Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois
“Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Wooden Man”
About this work
Erik Satie completed Croquis et agaceries d'un bonhomme en bois for solo piano in the summer of 1913. This is a brief work in three movements and filled with typical Satiean, humorous twists. Like most of his other piano works containing comedic elements, these movements were composed quickly, in about a week each. The title refers to Allais, who wrote strange articles for Parisian papers, involving bizarre wordplay. He did all of his work from cafes, and he and Satie were good friends. This piece's title suits the music and spirit of the times, at least in the composer's corner of the world. In English, the title translates to "Sketches and Flirtation of a Fat and Wooden Bloke." In the proto-surrealist atmosphere of the cabaret culture of Paris during these years, clarity and obscurity were combined with religious irreverence. It is among other things, an attempt to make the logic of dreams a reality. The mystery of life in fin-de-siècle Paris was in some ways more pointedly modern then in Vienna, where Expressionism and atonality were at war with a saccharine waltz culture. In Paris, middle and upper-class industrialists attempted to rub shoulders with the bohemian, avant-garde arts community. There was no division between the conservatives and the progressives that was clear enough to forge a martial identity in either. The divisions that did exist, such as Debussy vs. the academics, was not important enough to make a difference because the moneyed patrons were not supporting the academics. This was not the case for the Second Viennese School; talents such as Allais and Satie could enjoy a relaxed relationship with their own creative processes. This is not to say that the music of Satie is self-indulgent but rather that it sometimes sounds indulged.
Croquis et agaceries d'un bonhomme en bois is not much different from his successful, earlier compositions. Bonhomme en bois no doubt refers to a street in the composer's hometown of Honfleur called rue de l'Homme-de-bois. When Satie's Ogives was performed at Chat Noir--the first cabaret to exist--in 1889, it was advertised as a work by a composer with a wooden head. No doubt the man in the title of his 1913 work is the composer himself. The humour of the music pervades each separate movement. The first movement is a Turkish yodeling song. There is little evidence of a Turkish yodeling tradition, extinct or otherwise. However, there is a Turkish rondo in Mozart's keyboard Sonata KV. 331 worth considering, and the central section of Satie's first movement is a parody version of it. The following two movements feature somewhat icy retorts at a growing trend among Parisian tastes: Spanish flavorings in French music. These movements are insults directed towards offending composers and the academics that encouraged them. It was a trend that was obviously suspect when Spanish composers such as Falla and Albéniz came to Paris to write Spanish music for French money. Fortunately, Satie's work is more brilliantly intertextual than poisonous.