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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 The Cult of the Commonplace
Richard Taruskin

The fifty-eight-year-old Satie thus ended his career, in keeping with the insistently youthful tenor of the time, not like a grand old man but more like a declining enfant terrible. The one serious work of his late years was Socrate, a “drame symphonique” that consisted of three extracts from the dialogues of Plato, set for a high (preferably female) solo voice and small orchestra. It was written immediately after Parade for the American-born Princesse de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer), the heiress to a sewing-machine fortune who had married into the French aristocracy and set up a famous salon where she presented “chamber-theatricals” for which she commissioned works by many prestigious artists.

Partly by virtue of their source and subject matter, Satie’s Platonic settings were regarded as “neoclassical” even though they made no reference at all to old-fashioned musical forms, whether operatic or instrumental. But once the concept of the style dépouillé or “stripped-down style” had been named (by Boris Schloezer) in response to Stravinsky’s music of the early 1920s (see chapter 8), Socrate was seen as its prototype. Its “denuded” or “white” classicism, even if only retrospectively acknowledged, made it Satie’s most enduringly influential composition.

The end of the third movement, Phédon (Phaedo), which narrates the death of Socrates, is a setting of the most emotionally charged page in all of Plato. The postwar “ban on all pathos,” to recall the mandatory irony described in chapter 8, gives way here to a ban on all eloquence, now the only way to preserve any chance of a sincere expression of emotion. From parallel ascending triads (the movement’s main leitmotif) through a succession of rigorously diatonic ostinatos, each lasting several measures (but usually an “honest” four), to the harmonically void drumbeats of the final page (Ex. 10-5), the music ostentatiously displays not only its rejection of ostentatious emotional display, but also its eschewal of technical finesse.

The prominent use of the harp in what is otherwise a very spare orchestra (only seven wind players, a timpanist, and a small body of strings) is the only concession to opulence, but a necessary one for the sake of its associations with the classical lyre. The regularity with which ostinato gives way to ostinato lends the setting of Plato’s prose an appearance of poetic scansion, turning into chill ritual chanting at the end. The stony-cold, benumbed mood (in accord with the description of the gradually numbing effect of the poison on Socrates’ body) is broken only once, when the singer climbs unexpectedly to a high note while reporting Socrates’s noncommittal final words (“Crito, we owe a cock to Esculapus”). Obviously an intrusion of the reporter’s emotion rather than a depiction of Socrates’s, this tiny breach in the otherwise dignified posture of the setting emphasizes that dignity by contrast. “A lesson in greatness and honesty”12 was Poulenc’s judgment of what to many musicians (then and since) has seemed merely skimpy and technically inept.

After Satie’s death the mantle of nakedness—of emphatic antirhetoric and sophisticated naïveté—fell on Poulenc and Milhaud. Poulenc was the composer most closely allied with the poets of surrealism, sometimes including himself. His very first piece, Rapsodie nègre, op. 1 (1917), for a Pierrot lunaire-influenced ensemble of flute, clarinet, string quartet, and piano, brought in a baritone soloist for one movement, Honoloulou. The text, according to the composer, was from a book of verses by a Liberian poet named Makoko Kangourou. (No one has ever found this book.) It begins, “Honoloulou, poti lama!/honoloulou, honoloulou,/kati moko, mosi bolou/ratakou sira, polama!” The musical setting contradicts the flamboyant nonsense-exoticism with extreme plainness. The voice part, for example, is a pseudo-chant consisting of a descending minor tetrachord endlessly repeated. That plainness in the face of oddity would remain the surrealist formula.


ex. 10-5 Erik Satie, Socrate, III, end

Cocardes (1919), a more elaborate concoction for voice and instrumental ensemble, became a sort of manifesto for the composers of Poulenc’s youthful generation. The title, “Cockades” in English, refers to ribbons worn as an emblem or badge of membership on hats or uniforms. Just so, the Cocardes were a badge of surrealist affiliation. The text, by Cocteau, consisted of three poems—Miel de Narbonne (“Honey of Narbonne”), Bonne d’enfant (“Children’s nurse”), Enfant de troupe (“Child of the troupe”)—of which the titles were a clue to the sham tour-de-force or gimmick that united the whole. The last syllable of one became the first of the next, and so it was for each line in the poems (including the last, which linked up with the first). Thus, for example, Miel de Narbonne:

  • Use ton coeur. Les clowns fleurissent du crottin d’or.
  • Dormir! Un coup d’orteil: on vole.
  • Vôlez-vous jouer avec moâ?
  • Moabite, dame de la croix bleue. Caravane.
  • Vanille. Poivre. Confiture de tamarin.
  • Marin, cou, le pompon, moustaches, mandoline.
  • Linoléum en trompe-l’oeil. Merci.
  • Cinéma, nouvelle muse.

Or, in “English”:

  • Use your heart. The clowns flourish on golden manure.
  • To sleep! A kick with the toe; one flies.
  • Wanna play wiv me?
  • Moabite, lady of the blue cross. Caravan.
  • Vanilla. Pepper. Tamarind jam.
  • Sailor, neck, pompon, moustache, mandolin.
  • Eye-tricking linoleum. Thanks.
  • Cinema, new muse.

The translation, since it lacks the wordplay of the original, is a completely arbitrary assemblage of phrases, most of them nouns that bring a crowd of discordant images to mind. The verbal trick of the original, though it lends “form” to the poem, is as meaningless a technical feat as Schoenberg’s triple canon in retrograde in Pierrot lunaire. In Schoenberg’s case it had been the loosening of the constraints of voice leading and dissonance treatment that made the contrapuntal complexities satirically easy to achieve. (Anybody can write canons if they don’t have to be consonant.) In Poulenc’s, it is the loosening of the constraints of semantics (and spelling!) that make the verbal dexterity a satirically empty display of skill. (Anybody can make puns if they don’t have to mean anything.) The absence of semantic logic, made all the more pointed by a perfectly ordinary verbal logic, is the basic surrealist maneuver. The kaleidoscopic linkages of imagery follow no intelligible pattern, thus reminding the reader of the poem (or the hearer of the songs) of the “dialectics” of dreams. And the essential surrealist musical device, as Poulenc (following Satie) demonstrated again and again, was to surround the extravagant dream-imagery with a music that sounded insistently “normal” and commonplace in its evocation of the familiar music of one’s surrounding “lifestyle.” That was the big difference between the “surrealist” cabaret style, as exemplified by the Cocardes, and the “expressionist” one exemplified by Pierrot lunaire. Schoenberg’s music was deliberately “subjective” and strange; Poulenc’s deliberately “objective” and commonplace. Shortly before the first performance, Poulenc wrote to a critic that his songs captured the essence of contemporary Paris “without artifice,” and that “they will show you that I am no Impressionist!” (i.e., no trafficker in mysterious places or impenetrable jungles).

The third song (Ex. 10-6) most clearly emphasizes what was “realist” in surrealist. The “ritournelle” at the beginning and the end is exactly like those used in vaudeville theaters (or “music halls”) to introduce or follow an act, and the original scoring for violin, cornet, trombone, bass drum, triangle, and cymbal gave it an authentic “fairground” color. The ironic return in the middle, marked triste (sad), affects the manner of a vaudeville “song stylist.” (Poulenc later confided that he was thinking of Maurice Chevalier [1888–1972], the star song-and-dance man of the Paris music halls, later a character actor in a number of American films.)


ex. 10-6 Francis Poulenc, Cocardes, no. 3, end

The commonplaces are of course ironic. Their clash with the verbal extravagances makes them extravagant in their own right. That extravagance, that paradoxical excess, is the “sur” in surrealist. To quote Daniel Albright, “Schoenberg worked to emancipate harmonic dissonance, while Poulenc worked to emancipate semantic dissonance”; or, putting it another way, “Poulenc was original, not in the way that his music sounds, but in the way that his music means.”13 Or again, putting it as Apollinaire put it, surrealism demands that the artistic media “marry often without apparent bond as in life.”14 What makes life lively, Apollinaire implies, is the very lack of intelligible correlation between the sensory stimuli that bombard us from all sides. Surrealist art makes that fortuitous unintelligibility purposeful.


(12) Ibid., pp. 69–70.

(13) Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, p. 288.

(14) Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1916); quoted in Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, p. 246.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-010004.xml