My friend Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, a cat lover like myself, sent me this video of Henri, a very French kitty. The music—most appropriate for this video– is by Erik Satie, who left the Paris Conservatory—his teachers called his piano playing worthless-— to play in the more accepting milieu of piano bars such as Le Chat Noir in belle époque Paris of the late 19th and early 20th century. The music is from his most famous work, the Gymnopédies (gymnasts) of 1888. Debussy gave Satie’s career a boost when he later orchestrated these pieces. The 3 gymnopedies became well known in the U.S. in the 1960s, when Aldo Ciccolini recorded them for EMI/Angel.
Henri le chat has complexes worthy of Sartre’s character in his first major work, La Nausée (nausea): world weariness, mordant despair, existential angst. Satie, for his part, was a real character: preferring smoky bars to concert halls, night life to a busy concert schedule, and was called “The Velvet Gentleman” because he had 22 velvet umbrellas and a whole wardrobe of velvet outfits. He lived in the Montmartre of Toulouse Lautrec, and called his compositions all sorts of crazy names (cold cuts, pieces in the form of a pear) In his ballet score for Parade, he used a typewriter. Tutti Camerata, a studio arranger, once recorded a great album of Satie’s works called The Velvet Gentleman in the 1960s which came out on the Deram label from the UK. Satie preferred to be called a “phonometriste” rather than a pianist.
Henri,the anguished black cat in the video, might even echo Satie’s unrequited love for Suzanne Valadon, an artist’s model and artist whom he fell in love with. The composer proposed marriage after their first date, but was rebuffed. Then Mademoiselle Valadon moved into the room next to his on Rue Cortot. Having her so nearby physically but so far away romantically almost killed him. And when she moved out after six months, it was even worse for the composer. Satie wrote that he was left “with nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”. Apparently this one night of romantic ecstasy was the only intimate relationship Satie ever had.
So perhaps Henri le chat and Satie le compositeur have more in common than we thought. Thus it’s little wonder that Satie’s music provides the musical backdrop to the story of Henri le chat noir and his existential dilemma.