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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace

Satie, the French “Six,” and Surrealism; Thomson and the “Lost Generation”

CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Not long ago, an apple orchard would have suggested to Rimsky-Korsakov, or even to the young Stravinsky, a secret, mysterious place, an impenetrable jungle, whereas in our day the poet seeks an ordinary apple on Olympus, an apple without artifice or complications, which is the most flavorful kind.1

Sergey Diaghilev (1924)

Never any magic spells, reprises, sleazy caresses, fevers, miasmas. Never does Satie “stir up the swamp.”2

Jean Cocteau (1918)

On 18 May 1917, at the very height of the Great War, Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes unveiled a new work—a “ballet réaliste” in one scene, called Parade—at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where six years earlier Stravinsky’s Petrushka had premiered. There was nothing at all Russian about this new Ballets Russes offering. The music was by Erik Satie, the scenario was by Jean Cocteau, the sets and costumes were by Pablo Picasso. The choreographer, Leonid Massine, was Russian, it was true (as were all of Diaghilev’s choreographers), but the steps he designed were not.

The cast of characters somewhat resembled that of Petrushka. A parade, in French, means not only what in English is called a parade, but also a sideshow performed outside a vaudeville theater or “music hall” to lure a crowd. So the new ballet featured a conjurer, an oriental entertainer, and other carnival performers. But whereas in Petrushka the magically animated characters had interacted in a conventional love melodrama culminating in murder, the characters in Parade simply went about their everyday business: the conjurer conjured, the acrobats did acrobatics, a “little American girl” pantomimed a silent movie. Whatever latent drama there was went undramatized.

Except, that is, the drama of art thwarted by the uncomprehending crowd, the perennial self-pitying myth of the avant-garde. Despite the energetic “barking” and gesticulation provided by the managers (or “impresarios”) of three competing theaters, the crowd thinks the free samples are the show itself. The managers, having exhorted the dumb yokels in vain, fall in an apoplectic heap. The sideshow performers then try to get the prospective audience to enter the theaters, but again to no avail. The ballet action comes to no conclusion, simply peters out.

The actual audience in the ballet theater, whose members presumably went gladly enough to circuses and music halls to see actual conjurors, dancers, and acrobats, hated Parade. Openly they objected to the incongruously “low” level of taste to which it seemed to pander, insulting ballet’s proud aristocratic heritage; covertly, they may have resented the rudimentary story line’s implied insult to themselves, the dumb yokels, ostensibly the object of the artist’s solicitation, but in reality an object of contempt. In any case, the premiere was another succès de scandale to set beside The Rite of Spring. People hissed and booed this seemingly bland, innocuous offering just as they had Stravinsky’s crashingly dissonant, violent ballet four years ago. Like it, the new ballet had touched a nerve.

Cocteau suggested, indignantly, that the audience had refused to consider that art could be beautiful “without an intrigue of mysticism, of love, or of annoyance.”3 They would have been pleased, he tauntingly protested (recalling Petrushka’s great success), only “if the acrobat had loved the little girl and had been killed by the jealous conjuror, killed in turn by the acrobat’s wife, or any of thirty-six other dramatic combinations.” So banal, he implied, had notions of high art become in the wake of romanticism, and so depraved were the expectations of its audience.

But his words need to be taken with a grain—no, a quarry—of salt. Cocteau knew well enough that artistic frivolity was suspect in a time of bloody conflict. Parade’s very insouciance, its “cultivated apathy”4 (in the words of the cultural historian Daniel Albright), and its flagrant neglect of current events were all deliberate provocations. Its very lack of response, as Albright points out, made it “one of the profoundest artistic responses to the Great War,” a display of emotional scar tissue. It was Cocteau’s pointed answer to Diaghilev’s famous challenge, “Étonne-moi” (Astonish me). He had succeeded in astonishing Diaghilev and the audience alike, precisely by avoiding any conventional attempt to astonish or impress. And so did Satie’s primitive, clumsily orchestrated, emotionally aloof score.

There was enough melodrama in ordinary life, Parade implied. Let art celebrate ordinariness—”normalcy,” to use President Harding’s war-weary word—as the precious thing it is. That was the “realism” the ballet’s subtitle advertised. But that word, too, carried an ironic freight. For one thing, thanks to technology, contemporary reality now contained a great deal of unreality. Movies (still silent), the newest of the entertainment media and the only specifically twentieth-century one, symbolized this invasion of the real by the imaginary. Movies were a part of everyone’s everyday life and yet, at the same time, they were of all media the most instantaneously transporting and manipulative—which is to say the most unreal. They offered an alternative (or what we now call a “virtual”) reality through which the imagination could truly supersede the senses.

Parade was the first work of “high art” to pay tribute to the movies. The American girl’s routine was a collage of impressions from France’s great ally across the sea, most of them carried to the French imagination via celluloid. Cocteau sent this description to Satie to guide him in fashioning the music:

The Titanic—“Nearer My God to Thee”—elevators… steamship gear—The New York Herald—dynamos—airplanes…palatial movie houses—the sheriff’s daughter—Walt Whitman…cowboys with leather and goat-skin chaps—the telegraph operator from Los Angeles who marries the detective in the end…phonographs…the Brooklyn Bridge—huge automobiles of enamel and nickel…Nick Carter [the detective hero of countless turn-of-the-century American “dime novels”]…the Carolinas—my room on the seventeenth floor…posters…Charlie Chaplin.5

To the choreographer, Cocteau sent some more details: the American girl’s dance should mime the characteristic poses of silent picture stars Mary Pickford (1893–1979), “America’s sweetheart,” and Pearl White (1889–1938), the heroine of the Perils of Pauline serials: riding a horse, catching a train, driving a Model T Ford, swimming, playing cowboys and Indians, shuffling with feet splayed `a la Charlie Chaplin. To accompany these antics, Satie fashioned a motley of ostinatos (perhaps a take-off on the notorious ostinatos of The Rite of Spring) surrounding a central Rag-time du paquebot (“Passenger-steamer rag”) that turns out to be a parody of That Mysterious Rag, a popular number by Irving Berlin (1888–1989), a Russian-born composer who was by then already the leading figure in Tin Pan Alley, America’s popular song and sheet-music industry. Satie’s C-major tune (Ex. 10-1a) matches the rhythm of Berlin’s (Ex. 10-1b) exactly, while the melody diverges, though never far.

Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace

fig. 10-1 “The American Impresario,” costume by Picasso for Satie’s Parade.

More evidence of the antirealism (magic realism, dream realism) of Parade’s “realism” were Picasso’s costumes, especially the huge modernistic constructions—cubist paintings come to life—worn by the “impresarios” (amiable caricatures of Diaghilev, perhaps) as they gesticulated from the sides of the stage (Fig. 10-1). The score contains “parts” for such realistic sounds of modern life (whether as lived or as cinematically experienced) as a lottery wheel, a steamboat whistle, a siren, a pistol, a typewriter, and a “bouteillophone,” a row of beverage bottles played like a xylophone. There was also something called flaques sonores (“sound puddles”), which Satie never defined. He may have had in mind the sound of a boot stepping in a puddle, common enough on city streets, but he never let on. Every conductor of the score has had to realize the effect somehow. (Ernest Ansermet, who led the premiere, used suspended cymbals struck with sponge-tipped drumsticks.) In their balletic context, however, these “realistic” sounds were anything but realistic. Abstracted from “life” and placed in a zany world of art, their everyday quality became uncanny.

Chapter 10 The Cult of the CommonplaceChapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace

ex. 10-1a Erik Satie, Parade, Rag-time du paquebot episode in piano score

The poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), who at the time was experimenting in his verse with something similar—casual or colloquial language and homely imagery in startling juxtapositions—tried to capture this effect in a promotional piece he wrote for Diaghilev that appeared in the newspapers in advance of the Parade premiere, and then in the program book. This little article became famous for the way it conveyed the enchantment that could arise out of artistic transformations of the ordinary. It being wartime, the article also made a nationalistic appeal: Apollinaire saw in Parade a chance to shift the center of artistic gravity permanently away from Germany toward France. Out of these two notions Apollinaire developed and described a new sensibility, to which he gave a name that became a watchword.

First of all, in Satie’s music Apollinaire claimed to find “a clarity and simplicity in which you can see the wonderfully lucid mind of France itself”6 (The phrase “clarity and simplicity” practically became a religious mantra to many French and French-influenced musicians.) Second, Picasso’s and Massine’s collaboration, in which the impresarios’ costumes looked like walking stage sets, succeeded in “consummating for the first time a union between painting and the dance—between the plastic and the mimic—which heralds the arrival of a more complete art.” Third, the American girl, “as she cranks an imaginary car, will express the magic of everyday life” and give the audience a chance “to appreciate the grace of modern movement—something they had never suspected.” For all these reasons, Cocteau had misnamed his grand collaborative enterprise a “realistic ballet.” To communicate the full effect of “this new alliance” of media, Apollinaire decided, a new word was needed: “sur-réalisme.”

Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace

ex. 10-1b Irving Berlin, That Mysterious Rag

Apollinaire’s word immediately shed its hyphen and entered the vocabulary of modern art around the world. It was a brilliant find: the original hyphen made it clear that surréalisme had been coined on an analogy with, but in scathing contradistinction to, the standard French word surnaturalisme—“supernaturalism,” the very thing the new art rejected. The core concept was a collage of ordinary unmagical things from which the supernatural was rigorously excluded. What lent the magic was not the things but the collage itself. The word—from coller, “to paste” or “stick together”—had been coined a few years earlier, in 1912, when Picasso began pasting household items into his paintings (at first a swatch of a tablecloth, later bits of newspaper, postage stamps, etc.).

The idea stemmed indirectly from Dada, the movement that sought to extend the concept of art to its limits—or rather, to find out what those limits were—by exhibiting mundane items (most famously, a urinal) as if they were artworks. But in Picasso’s collages, and in what eventually became surrealist art, there was no “as if.” The assemblage was artful by design: in collage, art was not challenged by reality, but rather the reverse. The recognizable world was subverted by decontextualization—or recontextualization in incongruous juxtapositions—and became a dream world. (Needless to say, the movement has attracted psychoanalytical interpreters, and some of its practitioners—notably the Spanish painter Salvador Dali [1904–89]—studied and ostentatiously quoted the work of Freud.) Given the definition Apollinaire implied, one of everyday reality transfigured by an estranging context, the first surrealist work, in advance of the name, was arguably another ballet produced by Diaghilev: Jeux (“Games”), conceived and choreographed by the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky to music by Debussy (the only ballet the French master ever completed). It was first performed on 15 May 1913, just two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of The Rite of Spring, and was more or less forgotten amid the publicity Stravinsky’s ballet generated. Debussy’s score, which he published as a poème dansé, was one of his most sumptuous and shimmering, his ultimate masterpiece of “impressionism.” Its harmonic and coloristic subtlety, its narrow but endlessly calibrated dynamic range (out of 700 measures only 150 are marked louder than piano) and its kaleidoscopically shifting motivic patterns have all fascinated composers, and the music has had a respectable life in repertory as an orchestral showpiece.

The ballet itself, however, was a fiasco; for the scenario Debussy’s mysterious music accompanied consisted of a tennis game played by a boy (Nijinsky) and two girls in ordinary tennis clothes on an ordinary court. The action consists not of tennis but of flirtation, and the ending is deliberately enigmatic: a lost tennis ball from another court suddenly drops into their midst, and the characters all flee the stage. The idea of defamiliarizing the ordinary is apparent enough, but Debussy’s impressionist style, thanks especially to Pelléas et Mélisande, had been irrevocably marked as surnaturaliste. The new ballet’s mixture of the natural and the supernatural failed to convince: the danced scenario and the music seemed like oil and water.


(1) Sergey Diaghilev to Boris Kochno, 22 July 1924; Boris Kochno, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 226.

(2) Jean Cocteau, A Call to Order, trans. Rollo H. Myers (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1926), p. 25.

(3) Ibid., pp. 25–26.

(4) Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and Other Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 197.

(5) Quoted in Nancy Perloff, Art and the Everyday: Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 113.

(6) Guillaume Apollinaire, “Parade,” Excelsior, 11 May 1917.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 The Cult of the Commonplace." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-010.xml