Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

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