Satie began work on Socrate in 1918. Having been absorbing the scandal of Parade and becoming quite popular in the Salons of the high-society of Paris, he started planning new works. Perhaps Debussy's death in the spring of that year was the final liberation he needed in order to be able to express himself seriously, for sarcasm is frequently a mask for over-sensitiveness and insecurity.

But that spring finally brought Satie great joy. He was invited everywhere, and was well respected by fellow musicians. He was receiving a fair amount of commissions, and no longer had to write cabaret music, which he loathed. Satie took on Socrate, commissioned by the princess de Polignac, with complete seriousness: "...I'm frightened to death of bungling this work. I want it to be as white and pure as antiquity."(1) Satie was charmed with Socrates since his school days. He must have identified with the Greek philosopher, having also chosen a plain life, despising wealth and materialism, and living by the principles he preached. "I always wanted to do something on Socrates," he remarked to Darius Milhaud. "It's such an unjust story!"(2)

Satie was a composer which was constantly looking for new directions in his art and re-examining the cultural excesses of the 19th century. Having abandoned the impressionistic harmonies he pioneered in the Sarabandes (1887) for a more dry style, centered around melody and delicate counterpoint, he formulated his aesthetics in 1917:

Do not forget that the melody is the Idea, the outline; as much as it is the form and the subject matter of a work. The harmony is an illumination, an exhibition of the object, its reflection.(3)

The first performance of Socrate was given on June 24th 1918, at the home of Jane Bathori, a singer of modern music, followed by a performance at the home of Comte Etienne de Beaumont and other private performances. Stravinsky attended one of these and remarked: "...The music of Socrates' death is touching and dignifying in a unique way... After performing Socrate he Satie turned around at the end and said in perfect Bourgeoisie: "Voila, messieurs, dames." ..."(4)

The first "official" performance of Socrate was given in January 1920. The music raised hot arguments between those who loved it and those who thought it ridiculous. Satie's reaction: "Those who do not understand are requested by me to assume an attitude of submission and inferiority", but when he heard the hisses and boos he simply remarked "How strange!"

The Aesthetics of Socrate

My main thesis is this: Satie's drive in his art is the search for a meaning. Satie was constantly rejecting 19th century Bourgeois cultural and socio-political values. As will be discussed later, his music was to a degree a reaction against these values, embodied in the works of Debussy and Wagner. Later, Satie would join the communist party and become involved with Dada, but unlike the Dadaists, who wished to deconstruct language and destroy meanings, or the surrealists, which strove to expose all the inhibitions of modern society and cultivated scandal "for its own sake"(5), Satie wished to reconstruct music and "return to classical simplicity with a modern sensibility."(6)

The Search for a Meaning and the Socratic Method

The Socratic method is a way of teaching or studying by asking questions. Thus the student is led to understand the subject by arriving at answers to specific question, and further questioning, until the subject at hand has been exhausted. In many discussions in the Dialogues, Socrates leads his disciples through a long series of questions, each one following from the answer to the previous, which finally lead the student to the answer. One of the things Socrates was famous for is his constant questioning of supposed masters of poetry, music, politics and other professions, he would show them how limited was their knowledge of their respective crafts(7)

A connection can be made here to Ecclesiastes, who asks: What gain has a man in return for all the labor in which he engages under the sun? Ecclesiastes proceeds to question every part of a man's life, though at the end he arrives at the conclusion that a man should enjoy his labor and strive to do good deeds. But this process of questioning can be generalized to the following question: What is the importance of ___________? And proceeding with that line of thought until you arrive at the question: What is the importance of finding meaning in things? This peeling of meanings was the process that Dadaists used, and that finally gave such an importance to "language", or "medium" later on in the 20th century.

Instead of deconstructing old meanings, Satie simply wanted to put them aside and start anew. Aesthetically, he rejected both Wagner and Debussy, because they overloaded the music with meaning. Satie wished to move the process of impression from the mind of the composer, to that of the listener, and at the same time do away with expression as a device for the glorification of the hero-composer. Satie wanted his music to be neutral. This he would achieve by devising his own language.

On Language in Music

Louis Aragon wrote in his 1928 Treatise on Style:

'The twentieth century was facing what is a called a difficult period. It was molting. Strange birds were sighted tracing incomprehensible omens on the horizons. Then from the heart of an illusory group arose, under the dual-syllabled vocable Dada, certain ideas swathed in the cloth of perplexity. These ideas were first believed to be nonsense, and then, philosophy... In the end, it was merely a matter of commonplaces that were at last stripped bare to reveal truths such as two plus two equals four (one of the precepts which Dadaists had gotten into the habit of attacking with a particularly childish obstinacy). Having thus somewhat prematurely completed its military service, the century came of age and accepted along the way the points of view of its time without too much protest. And so everyone began imagining that nothing is worth the trouble, that two plus two do not necessarily make four, that art has no importance whatsoever, that it is rather nasty to be a literary man, and that silence is golden... Yet in the midst of this fashionable pessimism... a few souls who continued to take to heart these formulae of common despair found a way to open a parenthesis. Even though nothing was worthwhile, they thought they had had nevertheless discovered a valid reason for ruining their health. This reason had eight letters, and when they said "language" the word took on a very peculiar, eerie tone... There followed a certain trend-setting taste for funny remarks in sentences... And so, little by little, language came to mean a sin of the mouth. Today it is very difficult to divorce this word from its new twist in meaning'(8)

One of the things which characterizes music of the 19th century is the extensive use of musical icons. Expressionism often uses themes as symbols for characters or ideas. Impressionism iconizes objects with musical texture. This meant that music finally became overloaded with meaning, and the process of conveying a message in music was the exercising of the composer's authority in putting ideas into musical symbols. This also meant that composers were necessarily bound to the past by these symbols. As those symbols were used again and again, their musical value diminished. If music can be conceived as a representation of social structure, then the first part of the 20th century would lead us to see great changes in European society as reflected in music. Modernism is continually occupied with finding new ways of expression, or languages.

The Dada method of deconstructing language finally backfired. Like Ecclesiastes, Dada declares everything to be vanity, therefore equalizing everything and demoting the importance of everything. If a latrine can be displayed in a gallery as a work of art, is there any point in investing in a Manet painting? Of course, Dada itself was vain, as Louis Aragon writes above, and brought about the deconstruction of "Language". Everybody became obsessed with the minutiae of language, until finally it was proclaimed: 'The medium is the message.'

All of that happens later, after Socrate. Satie was a precursor. He must have felt the times were changing. But like Picasso in 1919 returning to Ingres, he would also take a step forward by going backwards. Therefore he returned to melody with simple accompaniment, in what seems on the surface monotonous and dry. Rejecting any kind of symbolism or word painting, or any musical dramatic device, he wanted listeners to find their own meaning(9). In analogy, he used the Socratic method of conveying ideas, asking questions instead of force feeding his audience with overloaded musical symbols.

The Text

Towards his aim, Satie could not have found a better text than the dialogues of Plato. 'Plato turns out to be the perfect collaborator, a most gentle person who never imposes himself upon you,'(10) he wrote, relating to the clarity and simpleness of the dialogs. He used a French translation by Victor Cousin, which was the most clear and dry treatment of the text he could find, and he further edited the text to suit his needs.

In the first movement, taken out of the banquet, Alcibiades describes Socrates by comparing him to the satyr Marsyas, who plays the flute. Like Marsyas, who casts a spell on men with his music, Socrates casts spells with his words. 'You have praised me,' replies the humble Socrates, 'and now it is my turn to do the same for the neighbor on my right'

The second movement, from Phaedrus, Socrates and his student walk on the banks of the Ilissus. Socrates, who was in the city all his life, admires the beauty of nature, and in a typical answer to his disciple's question about the legend of Boreas and Oreithyia, ironically comments about those who try to rationalize mythology. He would much rather occupy himself with the study of man and nature, instead of that of mythical beasts.

The third movement, the most touching of this work, is taken from Phaedo, the dialogue in which Phaedo tells his friends about the death of Socrates. Phaedo tells how each day after Socrates has been sentenced, his followers would come to visit him: They find him there, with Xanthippe and one of their children. Socrates rubs his feet which have been freed from the chains, and remarks about this strange thing called pleasure, and how well it connects with pain. He does not see his situation as misfortune, but being unable to convince his disciples, he tells them of the dying swan, which sings on its last day more beautifully than ever before, in order to meet its god. An envoy announces that the time has come, and Socrates should bear his fate with resignation. The cup with the poison is brought in and Socrates drinks from it. His legs become heavy and he lies down. After a while, he is shaken by a convulsive movement, and his look becomes fixed. 'Such, Echecrates, was the death of him who was our friend, the wisest and the most just of men.'

The Music

The music of Socrate is set for a small orchestra and voice. The orchestra instrumentation is without "spice", and the orchestration itself is intentionally simple and translucent. Satie's music examines the text without directly relating to it. There is no dramatic development in the music, nor any word painting. The emotion in the music is static. The text itself is carried in a melody that is almost Sprechstimme-like. The directions for the singer read: Recitative (as if reading).

In Socrate, the melody is the essence, the thread with which he creates the composition. The harmony and accompaniment are "stage lighting". The orchestra plays smaller melodies, in simple counterpoint to the singer's melody. He wrote in the original score: '...In writing this work I did not in the least set out to try to add to the beauty of Plato's Dialogues. All that there is here is an act of piety, the dreaming of an artist, a humble homage... The whole aesthetic aim of this work is centered on clarity. Simplicity is the force that accompanies and directs it. That is all. I wanted nothing else.'

Satie goes to the essence of the musical material. In choosing to work with modal materials he gets rid of the imposing hierarchy of functional harmony, and of dissonance as a compositional tool (in Satie dissonance is only an "effect", as in the end of the piece). In his music relationships between pitches are not intentional, they happen as a result of minimalistic processes that he sets free, working on small cells of material(11). Satie was never interested with rhythmic invention. He is content with using eighth and quarter notes or, in the case of the second movement, minuet rhythms. Instead, he turns his attention to the invention of melodies. It is possible to imagine Socrate without the orchestra accompaniment. Then it would almost resemble speech.

The structure of each movement is linear and continuous. There are no 'sections', nor 'introduction', 'development' or 'recapitulation'. The form is driven by the declamation of the text in a natural rhythm in natural phrasing, with small rests between phrases.

With all this monochromonotony(12), the three movements are characterized mainly by their rhythms: The first one by alternating quarter and eighth notes, and using gentle syncopation. The second, by using the minuet rhythm. The third, by a stream of eighth notes in the singing and sustained quarter notes in the accompaniment.


Now, having listened to the music a few dozen times, it is my belief that Socrate does not use musical gesture in the traditional manner we are accustomed to. Other writers can perhaps talk about small nuances in the score, which will not be visible to the uninitiated, or tie certain dynamics markings to the drama unfolded in the text. Louis Aragon wrote: 'C'est une manie bourgeoise de tout arranger en histoire'(13) (arranging everything into a story is a bourgeois mania). I submit that Satie, in writing this music, intended his words literally: ' white and pure as antiquity...' And so, continuing to be a pioneer, was a precursor of what Jacques Attali calls the age of composition(14) where music stops being a replacement for rituals long lost with ancient cultures and then packaged and repeated for the masses, but becomes an object of personal meaning, especially for the musician or composer.

Therefore, except for remarking how well the composition is crafted, I believe analysis of individual events in Socrate or trying to deduce the decisions Satie had to make in order to write the music, would be pointless. Satie's total rejection of musical symbolism and musical rhetoric, at least in their traditional sense, as I have shown above, is what makes Socrate totally different than anything you ever heard or will probably ever hear.

One example would be the use of the timpani. Satie consistently avoids using the timpani as a dramatic device, and this becomes a source of surprise every time the drums are used as part of the accompanying texture. Every time the timpani enter, they play a simple ostinato figure, but the pattern is soon broken, making way for the next one. Also unconventional is the timpani's absence in the end of the third movement, which can be described as the most dramatic, in the traditional sense of the word, section of the piece.

Another example for the problems of analysis would be the end itself (starting from section 44, page 137 in the Max Eschig orchestral score). While the orchestra is repeating a simple pattern (long sustained notes in the winds and brass, short quarter notes in the strings), the singer is using only four pitches for the melody: e, a, b and e'. and the e and b are repeated with eighth notes until going up a fourth at the end of phrases, in a manner which is completely dry and declamatory, and which stands in contrast to the text describing the final moments of Socrates. And then, after the last line of text, come the final two bars with the triton e# - b, an interval which is almost never used before in the piece, and then only as a derivative of the diatonic mode. How can these two bars be interpreted? Is this a sarcastic comment by Satie, or is this an expression of the pain of Phaedo and his friends? Or did Satie put it there because it simply sounded good to him, or made musical sense? Is it important at all to know what is the function of these two bars? Perhaps it was Satie's intent to leave these questions open in our minds, or let us answer them individually.

Socrate is Satie's longest work (about half an hour long), and it is certainly his masterpiece. It remains today as fresh and new as it was in 1918, and it is now considered one of the great works modernism. Its mysterious beauty, which can only be truly appreciated after many repeated hearings, is completely unique. Pierre-Daniel Templier writes:

'No words, no sincere praise can give an idea of the greatness of a work of art. "Well-meaning" musicians will recognize that the Socrate score has beauty, honest and simple beauty; but to love this work it is necessary that its intimate character, its loneliness, be maintained. Strong voice, large concert halls do not suit it at all. A singer who understands and who "sings" as little as possible, a friendly and trusting atmosphere - these are essential.
Socrate can then be an overwhelming revelation of a musical style that is neither grandiose nor refined, neither realistic nor vulgar, but simple and familiar.'(15)


Aragon, Louis, Irene, l'Or du Temps, 1968

Aragon, Louis, Treatise on Style, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, trans. Alyson Waters

Attali, Jacques, Noise: the Political Economy of Music, University of Minnesota Press, 1985, trans. Brian Massumi

Ecclesiastes, Ecclestiastes, The Bible

Harding, James, Erik Satie, Praeger Publishers, 1975

Japhet, Sara and Salters, Robert B., The commentary of R. Samuel Ben Meir RASHBAM on Qoheleth, The Magness Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1985

Orledge, Robert, Satie Remembered, Amadeus Press, 1995, trans. Roger Nichols

Plato, The Diaogues of Plato, The Jefferson Press, 1871, trans. B. Jowett

Templier, Pierre-Daniel, Erik Satie, MIT Press, 1969, trans. Elena L. French and David S. French

Volta, Ornella, Satie Seen Through his Letters, Marion Boyars, 1989, trans. Michael Bullock


1. James Harding, Erik Satie (New York, Praeger Publishers, 1975), pp. 176 (a letter to Valentine Hugo dated 6 January 1917.)
2. Ornella Volta, Satie Seen Through his Letters (London, Marion Boyars, 1989), pp. 152-153
3. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, internet edition 2001
4. Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (London, Faber & Faber, 1959/ repr. 1979), pp. 67-68
5. As put by Louis Aragon.
6. Ornella Volta, Satie Seen Through his Letters (London, Marion Boyars, 1989), pp. 152
7. Some say that was the real reason he was executed.
8. Louis Aragon, Traité du Style, trans. Alyson Waters (Lincoln & London, University of Nebraska Press, 1991)
9. I believe this is the reason every writer who wrote about Socrate sees it completely differently
10. Ornella Volta, Satie Seen Through his Letters (London, Marion Boyars, 1989), pp. 154.
11. This is best exmplified in his 1914 work for piano, Sports et Divertissements.
12. This word was invented by Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book (1985)
13. Louis Aragon, Irene (l'Or du Temps, 1968)
14. Jacques Attali, Noise: the Political Economy of Music (University of Minnesota, 1985, trans. Brian Massumi)
15. Pierre-Daniel Templier, Erik Satie (Cambridge & London, MIT Press, 1969, trans. Elena L. French and David S. French), pp. 102

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.