skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Parade, Ballet réaliste on a subject by Jean Cocteau

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Erik Satie
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Thu., Jan. 22, 2004, 7:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Erik Satie has been largely misunderstood by that part of the public that has been aware of him at all: pictured as a sort of naïf , an impish jester to whom music was simply an outlet for his eccentric humor. He was a serious musician, and if he chose to break off his academic pursuits in favor of performing in cabarets and music halls, that proved to be an inspired choice in the matter of finding his own voice. He showed his seriousness in returning to the classroom at the age of 40 to polish his craftsmanship under the guidance of Albert Roussel (three years his junior) and Vincent d'Indy. Satie did give many of his piano pieces unusual and comic titles, but his artistic philosophy was not obscured, and his work exerted a great deal of influence, not only among younger composers such as his pupil Darius Milhaud (who revered him deeply and left a poignant chapter on "The Death of Erik Satie” in his autobiography, Notes without Music ), Ravel (who named Satie as the musician whose influence on him had been the greatest) and Poulenc, but also on the slightly older Debussy (whose friendship with Satie was described by Louis Laloy as "indissoluble and who, at a time when he was leaving his own works to be scored by an amanuensis, produced his own sublime orchestral settings of two of Satie's three Gymnopédies ).

The remarkable writer and all-round artistic gadfly Jean Cocteau, who was the inspirational figure behind the group of French composers called " Les Six” (which included Milhaud and Poulenc), was a collaborator in the creation of numerous musical works. He provided the text for Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex , and took part as narrator and/or director in performances of some of that composer's other works. It was Cocteau who devised the scenario for Parade, which may not be Satie's "greatest” work or his "most important” one, but has come to be regarded as his most representative one. The premiere was given by the Ballets Russes under Diaghilev's personal direction at the Théâtre du Châtelet on May 18, 1917, with choreography by Léonide Mssine and décor by Pablo Picasso.

The music itself is characteristically clear-eyed and uncluttered (though the orchestration does include a typewriter, a siren and a pistol), but Picasso's visual treatment is credited with having made the most of the bizarrerie in Cocteau's scenario, which is a take-off on the traditional introductory parade before a circus. The music is in six or eight sections, depending on how you slice it. A "Prelude before the Red Curtain” leads to the entrance of the First Manager, who introduces the Chinese Juggler. The Second Manager then introduces the Little Girl from America, who performs a little "riverboat ragtime” dance. A Third Manager enters on horseback (the horse in this case sporting two pairs of human legs) to present the Acrobats. Following the Acrobats' performance, the spectators, having taken the free offering as the big show itself, make no move to enter the theater for the actual event, and none of the performers can persuade them. The managers express their agitation in a feverish dance that ends with the three of them collapsing, and the disheartened troupe begins packing up to leave town. The work ends with a solemn Reprise of the Red Curtain Prelude.

Seven years after the premiere of Parade , Satie again collaborated with Cocteau, Picasso and Massine in creating a ballet called Les Aventures de Mercure, a work both more extended and more substantial than its predecessor, but one which never matched Parade in capturing the attention or the imagination of latter-day audiences, for whom this work, rightly or wrongly, remains the quintessential summation of the unique spirit that was Erik Satie.