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Erik Satie Walks to Work

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 25 December 2010

Composers don't come much odder than the Frenchman Erik Satie (1866-1925). His music - from slow meditative pieces to fast jokey ones with a flavour of the cabaret - was astonishingly individual; and his way of life was just as weird. Not least because he never had any money.

In 1898 Satie moved from the heart of bohemian Paris to the obscure suburb of Arcueil. No doubt he was desperate to save money - but he also liked the idea of cutting himself off from the musical establishment. Every day for a decade or more he would walk the 10 kilometres north across the city to earn a meagre living playing the piano in the cabarets of Montmartre. If he missed the last train - or couldn't afford it - he'd walk home again at night. He walked, he looked, he listened - and he spent plenty of time in cafes, where he drank, talked to friends and strangers, and even wrote music.

Sarah Walker retraces Satie's footsteps from Arcueil to Montmartre - and uncovers the secrets behind his unique music: in the people and street life of Paris, its cafés and cabarets, and in the very act of walking itself.

Presenter: Sarah Walker
Producer: David Gallagher.

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    Erik Satie 'the velvet gentleman' in the mid-1890s, wearing one of his seven identical corduroy suits.

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    Arcueil, the 'House with Four Chimneys'. Now no. 34 on rue Cauchy, in Satie's day it was no. 22. From 1898 until his death in 1925 he lived in a single room here – his window is third from the left on the second floor (next to the drainpipe). He ate and drank in nearby cafés, especially one (now demolished) that was just around the corner, opposite the church. His room had no running water, so he had to carry water a few hundred metres from a well in the 'Place des Écoles' (School Square – the name no longer exists).

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    The street outside Satie's house. In the distance is the acqueduct, symbol of Arcueil – which is visible from practically anywhere in Arcueil.

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    The 'local' in Gentilly, Satie's gateway to the city of Paris proper within the 'Periphérique' ring road. The area was known in Satie's time for its 'smelly tanneries', and it can't be said to be a whole lot more attractive today.

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    The huge lion statue in Place Denfert-Rochereau. The local café named after the lion was one of Satie's favourite haunts, and he wrote part of his ballet 'Parade' there; sadly it no longer exists. In the background of the photo is Denfert-Rochereau railway station, where Satie could have caught a train home to Arcueil – if he had enough money and didn't miss it. In Satie's day the station was called the Gare de Scéaux, but it looked pretty much identical – as in this old postcard:

    Old postcard
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    Satie studied as a mature student at the Schola Cantorum for several years from 1905.

    Schola Cantorum
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    Erik Satie in 1917.

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    The Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame, on the Ile de la Cité in the River Seine. Satie would spend hours here as a young man when he should have been studying, which gave rise among other things to his four piano pieces called Ogives – a word referring to the point of a Gothic arch.

    Another favourite retreat was the Bibliothèque nationale, the National Library of France. These days it's best known for its controversial new building south of the Seine, named after the former President François Mitterand, but many departments – including the music collection – still occupy the site Satie knew, north of the river on the Rue de Richelieu (see the photographs here: http://barbe4.free.fr/Wordpress/?p=134).

    The place Satie was desperate to avoid was the Paris Conservatoire, whose academic approach to music teaching was ideally calculated to make him rebel. The grand building that housed the Conservatoire in Satie's day, just a few streets away from the National Library, is now home to the Conservatoire for the Dramatic Arts, the ‘Conservatoire national supérieur d'art dramatique’ (CNSAD).

    Paris Conservatoire (Wikipedia link)
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    Composers and brothers-in-arms: Claude Debussy (left) with Erik Satie, in 1910.

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    The plaque at 58 rue Cardinet: ‘In this house lived Claude Debussy when, on 30 April 1902, the Opéra-Comique gave the world première of Pélleas and Mélisande’.

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    The plaque at 12 rue Victor Massé (rue Laval in Satie’s day), at the foot of the hill of Montmartre: ‘As you pass by, stop – this building was consecrated to the Muses and to pleasure by Rodolphe Salis, who established his famous cabaret Le chat noir here, 1885 to 1896’.

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    6 rue Cortot, on top of the hill of Montmartre, where Satie lived successively in two different rooms: a normal-sized one from 1890 to 1896, followed by a tiny ‘cupboard’ from 1896 to 1898 when he could no longer afford the rent on the bigger room. There used to be a Satie museum in the house, but it’s now closed. The Museum of Montmartre just down the road has relatively little about Satie.

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    The plaque at 6 rue Cortot, in Satie’s distinctive mock-Gothic script: ‘Erik Satie, Composer of Music, lived in this house from 1890 to 1898’.

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    The ‘nimble rabbit’ sign at the cabaret 'Au lapin agile', the only such cabaret Satie knew that has survived in anything like its original form: http://www.au-lapin-agile.com/. Satie’s artist friend Augustin Grass-Mick painted him among a group of friends at the 'Lapin agile' in 1905. Satie is third from the right; the chap in the centre playing the cello as if it’s a guitar is Frédé, who took over as owner of the cabaret around 1900 and made it one of the artistic centres of Montmartre.

    Painting of Erik Satie at the 'Lapin agile'
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    Sarah Walker outside the cabaret 'Au lapin agile'.

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    The inscrutable Erik Satie (1909).

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    Special thanks to:

    · Gilbert Delor – composer and Satie expert, interviewed in the programme

    · Yves Mathieu – singer and current owner of the cabaret 'Au lapin agile'

    · Robert Orledge – leading authority on Satie's music, for research help and advice

    · Ornella Volta – founder of the Fondation Erik Satie and leading authority on Satie's life, interviewed in the programme



    Photos of Satie by kind permission of the Archives de la Fondation Erik Satie, 56 rue des Tournelles, 75003 Paris, which holds the rights for all commercial use.



    Sarah Walker has written more about why Satie is an inspiration to her in her blog: http://www.drsarahwalker.co.uk/page10.htm.

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