La diva de l'Empire

Érik Satie

La diva de l'Empire

About this work

Aside from influencing the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie also played a lead role in the Parisian avant-garde movement and left his mark directly on the musical world by initiating the "cult of the music hall," with works like La Diva de l'Empire (The Star of the Empire) (c. 1900). Known as the "cafe-concert" songs, this work and its accompanying two others, Tendrement and Je te veux, became his most popular pieces for voice. The works were written while Satie was attempting to avoid living in poverty by supporting himself as a pianist in a Montmartre cabaret. The songs were written for Paulette Darty, "Queen of the Slow Waltz." They marked a shift in his career away from the Rosicrucian idealism and his more serious works and toward a period of humor and mischief.

La Diva de l'Empire was originally written for voice and piano, but it was the transcription for solo piano by Hans Ourdine that made the work famous. La Diva was not a "waltz chantee," Darty's typical repertoire, but a cakewalk song, with a strutting rhythm. Using a moderate march tempo, the music depicts a diva of Napoleon's time; however, Satie later gave it the humorous subtitle, "American intermezzo." Making their way through the work's several interpretive problems, the pianist is required to maintain a strict rhythm, while the vocalist sings with her distinctive "rubato de diva." Slightly imitative of the imperial era of Offenbach's music, this brisk, cheerful song, which is touched by cynicism and filled with Anglicisms, is best summed up by one of its lines -- "C'est à la fois très très innocent et très très excitant" (It is at once very, very innocent and very, very exciting).

Although La Diva de l'Empire was probably quite popular in its original form in the cabaret clubs, Satie chose to later create a version for beer-hall orchestra. In retrospect, the work may appear a bit dated; however, considering the fact that it was completed nearly 15 years prior to the time when serious composers began experimenting with jazz techniques, its originality is quite remarkable. In 1903, shortly after these "cafe-concert" pieces were written, Satie, nearly 40 years old, decided to work over his technique by modestly registering as a student at the Schola Cantorum, where he studied with Vincent d'Indy and Albert Roussel. After receiving his diploma, which gave him the "authority" to compose, he continued on the path he had initiated with La Diva de l'Empire, creating works which were slightly comic in nature, while furthering his reputation as a unique, yet bizarre man.