Sonatine bureaucratique

Érik Satie

Sonatine bureaucratique

“Bureaucratic Sonatina”

About this work

While virtually all of Erik Satie's compositions brim with wit and vigor (except, perhaps, some of the Gymnopedie and Gnossiennes, which stretch out languorously), few works match the panache of his Sonatine Bureaucratique from 1917. With its articulate lines and only slightly skewed harmonies, the work exemplifies the character and musical language of Satie's young French devotees, the so-called Les Six. The odd familiarity of the music, though, lends it a slightly more acerbic tone: the entire piece is constructed as an almost blow-by-blow send-up of Clementi's ubiquitous Sonatina in C major, Op. 36/1. A staple of the middle-class parlor and the mid-grade student repertoire, Clementi's Sonatina stands as a symbol of the bourgeois cultural airs of the "Bureaucrat" invoked in the title.

Like Clementi's original, Satie casts his Sonatina in three short movements. The first, marked Allegro, mimics the contours of its model quite closely, from the regal, repeated "dum-duhduh-dum dum" rhythm to the rising and falling runs that pass from hand to hand. Clementi's gestures, however, are caricaturized -- in scales and sequences that overextend themselves, melodies that find themselves in a suddenly disjunct octave, and hiccups that disrupt cadential motions -- and occasionally subverted outright, as in the opening line's upward, rather than downward orientation. Likewise, Satie's harmonic and melodic adjustments let a little of the air out of the original, replacing horn-like arpeggios with lackadaisical scales and tweaking the underlying harmonic progressions. The middle section of the movement takes particular liberties, veering off into an absurd modulation and recovering with in incongruously impressionistic shimmer. The middle movement, an Andante, borrows Clementi's slow triplet undercurrent, but connects the notes of Clementi's Spartan melody with scalar filigree. The final movement, marked Vivace, tames the boisterous triple meter and quick runs of the Sonatina, Op. 36, and gives it a Phrygian, almost Debussy-esque dreaminess, the foursquare phrases interrupted by coloristic chordal spells.

What the listener doesn't hear, but what lends the piece an added charm, is the set of quirky rubrics and narrations that Satie includes in the score, all of them given in witty, idiomatic, and idiosyncratic French. Various points in the music apparently correspond to the images of the bureaucrat happily walking to his office, sitting at his desk pondering his upward mobility, and even singing a Peruvian tune -- while the neighbor is heard playing Clementi.