Erik Satie’s Socrate: an interesting recording by Hugues Cuénod

Satie in 1909.

An important project that came about as a result of Winnaretta’ Singer’s immersion in Greek language and philosophy was a commission she gave to Erik Satie in 1916. They discussed at length the possibility of writing a salon piece on the death of Socrates. The original plan was for the work to be set in an Empire drawing-room, where Singer and her friend Catherine de Wendel Argyropoulos would sit in armchairs reading excerpts from Plato, to musical accompaniment by Satie. At Satie’s gentle insistence, this somewhat outré approach was eventually abandoned in favour of a short and more broadly appealing oratorio. Socrate was the result. It is an intriguing piece. Though the four characters in the drama are male – Alcibiades, Socrates, Phaedrus and Phaedo – Winnaretta insisted on female voices, with the result that Satie’s original versions, one with piano and the other with orchestral accompaniment, call for two sopranos and two mezzos. Satie had to do as he was told to a certain extent, because in the months preceding the commission it was only through Winnaretta’s money and influence that he had avoided imprisonment for, of all things, sending a libellous postcard. In practice, despite the scoring for four voices, the range is such that all four roles can be taken by a single performer, as was the case when the soprano Jane Bathori performed the work for the first time at Winnaretta’s house in Paris in 1918, accompanied by Satie. Unfortunately, when the first public performance took place in Paris in 1920, the public signally failed to get the point. Unaccountably many of the audience laughed openly at the appearance of Alcibiades, assuming that piece was one of Satie’s musical jokes.

With minimal adaptation the piece can also be performed by a single male voice capable of hitting the higher notes, as witnessed by an entrancing recording made by the great Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuénod, in Paris in 1975, accompanied by Jacques Février’s pupil, Christian Ivaldi.

Cuénod (1902-2010) is an interesting figure, not least because he had the longest career of any recorded vocalist or performer in history: he gave his first concert in Paris in 1928, aged 26, and his last in 1994, when he was 92. This is more than a mere statistic, since it forcefully reminds us of the bridge into the past Cuénod can afford us through his recorded performances, knowing as he did most of the leading composers and performers of his age. His formative immersion in music began early. For example, when he was 13 he attended the 78th birthday party of Camille Saint-Saëns. He knew Winnaretta as a result of his work with her niece-by-marriage, Marie-Blanche de Polignac (they were both members of a vocal ensemble that recorded Monteverdi’s madrigals under Nadia Boulanger’s direction in 1937).

What comes across in Cuénod’s version of Socrate, perhaps, is the extent to which Satie achieved the uncluttered sense of antiquity, of time and place, that he sought. The composer said, in a letter to Valentine Gross, that he wanted the piece to be as “pure and white as Antiquity” and that he gone so far as to put himself in the right frame of mind for composition by eating nothing but “white” food. Certainly, there is a pure and lapidary quality to the work, but there seems to be more to it than just that. When listening to Cuénod and Ivaldi, it is easy to lose oneself in some supposed distant past and imagine an itinerant Greek storyteller, accompanied by no more than a five-string lyre, its strings either plucked in simple, insistent rhythms, or exuberantly swept in a series of haunting, ascending scales – effects unmistakably audible in Satie’s score. The recording was of a live performance in the Mairie of the 13th arrondisement, and is marred by an instrusive police car siren in the background, perhaps an appropriate contribution given both Satie’s and Socrates’s brushes with the law. Two years after this performance, Cuénod again recorded Socrate, along with other pieces by Satie, this time accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons. The disc, released by Nimbus in 1977, deservedly won Cuénod the Grand Prix du Disque Mondiale at Montreux. Below is a photograph of the gay and newlywed Cuénod on his 105th birthday. Socrates would be proud of him.

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