Erik Satie completed Embryons desséchés for solo piano
in the summer of 1913. "Dried embryos" are not the
subject matter of these evocative miniatures at all;
the real focus is invertebrates, such as sea cucumbers,
pictures of which Satie found in a school textbook.
Stirred by these fantastic creatures, he produced three
movements that are eminently typical of his style --
alive with jokes and quirky lyricism, and evocative of
the proto-Surrealism prevalent among Parisian bohemians
at the time.
Embryons desséchés features a humorous preface -- a
practice he may have picked up from his fellow
eccentric and sometime collaborator, Vincent Hyspa --
that begins with the Oxford English Dictionary's
definition of "holothuria." This is then followed by
the composer's explanation that some people call this
creature a "sea cucumber," and that it purrs, spins
threads, and dislikes sunlight. Satie was more-or-less
describing himself in comedic terms: he hated the sun
himself and spun threads of music.
The first movement of the Embryons ("d'Holothurie")
makes use of a nineteenth century parlor song about
love and the seafaring lifestyle, called "Mon rocher de
Saint-Malo" (Luïsa Puget). Satie's chromatic and
rhythmic alterations to the song make the movement an
act of parody, and the manner in which the composer
combines disparate musical elements makes for a
movement that is both humorous and interesting. The
final cadence from the parlor song is substituted with
a melodic hook from a folk song that disparages the
smoking of tobacco. How that is connected to feline sea
cucumbers is cause for idle speculation.
The second movement, "d'Edriophthalma," concerns
crustaceans. In the score Satie points out that shrimp,
prawn, and other such animals with large eyes appear
melancholic. In that spirit, the music parodies the
funeral march from Chopin's B flat Piano Sonata, Op.
35. Satie rolls the chords and adjusts the melody
enough to make it seem modal, Greek, and submarine. One
could imagine Poseidon taking great pleasure in it, or
a drunken fisherman. The composer jots down in the
score that his shrimp are weeping. To make this more
obscure, Satie refers to the second movement as a
celebration of Schubert's mazurkas.
So, having made fun of a parlor song and a piece of
well-known chamber music, Satie focuses his third
movement on an operetta and a common hunting call. It
begins with a written statement in the score about the
work ethic of lobsters and crabs: they are tireless
hunters. In this final movement the lobsters clamber
towards some winged prey and the hunt is going rather
badly. The hunting song sounds as well as an excerpt
from Audran's La Mascotte: the part of the operetta
where it is said "Don't worry so much. We'll catch
'em." The hunting signal is named "La Royale."
With so many musical references and allusions, one
might think that Embryons desséchés amounts to little
more than a pastiche; but this is not so. The charming
suite has a spirit that is fully representative of
Satie's brilliant imagination. Perhaps the most
remarkable thing about the suite is that the passage of
time has not diminished its comedic qualities; even
though the quotes are no longer well known, the music
is still engaging and communicative.
I transcribed this first movement of the "Embryons
Desséchés of the Podophthalma" (No. 3) for Piano.