Erik Satie Composer
Embryons desséchés (Dried-up Embryos)
Musicology: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 (Dried-up Embryos)Year: 1913
Genre: Other Keyboard
Pr. Instrument: Piano
- 1.Of the Holothurian
- 2.Of the Edriophthalma
- 3.Of the Podophthalma
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.
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