Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Satie's "Kyrie Eleison": Analysis and Arrangement for Piano

Erik Satie (1866–1925) 
probably from the decade of his Messe des Pauvres (1895) 

At times finding myself irritable or upset I have sat down at the piano and played the first or "Kyrie Eleison" movement of the Messe des Pauvres (Mass for the Poor) by Erik Satie. The quieting effect of these six minutes of music has never failed me. In unhurried succession, Satie's fluid melodic patterns hover over gently dissolving chords. The music is at once chaste and ravishing. I find it hypnotic, aloof from all stress and drama, uniquely calming. Its beauty assuages me.

Yet in my seventy or so years of exposure to music in concert halls and churches I have never heard Satie's "Kyrie" performed, nor have I ever come across a notice of its being performed.

My aim in this posting is threefold: to widen acquaintance with this unparalleled piece; to provide an arrangement of the piece for piano; and to call attention to the unique structuring of Satie's composition.

Satie scored the "Kyrie" for organ, bass voices and a children's choir. (A free posting of the complete Messe des Pauvres is available at this link: Messe, complete score.) Making infrequent and irregularly-spaced entries, the voices sing Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison antiphonally, simply doubling in unison the melodic line of the organ accompaniment. In my arrangement for piano I have omitted the vocal lines and have incorporated the organ's pedal line into the keyboard chords (see the 4-page PDF at the foot of this posting).

Satie's manuscript bears no dynamic markings, but it specifies alternating passages for Orgue du Chœr and Grand Orgue. I have indicated these alternations by adding [p] and [f] to the score. This echoes the dynamic indications in Satie's piano pieces written during the same period of Satie's career (1890-1895), which are either marked pp, p or f, or bear no dynamic markings at all.

Satie has scattered various other movements of his Messe with unconventional instructions such as Trés chrétiennement ("in a very Christian manner"), Avec un grand oubli du present ("With a great forgetfulness of the present") and Presqu' invisible ("Almost invisible"). Though the "Kyrie" movement has no such markings, these instructions suggest the mood Satie had in mind for his Messe

Given the gentleness of Satie's dynamic markings in his compositions of the 1890s, it is unfortunate that the three most readily available recordings of the "Kyrie" feature a blaring organ, bass voices singing fortissimo, or operatic soprano voices singing the part of the children's choir. Alternative recordings of the piece are difficult to come by.

As far as I have been able to discover, one elemental feature of Satie's "Kyrie" has gone undescribed, namely, the singular pattern of its structure. Satie has composed his piece from 13 modules of music, varying in length from 4 beats to 24 beats. These modules appear in the movement anywhere from 2 to 7 times each. The repetitions of each module are identical, though Satie may transpose the tonality upward or downward. In addition to the 13 repeating modules there are 2 modules that are unique, that is, appear only once.

Robert Orledge in his Satie the Composer (pp.186–87) reports that among the Satie papers archived in Harvard's Houghton Library, sketches for the Messe des Pauvres include a page devoted to 13 two-chord modules. Oddly, they are not the 13 modules that appear in the Messe, though some of them make appearances in other Satie compositions. Still the manuscript page makes clear Satie's calculated preparations for modular composing.

In the pages included at the bottom of this posting I have diagrammed the modular structure of Satie's "Kyrie," assigning each module a number and a color, and indicating its total number of appearances.

For me the repeating modules in Satie's "Kyrie" help account for the music's comforting effect. With each reappearance we feel more at home. At the same time the irregularity and unpredictability of appearances and reappearances breathe freshness where tedium might otherwise result. On every page earlier modules repeat and new modules appear—a pattern that continues right through the final page.

A miracle of the "Kyrie" is the harmonic continuity of successive modules when Satie chooses to make them flow, and the harmonic refreshment when he skips, usually upward, to a new and surprising tonality.

I suspect that Satie's uniquely gifted ear has guided his modular composing. Possibly he has followed specific rules or rationales for the ordering and transposing of his musical modules, but if so they are not apparent to me. Readers with interests in music theory and/or mathematics might be interested in pursuing this possibility.

With the last module to make an appearance in his "Kyrie" Satie bestows a special delight. Module 13 is a parody of the three-quarter-hour chime of London's Big Ben: E–C–D–G, with E-C-D sounding in the uppermost notes of the chords, and G sounding in the lowest note of the final chord.

Both Satie and his friend Claude Debussy seem to have relished parodies of British music. For example, the British folksong Keel Row appears, heavily disguised, in Satie's piano work Airs à faire fair ("Airs to make one flee"). Debussy constructs the entire first movement of his Images pour orchestre explicitly on Keel Row—undisguised, but enchantingly Frenchified. And so too with Satie's lovely parody here: Big Ben à la Montmartre!

A living-room recording of my arrangement for piano is posted here: (Kyrie for piano).


Satie self-portrait


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