Concert Review: Soiree de Paris, Mercure, June 16, 19241
All lovers of the arts should appreciate the magnificent scandal and glorious flirtations of last night’s performance entitled Mercure: Poses plastiques. As a member of the audience last night I was privileged enough to witness this masterpiece amidst a rather unimpressive program.2 Although rumors are no doubt already flying concerning the riotous response to the performance, I must say that this spectacle of artistic fusion and intellectual musing is worthy of reverence and those who cannot appreciate it are either blinded by irrelevant political views or are simply not elevated enough to understand the pithy undertones and humorous intent of this work.
For those of you who were in attendance or who may have already heard news of the evening’s events bear with me. I shall explain the ruckus caused by a few extremists so consumed with their own political and artistic views that they cannot respect the statements of leaders within the artistic community.3 As the lights dimmed and a hush fell over the audience, suddenly a cry of “Long live Picasso! Down with Satie!” could be heard from the corner of the room.4 Suddenly similar exclamations erupted from seats all throughout the Theatre de la Cigale covering the sound of Satie’s artistry and riling the audience further and inhibiting the performance.5 At one point the management took it upon themselves to lower the curtains in an attempt to quiet the riotous audience.6 I hope this demonstration does not deter future listeners from Satie’s work, for although it has been received poorly by many it is not due to any merit or lack thereof within the artwork itself, but rather an objection to the composer and an overzealous appreciation for the designer.
To add to the scandal further, many high profile artists and impresarios were in attendance and their own reactions were witnessed by the crowd. Many members of the audience speculated that Erik Satie’s early exit midway through the performance was due to this embarrassing hassle, however I have verified through the charming Mademoiselle Milhaud that he simply had a train to catch.7 His unexpected exit did however add to the mayhem of the premiere leading to the whisperings I’m sure you have heard all day since. The infamous Serge Diaghilev, king of Ballet, was in attendance and was notably “pale, agitated, and nervous” at the premiere, no doubt because his former collaborators (Satie and Picasso) had turned to a new venue and with some success I might add.8 Diaghilev is not one to mince words and has been publicly claiming artistic ownership of this new form of ballet for quite some time which will no doubt feed the fire of this scandalous premiere.9
All of this hassle and distraction is still not enough to detract from the genius of the end product which was a collaborative work, greatly influenced by the designer, the choreographer and the funder alongside the composer. The creation of Mercure was made possible by the wealthy, and often bored, Comte de Beaumont.10 According to the Count himself, who is very vocal about his influence on the work, he arranged to meet with Satie in February of this year and there they negotiated the content, collaborators, and payment.11 From the very beginning it must be understood that the Count was involved. His personal vendetta against Diaghilev and Cocteau is woven into the piece in a masterful way. The Count’s choice of subject was almost certainly a dig at Cocteau, who regularly turns up at masked balls dressed as Mercury, and the Count has certainly made it clear that he intends to outdo Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by stealing his artists and creating something better.12 As you can see, the main motivation behind the work is in no way related to Satie’s own views but rather the whimsy of the benefactor, Comte de Beaumont.
After Comte Beaumont stamped his ideas upon the work, it was handed off to Satie, Picasso, and Massine who produced the artwork seen at the premiere last night, and any respectably educated audience member would recognize that this was not a subjugation of the choreographer and designer, but an embrace of them. Picasso created the sets, costumes and interactive props which tastefully intrigue the eye with the new bold, block color aesthetic. Although his presence caused a stir, I have it on good authority that he and Satie’s working relationship was and is solid, and the two have no personal disagreements.13 It would appear that the protestors simply used his presence as a springboard for their own campaign against Satie.
All those who would mark the piece with slander due to the composer, must see the error in their ways, when it is explained that although Satie was the composer of the music, he was only minimally involved in the creation of the entire production, and that his own personal political views are not present within the work.14 In his own words:
“Though it has a subject, this ballet has no plot. It is a purely decorative spectacle and you can imagine the marvelous contribution of Picasso which I have attempted to translate musically. My aim has been to make my music an integral part, so to speak, with the actions and gestures of the people who move about in this simple exercise. You can see poses like them in any fairground. The spectacle is related quite simply to the music-hall, without stylization or any rapport with things artistic”15
Rather than inserting political ideas within the work it is meant as an exercise in triviality and frivolity, focusing on the increasing emphasis on décor that has become so popular recently.
The spectacular genius of this work is not in the “high art” or philosophical import, but in its clever irony and the juxtaposition of Greek and Roman mythology with our modern sensibilities. Although supposedly plotless, the ballet clearly focused around ancient mythological characters including, Mercury, Apollo, Venus, Pluto, Proserpine, and Cerberus. Each of the three tableaux represented a different aspect of Mercury himself, 1st as God of fertility, 2nd as a musician and cunning thief, and third as henchman of the Underworld.16 The movements of Massine were nothing extremely out of the ordinary, mainly coinciding with the content as one would expect, the surprise of course came in the music and the sets which were in extreme contrast. Throughout the performance many music-hall tunes were easily identifiable and even a simpleton could not miss the obvious ragtime references made within Satie’s score.17 This in combination with Picasso’s particular brand of modern art creates a beautifully incongruous collaboration which is meant to tickle the fancy of the sophisticated art aficionado.
I highly recommend a public reconsideration of this piece and encourage attendance tonight at their second performance which will once again be in the Theatre de la Cigale alongside Les Roses.18 Although I find the rudeness of the fanatics appalling it has brought up debate which in turn has caused word of this performance to spread. Although Satie’s Mercure may not be next monumental achievement in musical innovation, it is a delightful romp in intellectual humor and the artistry of Picasso is always worth revisiting.
University Press: 216–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/740336.
“Courrier Des Theatres.” Le Figaro, June 15, 1924. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k2939989/f4.item.zoom.
Craine, Debra, and Judith Mackrell. Soirees de Paris, Les. 2nd ed. N.p.: Oxford University Press,
“Figaro-Theatre.” Le Figaro, June 16, 1924. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k293999p/f3.item.r=.zoom.
Haskell, Arnold. Diaghileff: His Artistic and Private Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 1935.
Keynes, Milo. Lydia Lopokova. New York: St. Martin’s Press New York, 1983.
Lifar, Serge. Serge Diaghilev: His Life, His Work, HIs Legend. New York: Da Capo Press 1940.
Nichols, Roger. The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917-1929. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.
Orledge, Robert. 1998. “Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘mercure’ (1924): From Mount Etna to Montmartre”. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 123 (2). Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: 229–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/766416.
Perloff, Nancy. Art of the Everyday: Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
1“Courrier Des Theatres” (Paris: Le Figaro, June 15, 1924). This fictional review is meant to appear the day after the performance which was on June 15, 1924.
2“Courrier Des Theatres” Alongside Mercure both Premier amour and Les Roses were performed, however due to the uproar surrounding Mercure the other two performances faded quickly from the limelight.
3The strong bias displayed in this paper is modeled after the opinionated statements of many who witnessed the event including Satie himself (Found in Orledge, Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure’) and Serge Lifar, a close friend of Serge Diaghilev who wrote a detailed biography of his friend (cited bellow: Serge Lifar, Serbe Diaghilev: His Life, His Work, His Legend (Da Capo Press: New York, 1940).
4Robert Orledge, Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure’ (1924): From Mount Etna to Montmartre (Journal of the Royal Musical Association: 1998), 229.
5Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell, “Soirees de Paris, Les” (Oxford University Press: 2015).
6Roger Nichols, The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917-1929 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 165.
7Satie left early “because he wanted to go back to Arcveil and didn’t want to miss his train. And the following day he wrote me a very charming little note, because when he got up he was afraid that he had given me a little push, so he apologised to the little lady that he had pushed her, because he had gone out so suddenly from the box” (Madelein Milhaud, interview in Paris with Roger Nichols on 9 December 1993, cited in Robert Orledge, Satie Remembered London, 1995), 191.
8Serge Lifar, Serge Diaghilev: His Life, His Work, His Legend (New York: Da Capo Press, 1940), 270.
9Arnold Haskell, Diaghileff: His Artistic and Private Life (New York: Da Capo Press, 1935), 308. Haskell quotes Diaghilev: “You cannot expect me to be anything but annoyed when others come and try to combine the same ingredients.”
10Orledge, “Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure,’” 231.
11Orledge, Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure’ 231.
12Orledge, Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure’ 234.
13Milo Keynes, Lydia Lopokova, (New York: St. Martin’s Press New York, 1983), 26-27. Lydia Lopokova, a lead dancer in the production, wrote many journal entries and letters which were later collected by Milo Keynes. In a few entries she describes Picasso as “easy to be with” and explains that through the duration of this performance he was not in any way personally connected to the riots, and remained on good terms with his collaborators.
14Dislike of Satie was due to his enthusiastic support for the Dada movement and its founder, Tristan Tzara (Orledge, Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure’ 229).
15Orledge, Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure’, 231-232, cites an interview with Pierre de Massot in the Paris Journal: On 30 May 1924, 2. ‘S’il a un sujet, ce ballet n’a pas d’intrigue. Il est purement décoratif, et vous devinez le merveilleux apport de Picasso que j’ai essayé de traduire musicalement. J’ai voulu que la musique fasse corps, pour ainsi dire, avec les faits et gestes des gens qui se meuvent dans ce simple probléme. Ces poses sont exactement semblables á celles que l’on peut voir dans toutes les foires; le spectacle s’apparente au music-hall tout betement, sans stylisation, et par aucun côté n’a pas de rapport avec les choses de l’art. J’en reviendrai, d’ailleurs, au sous-tître de poses plastiques que je trouve magnifique.”
16Orledge, Erik Satie’s Ballet ‘Mercure’, 235.
17Nichols, 164. Note that while this review found it delightful, many were opposed to the harsh disparity between the subject matter and the artistic choices made by Satie. “The utter disparity between classical mytholoyg and ragtime and music-hall tunes was irritating, rather than amusing” Nichols cited Nancy Perloff, Art of the Everyday: Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 208.
18“Figaro-Theatre” (Paris: Le Figaro, June 15, 1924).