Erik Satie: Les trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté (Three Distinguished Waltzes of a Jaded Dandy)

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, July 13, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

It’s not safe to assume these pieces are actually about a jaded dandy—the connection between title, music, and meaning in Erik Satie’s work is always humorous and obscure. In fact, the three brief waltzes are barely waltzes at all: while a triple pulse or lilt is often present, the tempos vary and there is no formal meter.

Satie wrote Lestrois valses in 1914, apparently one each day between July 21 and 23, according to the score. Each movement’s title refers to something belonging to the Dandy: Sa taille (his waist), Son binocle (his spectacles), Ses jambes (his legs). What does it mean? A 1918 Vanity Fair profile of the Parisian composer noted:

His titles ordinarily seem to have nothing to do with the music, which is frequently exquisite, and never programmatic. True ironist that he is, he conceals his diffidence under these fantastical titles. He ridicules his own emotion at just the point at which the auditor is about to discover it. He also protects himself against the pedants and the philistines by raising these titular and descriptive barriers.

Satie also laced eccentric instructions, or bits of narrative, into his scores. In the first waltz, for example, it is written: “He hums an air of the 15th century. . . . Then he addresses a most measured compliment. . . .Who dares to say he is not the most handsome? . . . Is his heart not tender? . . . He holds himself by the waist. . . . For him, it is a rapture. . . .

Sa taille contrasts impish fragments with brightly spun tunes and darker murmurings. Son binocle lies somewhere between elegy and lullaby with an unplaceable tune and a simple, but affecting, shift to the harmony in the middle. Ses jambes is a splashy romp. Each movement is also prefaced by a quote from Jean de La Bruyère, Cicero, or Cato. Between text and music, there’s a lot going on—especially for a set of pieces just three minutes long.