Composer: Satie Erik

Instruments: Voice Orchestra Piano

Tags: Song

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Vocal Score (Single voice and piano) PDF 2 MB
Socrate is a work for voice and piano (or small orchestra) by Erik Satie. First published in 1919 for voice and piano, in 1920 a different publisher reissued the piece "revised and corrected". A third version of the work exists, for small orchestra and voice, for which the manuscript has disappeared and which is available now only in print. The text is composed of excerpts of Victor Cousin's translation of Plato's dialogues, all of the chosen texts referring to Socrates.
The work was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac in October 1916. The Princess had specified that female voices should be used: originally the idea had been that Satie would write incidental music to a performance where the Princess and/or some of her (female) friends would read aloud texts of the ancient Greek philosophers. As Satie, after all, was not so much in favour of melodrama-like settings, that idea was abandoned, and the text would be sung — be it in a more or less reciting way. However, the specification remained that only female voices could be used (for texts of dialogues that were supposed to have taken place between men).
Satie composed Socrate between January 1917 and the spring of 1918, with a revision of the orchestral score in October of that same year. During the first months he was working on the composition, he called it Vie de Socrate. In 1917 Satie was hampered by a lawsuit over an insulting postcard he had sent, which nearly resulted in prison time. The Princess diverted this danger by her financial intercession in the first months of 1918, after which Satie could work free of fear.
Satie presents Socrate as a "symphonic drama in three parts". "Symphonic drama" appears to allude to Romeo et Juliette, a "dramatic symphony" that Hector Berlioz had written nearly eighty years earlier: and as usual, when Satie makes such allusions, the result is about the complete reversal of the former example. Where Berlioz's symphony is more than an hour and a half of expressionistic, heavily orchestrated drama, an opera forced into the form of a symphony, Satie's thirty-minute composition reveals little drama in the music: the drama is entirely concentrated in the text, which is presented in the form of recitativo-style singing to a background of sparsely orchestrated, nearly repetitive music, picturing some aspects of Socrates' life, including his final moments.
As Satie apparently did not foresee an enacted or scenic representation, and also while he disconnected the male roles (according to the text) from the female voice(s) delivering these texts, keeping in mind a good understandability of the story exclusively by the words of the text, the form of the composition could rather be considered as (secular) oratorio, than opera, or (melo)drama (or symphony).
It is possible to think that Satie took formally similar secular cantatas for one or two voices and a moderate accompaniment as his examples for the musical form of Socrate: nearly all Italian and German Baroque composers had written such small-scale cantatas, generally on an Italian text: Vivaldi (RV 649–686), Handel (HWV 77–177), Bach (BWV 203, 209), etc. This link is however unlikely: these older compositions all alternated recitatives with arias, further there is very little evidence Satie ever based his work directly on the examples of foreign baroque composers, and most of all, as far as the baroque composers were known in early 20th century Paris, these small secular Italian cantatas would be the least remembered works of any of these composers.
The three parts of the composition are:
The piece is written for voice and orchestra, but also exists in a version for voice and piano. This reduction had been produced by Satie, concurrently with the orchestral version.
Each speaker in the various sections is meant to be represented by a different singer (Alcibiades, Socrates, Phaedrus, Phaedo), according to Satie's indication two of these voices soprano, the two other mezzo-sopranos.
Nonetheless all parts are more or less in the same range, and the work can easily be sung by a single voice, and has often been performed and recorded by a single vocalist, female as well as male. Such single vocalist performances diminish however the effect of dialogue (at least in the two first parts of the symphonic drama – in the third part there is only Phaedo telling the story of Socrates' death).
The music is characterised by simple repetitive rhythms, parallel cadences, and long ostinati.
Although more recent translations were available, Satie preferred Victor Cousin's then antiquated French translation of Plato's texts: he found in them more clarity, simplicity and beauty.
The translation of the libretto of Socrate that follows is taken from Benjamin Jowett's translations of Plato's dialogues that can be found on the Gutenberg Project website. The original French text can be found here.
[From Symposium, 32–33–35]
[From Phaedrus, 4–5]
[From Phaedo, 3–23–25–28–65–67]
Satie described he meant Socrate to be white, and mentions to his friends that for achieving that whiteness, he gets himself into the right mood by eating nothing other than "white" foods. He wants Socrate to be transparent, lucid, and unimpassioned – not so surprising as counter-reaction to the turmoil that came over him for writing an offensive postcard. He also appreciated the fragile humanity of the ancient Greek philosophers to which he was devoting his music.
Some critics characterized the work as dull or featureless – others find in it an almost superhuman tranquility and delicate beauty.
The first (private) performance of parts of the work had taken place in April 1918 with the composer at the piano and Jane Bathori singing (all the parts), in the salons of the Princess de Polignac.
Several more performances of the piano version were held, public as well as private, amongst others André Gide, James Joyce and Paul Valéry attending.
The vocal score (this is the piano version) was available in print from the end of 1919 on. It is said Gertrude Stein became an admirer of Satie hearing Virgil Thomson perform the Socrate music on his piano.
In June 1920 the first public performance of the orchestral version was presented. The public thought it was hearing a new musical joke by Satie, and laughed – Satie felt misunderstood by that behavior.
The orchestral version was not printed until several decades after Satie's death.
In 1936 Virgil Thomson asked Alexander Calder to create a stage set for Socrate. New York Times critic Robert Shattuck described the 1977 National Tribute to Alexander Calder performance, “I have always gone away with the feeling that Socrate creates a large space that it does not itself completely fill… Here, of course, is where Calder comes in: He was commissioned to do sets for Socrate in 1936.” In 1936 the American premiere of Socrate, with a mobile set by Alexander Calder was held at the Wadsworth Atheneum. The work then traveled to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center for the opening week of the FAC.
John Cage transcribed the music of Socrate for two pianos in 1944 for Merce Cunningham's dance, titled Idyllic Song. A later dance, Second Hand, was also based on Satie's Socrate. When in 1969 Éditions Max Eschig refused performing rights, Cage made Cheap Imitation, based on an identical rhythmic structure. In 2015, ninety years after Satie's death, Cage's 1944 setting was performed by Alexander Lubimov and Slava Poprugin for the CD Paris joyeux & triste.
The Belgian painter Jan Cox (1919–1980) made two paintings on the theme of the death of Socrates (1952 and 1979, a year before his suicide), both paintings referring to Satie's Socrate: pieces of the printed score of Satie's Socrate were glued on one of these paintings; the other has quotes of Cousin's translation of Plato on the frame.
Mark Morris created a dance in 1983 to the third section of Socrate, The Death of Socrates with a set design by Robert Bordo. Morris later choreographed the entire work, which premiered in 2010 (costume design by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting design and decor by Michael Chybowski).