Erik Satie completed his five Nocturnes for solo piano between August and November 1919. They were his last piano works. These are oddly humorless works, but after the passing of Debussy in the previous year, Satie's mood remained less than light. His musical focus seemed more strained as well. While his Nocturnes are successful, beautiful pieces, alert listeners can hear the effort the composer put into them, which was not the case for his works from the 1890s. By the end of World War I, Satie's musical language had achieved a perfect union of almost-mechanical gesturing and French fluidity. Satie has included none of the qualities of Chopin or Field's nocturnes in his music, but the nocturnal effect is clearly there. There is something reductive about Satie's Nocturnes that gives them a specific value. One could say that they sound overheard rather than heard; there is no attempt to woo the listener, who is forced to listen closely to hear the striking, macabre pace of each movement that defines their unique qualities. What can be heard and appreciated by almost anyone in this music is an audible transformation of character of the composer that comes through in these works. Most mature people have seen those prone to humor come to an apex in their own thinking and develop a seriousness that cannot completely conceal their formerly humorous selves. This is what happened to Satie, and he became more interested in causing riots in theatrical venues than having attentive listeners in concert halls. His Nocturnes were his last pieces of pure music. They are a sort of swan song, featuring dedications to Marcelle Mayer, Valentine Hugo, and Jean Cocteau's mother.
At the end the war Satie had no money and was severely depressed. His own sort of stoicism was the sort that, when it gave way, permanent emotional damage was lurking underneath. Though a sudden change of fortune came his way, he did not fully recover. A young Belgian painter named Mesens somehow rejuvenated his spirits. Though Satie was more than a generation older, he seemed to enjoy the painter's company as if he were an old friend. From this rapport the composer found another burst of creative energy and wrote his Nocturnes. They are conventionally notated, using bar lines, which he eschewed in his earlier pieces. They demonstrate no joy, but have an eerie intimacy, saying goodbye not to music or to life but to something. Their sadness and focus combine for a quality that is not easily surmised in English, but they are among the undiscovered masterpieces of the twentieth century.
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