Hidden History: “Vexations,” by Erik Satie

Mon Apr 08, 2019

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


French composer and pianist Erik Satie (1866-1925) had always been considered an eccentric, as an influential artist in the late 1800s and 1900s manifestations of Parisian avant-garde. Many of his works have been seen by many as precursors to later artistic movements such as minimalism and the post-World War II (WWII) absurdist movement known as the Theatre of the Absurd. Among the many musical and literary legacies Satie left behind, though, perhaps the most interesting one (and the subject of this week’s Hidden History column) is the single-page manuscript called “Vexations.”

A striking and unconventional composition, “Vexations” consists of a short theme in the bass with accompanying chords in the treble. On its own, this would not be unique in any way, but it is the inscription at the top of the piece that lends it its noteworthy nature. This inscription reads “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses,” translating into “in order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobility.”

The most common interpretation of this inscription is that it is an instruction to the performer that the piece must be played 840 times in a row, but the true nature of Satie’s intentions may never be known.

In his lifetime, Satie never explained the piece or its bizarre instructions. Interpretations of it vary wildly, but perhaps one of the more interesting conjectures is that the piece was composed shortly after Satie had a passionate (albeit short) love affair with Suzanne Valadon, the closest intimate relationship Satie ever had. This interpretation continues that, after likely having his heart broken by Valadon, Satie possibly sought a way to distance himself from these very relatable feelings by composing a piece that would help him forget all about her (through an 18-hour long, repetitive piano composition).

Satie never published or performed the piece in his lifetime, and its first appearance would not be until 1949, in the form of a facsimile (reproduction) by American composer John Cage. When the idea that the piece is required to be played 840 words gained traction, Cage organized the first (and hopefully only) live performance of the piece at the Pocket Theatre in Manhattan with a relay team of 12 pianists and two reserves on September 9, 1963.

This live performance charged an admission price of five dollars, but a time system was put in place where patrons would receive a nickel back for every 20 minutes they stayed. David’s co-producer, Lewis Lloyd, explained this system as “the more art you consume, the less it should cost.” The final concert lasted 18 hours, with a single person, Karl Schenzer, staying for the entire performance. Supposedly, a New York Times critic fell asleep midway through the performance and the final audience dwindled down to just six people. Upon the piece’s conclusion, one of them shouted “Encore!”

I mean, when I get my heart broken, I usually just blast Evanescence and play video games, but hey, whatever works, man.



Appears in
2019 - Spring - Issue 10