Satie’s double parody

How often do we come across a double parody in music, one that satirizes two entirely different composers? That is precisely what we get in Satie’s two-minute Edriophthalma, the second movement of the oddly-named triptych Embryons desséchés (desiccated embryos). Purportedly describing different forms of seafood, the three short movements are on one hand typical examples of Satie’s satirical style, but on the other more absurd and blunt than most of his other satirical works. The little “cadenzas” at the end of the first and last movements must be some of the most ridiculous moments in all of piano literature. The second movement lacks the outright farcicalness of the other two, but the extent of its satirical nature is overwhelming and even stifling, given how short it is. 

Two parodies are to be heard here: one obvious, the other subtle. The obvious victim of Satie’s caustic pen is Chopin, whose funeral march from the B-flat minor sonata he ridicules, first in the opening figures which resemble the opening chords of the funeral march, and most significantly when Satie turns the sublime into the absurd, as the exquisite middle section from the funeral march becomes infantilized in the section named “a quote from a popular Schubert mazurka.” (This would be the equivalent of “a quote from a popular Hemingway sonnet”).

Chopin: Sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 – 3rd movement, opening

Chopin: Sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 – 3rd movement, opening of middle section

Besides the near-direct quote from the funeral march, Chopin’s idiomatic and unique arpeggiated chords can also be heard in different places in Edriophthalma. One could not guess from this movement that Satie, in fact, did like Chopin. The other victim of Satie’s ruthless humor is his friend turned quasi-rival, Debussy. The subtly mocked piece of Debussy is topical to the would-be subject matter of Embryons desséchés, as it also describes the subaqueous world, namely La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), the tenth prelude from Debussy’s first book of preludes (written in 1910, three years before Embryons desséchés). The mysterious opening chords of the prelude which, by means of using the widest possible register on the piano, so masterfully depict both the scope of the cathedral and the depth of the waters in which the cathedral has sunk, have been turned by Satie into sloppy arpeggiated chords with a narrow register. Evidently, Satie’s water is shallower than Debussy’s. 

Debussy: Preludes, Book I – La cathédrale engloutie, opening

How is one to approach this sort of music? Is one supposed to execute it earnestly, thereby revering the irreverent? The absurdity of this cycle is magnified by Satie writing it entirely without barlines and supplanting expressive markings with commentaries such as Pauvres bêtes! (Poor beasts!). Nevertheless, for a piece without barlines, it is surprisingly organic and strict in its adherence to form. In Edriophthalma, we hear a movement in clear A-B-A form with metric stability almost throughout (save for the third line, marked Un père de famille prend la parole, a family father speaks, which moves to five beats per unit rather than the four of the funeral march). What are we to make out of this? Does Satie, by writing music with a strict rhythmic and thematic structure, amplify the ridiculousness of the music, or is he trying to mitigate it? Or perhaps, in writing this way, is he actually paying homage to his two victims’ fondness and mastery of structure and rhythmic meter, making Edriophthalma a parody in reverse? 


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