Friday, October 26, 2012

Bonjour Biqui, Bonjour

Portrait of Suzanne Valadon "The Hangover" by Toulouse-Lautrec
Suzanne Valadon ("The Hangover")
by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
I first heard of Erik Satie through Suzanne Valadon. Neither of them are household words, but these days Satie is much more famous - certainly more famous than the music teachers who told him he had no talent and no future in music. This upset Satie so much he joined the army - and if there was ever anybody unsuited for the army it would be Erik Satie, one of the most eccentric persons of all time. It was predictable that he would find a way out of it - although infecting himself with bronchitis was an original touch.

You have heard the work of Erik Satie because the first of his Trois Gymnopedie is used all the time. I first heard, and was enchanted by it, because it was played at the end of My Dinner with Andre. You can listen to it here:

But much of his work was idiosyncratic and experimental and only popular among the French bohemians - which is why he was usually so desperately poor. He ended up being a huge influence on John Cage and John Cale (of the Velvet Underground.)

Cale apparently performed Satie's Vexations and then went on I've Got a Secret to try to stump the panel - they figured it out pretty quickly though. You can watch that episode here:

They never actually mention Satie's name in this entire clip.

Allegedly Vexations was written in response to Satie's break-up with Suzanne Valadon, although it's speculation since nobody ever saw the piece until after Satie died and they guessed it was a response to the break-up based on the date of composition.

But I knew of Suzanne Valadon first because she was one of the rare famous female painters in art history - a subject of great interest for me, since I planned to be a visual artist since early childhood and was desperate for female role models.

I knew who Mary Cassatte was, but she was so conventional: upper-class and personally conservative. Quite possibly a life-long virgin. But Suzanne Valadon! As Wikipedia notes:
A free spirit, she wore a corsage of carrots, kept a goat at her studio to "eat up her bad drawings", and fed caviar (rather than fish) to her "good Catholic" cats on Fridays.
Erik Satie
by Suzanne Valadon
She wanted to be an acrobat but was injured in a fall. She became an artist's model and then an artist.

She married a stockbroker for a brief brush with respectability but then left him for her son's best friend who was half her age. Picasso and Degas were good friends of hers - and the word is she had an affair with Renoir.

Clearly this bohemian was as close to a perfect match as Erik Satie was ever likely to meet. But I should never have read about them in the middle of the business day:
Satie and Suzanne Valadon... began an affair early in 1893. After their first night together, he proposed marriage. The two did not marry, but Valadon moved to a room next to Satie's at the Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, and writing impassioned notes about "her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet". During their relationship, Satie composed the Danses gothiques as a kind of prayer to restore peace of mind, and Valadon painted a portrait of Satie, which she gave to him. After six months she moved away, leaving Satie broken-hearted. Afterwards, he said that he was left with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness"  It is believed this was the only intimate relationship Satie ever had.
Right in the middle of my office cubicle I cried for Erik Satie.

Satie died of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism at the age of 59. I'm sure his diet didn't help either - he only ate white foods and avoided the sun. He probably had massive vitamin and iron deficiencies.

Here is the piece that Erik Satie wrote for Valadon during their affair, called Bonjour Biqui, Bonjour. It is only four bars long.

Here is the sheet music.

The entire score of "Bonjour Biqui, Bonjour"
As I mentioned four and a half years ago on this blog, I am a sucker for art inspired by love.