The Velvet Gentleman

Published May 11, 2013 by Jill London

Today’s post not only features the work of one of my favourite people but, given my extremely high estimation of today’s inspirational person, I want to attempt something of a tribute. The greatest danger with tributes is that the writer is likely to fall into the trap of endless superlatives and long-winded, prattling fan-talk, so this is going to be something of a challenge. For this reason I’m guessing that it’s probably a good idea, a bit like resistance training or a stamina trial, but will you be able to read it, patient yet time-strapped reader? Tributes can be horrible, squirmish affairs and certainly this is likely to be more of the same, but when all’s said and done this is my blog, and this is my tribute so, with all due respect, make of it what you will.

1909

Who is the velvet gentleman? It is said that the velvet gentleman only ever ate white foods. It is said that of his 27 years in residence at Arcueil, France, not one of his friends were ever invited inside and that after his death 84 identical handkerchiefs and dozens of umbrellas (numbered sometimes at 100 or 200) were discovered in his one bedroomed apartment. He kept a filing cabinet filled with drawings of imaginary buildings which he would sometimes post about in anonymous advertisements to local journals:

“A castle in lead, for sale or rent.”

He started his own religion, of which he was the only member, and wore a priest-like habit until he adopted the grey velvet suit as his public image, along with the bowler hat and umbrella of the bourgeoisie (though his politics ranged from socialist to communist). He worked with Man Ray and Francis Picabia yet is not considered a surrealist. It is difficult to sum up such an unconventional and bohemian a character as much of what he said and wrote acted as a kind of barrier between himself and the outside world. We can rarely take his words at face value but instead must sift and sort and read between the lines, and yet, I think if you try this tactic you are in danger of losing the man entirely.

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“When I was young, people used to say to me: ‘Wait until you’re fifty, you’ll see’. I am fifty. I haven’t seen anything.”

Erik Satie, was a French composer of piano music of such beauty and humour that it would be pretty silly of me to attempt to describe them. Here are some of my favourite pieces of his work. Rather than giving you the entire set of six gnossiennes (lasting approximately 20 minutes) here is gnossienne No4:

Tell me, did that music bring any particular images to mind? What about this one:

Here, the music that first attracted me, the 3 ‘Gymnopédies’:

Satie wrote: “Everyone will tell you I am not a musician. That is correct. From the very beginning of my career I class myself a phonometrographer… The first time I used a phonoscope, I examined a B flat of medium size. I can assure you that I have never seen anything so revolting. I called in my man to show it to him. On my phono-scales a common or garden F sharp registered 93 kilos. It came out of a fat tenor whom I also weighed”. Satie’s writings are both fascinating and entertaining, and you can read more of the same online at the Satie Archives (listed first on the sources and more section below).

Satie of course gave his music unconventional titles; Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog), Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear and Dessicated Embryos being examples of a few. He also wrote instructions on his musical scores to direct the pianist on how best to play the piece, but warned them: “To whom it may concern: I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the musical performance. Ignorance of my instructions will incur my righteous indignation against the presumptuous culprit. No exception will be allowed”.

Composer’s houses and museums are usually a fairly level headed affair but at the Maisons Satie expect a golden flying pear, a room with a case of split personality and a fully functioning merry-go-round that opens out and lights up like a prop for a Tim Burton film.

Satie collaborated with Picasso and Cocteau on the ballet Parade for Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes. It was not well-received, with audiences booing as they left the theatre. In answer to one harsh critic Satie responded: “Sir and dear friend—you are an arse, an arse without music! Signed, Erik Satie.” The critic sued Satie, and at the trial, fellow author Cocteau was beaten by police for repeatedly yelling “arse” in the courtroom. Satie was sentenced to eight days in jail.

Watch this clip of Cocteau reminiscing on the collaboration (although he doesn’t mention anything about arses. Sorry):

There is the sense that Satie was a man born out of his time, in his own words: “I came very young into the world in a very old time.” His music was similarly out of its time and didn’t fully come to be appreciated till the 1960s when it finally took off, to the point where now, 100 years later, documentaries on the Edwardian period feature his music as representative of the era. Sadly, it was not, but instead shows us how we wish that era could have been.

Sources and more:

http://www.satie-archives.com/web/intro.html

http://legrandfigaro.com/2010/10/10/saturday-september-18th-la-maison-derik-satie/

http://mentalfloss.com/article/31888/12-concerts-ended-pandemonium-or-riots

http://wfmu.org/~kennyg/popular/articles/satie.html

Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition by Thomas B Holmes

You can also follow The Velvet Gentleman on twitter 😉 @VelvetGentleman

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in today’s post you can leave a message in the comment box below and a member of our trained staff will get back to you with a warm phonoscope. Your anonymity will be respected at all times. Merci.

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42 comments on “The Velvet Gentleman

      • Well, I might be the only person on earth who hasn’t heard of him. Who knows? It isn’t unusual. That’s what I get for living under a rock and watching old Weather Channel clips from thirty years ago.

        I might draw your picture this weekend if I have time. But I’m not certain yet. I had an idea for a new book and it’s really grabbed hold of me… Hope you’re having a good weekend! 🙂

      • No, don’t worry, it’s not just you 😉 A few others have commented with pleasant surprise.
        I’m having a lovely weekend, thanks! Just relaxing with the little Londonettes 🙂 but, mmmm, that new book idea feeling is always exciting

      • Well, they’re not so very little now! 3 lovely ladies who share their mother’s craziness and enjoy a bit of Doctor Who of a Saturday evening 🙂

      • Awwww, that’s precious. 🙂 I’m sure all three of them are very smart and wonderful young ladies. Happy Mother’s Day to you, by the way. (Do you celebrate that in England?)

      • We do (Mar 30th I believe it was), but I’m gonna try calling this one in now as we are very international people, and I need someone to make me a coffee, so thanks for that bit of info Matthew! 🙂

    • Thank-you, Adrienne! Honfleur is a really lovely place in its own right, if you should ever find yourself in the north of France 🙂 It has a beautiful little harbour surrounded by pastel coloured shops and restaurants, and an old fashioned carousel and little cobbled lanes. It’s so sweet!

  • Jill, this is a wonderful post! Such a brilliant and colorful character (definitely an eccentric :-)) and I appreciate that you managed to capture so much of him in a relatively short post for the sake of us “time-strapped” readers. I love his music and can’t believe that I had never heard of him before.

      • Yes, self-taught, except for a few months of lessons when I was in high school. I’d play for hours while my family was in the other room watching TV. I didn’t have years of training with an instructor so I can’t play that well, but I love it. One day I’ll own a baby grand, it’s just not the same on a keyboard…

    • Hello Barbara! So lovely to have you drop by 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the music. Your blog is looking beautiful as always and is such a joy to visit. I’m so glad you enjoyed your sunshine award as it’s very well deserved xx

  • That was a great tribute. I found your blog on Melissa Janda’s nomination list, so here I am to check it out. I love the Gymnopédies, but I think my favorite is his satirical Sonatine Bureaucratique, in which he playfully criticizes bureaucracy without resulting in cheap mockery. I certainly had fun playing this (mini) sonata on the piano when I was still studying in music school.

    Glad to see another (neo)classical music enthusiast here in the blogosphere! 🙂

    • It’s good to have you here, Daniel, and I’m glad you enjoyed my tribute! There is so much fun in Satie’s work and Sonatine Bureaucratique is an excellent example.
      I managed to have a brief look at your blog today, btw, and I very much enjoyed what I saw 🙂 I will visit again soon for a proper look.

  • Thank you for introducing me to Monsieur Sartie. I very much wish I had been aware of him before! I cannot–at the moment–listen to his musical offerings as I am at work, but I will be sure to lend my ear to them at a more convenient time.

  • Thank you for this tribute about this one-of-a-kind man. I actually learned something about him reading this; him who, even from the realm of the dead, influenced my musical and artistic tastes.

    I am sad that, even here in Belgium, only a very limited amount of people know him and his work. And that is also true in France.

    En tout cas, merci et à très bientôt. 🙂

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Emmanuel. I agree entirely, it is such a shame he is not better known. I believe he was a man before his time, a visionary even, with so much to offer.

  • Over to you (I love to hear from you)

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