For most of my life, I’ve dismissed Erik Satie as a composer who created pretty but ultimately uninteresting music. Like most of the opinions I developed as a teen, this was wrong. And over the last few months, I’ve been listening to a lot of his work. It’s magnificent.
The other night, I was listening to Embryons Desséchés. It’s pretty typical of his mature work. But right at the end of the piece, he makes a joke. And it was wonderful for me to hear because I don’t usually get musical jokes. While it’s true that I know a lot more about classical music than most people, I don’t actually know that much about classical music.
What’s more, musical jokes are like regular jokes: they don’t age well. Satie’s joke only works in the context of the move out of the Romantic period. And I only get the joke because I’ve spent so much of my life fuming about the excesses of this most-played and least-fulfilling period of classical music.
Find the Joke!
Before I explain the joke, see if you can’t hear it in the third movement. You should at least note that the ending seems out of place with the rest of the piece.
Slapping Romantics for Fun and Profit
Even in this one movement, you can tell that Satie is messing around. He skips around in terms of style — as he does in the piece as a whole. The first movement even previews what he will ultimately do in the third.
So as I listen, I enjoy hearing Satie having fun bouncing around stylistically. And then he says, “Hey! Remember this?!” And he provides one of these ridiculously extended endings that I love to hate.
This is usually said to be a direct attack on Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. That does seem to be the case, but I think Satie means for his attack to be broader:
Erik Satie’s Other Jokes
Apparently, Satie was making more jokes than this one. In particular, he ridicules the music-hall song “Mon rocher de Saint-Malo” (“My rock of Saint-Malo”), which you can hear quoted very clearly in the first movement.
This isn’t really a musical joke, however. You can only see it in Satie’s notes on the score such as, “‘It was a very nice rock! Very sticky!” But even if musically it had been more than a quotation, I wouldn’t have noticed it. I don’t recall hearing the song before. And I have no context within which to find it funny. Apparently, the song was very popular at that time and Satie was not a fan.
Humor Ages Poorly
This is a problem with all humor. In fact, I developed my approach to theater in an effort to find an audience for my jokes. I found that people didn’t find my jokes funny because they couldn’t understand them. So I got the idea of creating theater to teach the audience so that they would then laugh at my esoteric jokes. How well that works is open to debate.
The good thing about music is that by the time people don’t understand any jokes placed in a piece, they’ve also gotten to the point where the joke doesn’t stand out as odd. A great example of this is Mozart’s Ein Musikalischer Spaß (A Musical Joke). Most people think it sounds fine. To me, it sounds clunky and certainly not the work of Mozart at this late stage of his career. But I have little doubt that he and his friends screamed with laughter when they performed it.
I’m just glad that I was able to pick up a notable musical joke for a change. And I did laugh — a lot!