession with wearing the same outfit. Satie the man is equally fascinating. When he sent an offensive postcard in response to a hostile review, he narrowly escaped a prison sentence for libel. He often fell out with his friends, yet he is often described as generous and unconcerned with money – to the extent that he died in squalor.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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