Modern Times – Satie, Picasso, and Cocteau’s Crazy Parade

Welcome all! This is “Music Monday” for March 22 :-)

What do you get when a Modernist painter, an avante-garde composer, and a Surrealist playwright collaborate on a project? Well, add up the equation and you can surmise the outcome. Imagine something that is interesting, original, and a magnet for controversy.

The idea was conceived in the fertile, creative mind of Jean Cocteau who, in 1917, would write the libretto for a new ballet entitled Parade, to be performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s prestigious dance company, the Ballets Russes. Cocteau asked his friend Erik Satie to compose the music and soon Pablo Picasso was commissioned to do the costumes and set designs. That’s quite a team! I’d pay to see that theater production, wouldn’t you?

The project marked several firsts: Picasso’s first theater assigment with Ballets Russes and his first collaboration with Satie (they would work together again years later). It was also Satie’s first ballet score.

Erik Satie was mentioned here on Museworthy in a previous post where I briefly discussed his doomed relationship with artist and model Suzanne Valadon. But Erik Satie the composer is regarded today as a musical innovator who was ahead of his time. An offfbeat and eccentric man, Satie’s compositions were unorthodox creations, some would even say revolutionary. He sought to break free of musical conventions, specifically the constraints of late Romanticism, and had significant influence on his peers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Satie can be thought of as the Frank Zappa of his time.

Erik Satie:

In his personal habits and quirks, Satie was a peculiar fellow. His fondness for grey velvet suits earned him the nickname “the velvet gentleman”. He had an aversion to sunlight and only went outdoors on cloudy days. But Satie’s bizarre behavior was most evident in his food preferences. First of all, he would never talk during a meal because he was terrified that he would choke. Then, he only ate things that were white: rIce, sugar, coconut, turnips, white cheeses, egg whites, ground up animal bones, and white-fleshed fish. Damn, Satie would have had a nervous breakdown in my kitchen! Around here, green leafy vegetables and colorful fruits run the show. (Although I do have a lot of tofu which is white).

Cocteau set the story for Parade in a fairground, where circus performers, street entertainers, and carnival acts try to attract an audience. Among the characters are fire-eaters, clowns, acrobats, and a “little American girl” who is supposedly based on the Perils of Pauline silent film series. Visually, Picasso had a lot of vibrant imagery to work with. But the ballet’s most unusual feature is the use of sound effects within the music, which was virtually unheard of up to that time. A tapping typewriter, clanging milk bottles, foghorns, sirens, and gunshots are among the many odd sounds heard during the production. Satie also included wild percussion parts and a ragtime.

A sketch of Erik Satie by Picasso:

Picasso was one of many 20th century artists who did commissioned work in the theater. Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Andre Derain, Joan Miro, and Léon Bakst all worked on costumes and scenery, much of it for the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev’s organization always employed the best of the best, from dancers to choreographers, composers to artists.

For Parade, Picasso injected his Cubist genre front and center, designing 10 foot tall costumes for the dancers that were made of wood, metal, cloth, papier-mache, and other materials. Constructed in the geometric shapes of buildings and skyscrapers, the clumsy, uncomfortable costumes were intended to be awkward, with the dancers stomping around the stage robotically to express the mechanized, dehumanized modern era.

If anyone found Picasso’s costume designs a bit wacky, they’d surely be pleased with his gorgeous set designs. This is a large panel for the Parade backdrop:

Parade consists of only one-act, and the entire performance lasts a mere fifteen minutes. The score breaks down into three sections. Listen to this part, the final suite, and you will feel transported into the Modernist breakout of the early 20th century – that window of time when dying artistic tradition was pushed, forcefully and unapologetically, into retirement, by a bold new gang of iconoclasts:


The ballet premiered on May 18th, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Much like the riot which famously ensued at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913, Parade provoked similar commotion. The audience booed and hissed, and some in the crowd even started throwing oranges at the orchestra. Gee, I guess they didn’t like the typewriter/siren/gunshot stuff :lol: The poet e.e. cummings was in attendance and is reported to have verbally chastised the disrupters for their rude behavior. And Erik Satie was even slapped in the face by an angry rioter!

Critics weren’t much kinder than the masses and generally echoed the popular sentiment. Parade received unfavorable reviews, and one critic in particular, Jean Poueigh, wrote an especially scathing review. So scathing, in fact, that Satie himself retaliated in a series of postcards he mailed to Poueigh, in which he called the critic a “blockhead”, a “cretin”, and an “arse”, among other things. Insulted by Satie’s name-calling, Poueigh then sued the composer for libel. He won, and Satie was sentenced to a short punitive jail term which he somehow managed to get out of.

Picasso came out of the Parade debacle quite well. His reputation soared and he made beneficial professional contacts. The experience also allowed for Picasso to meet Olga Khokhlkova, a dancer with Ballets Russes who performed in Parade on that raucous opening night. She and Picasso married in July of 1918. Among the witnesses was none other than Parade-man himself, Jean Cocteau. I wonder if there were any clowns at the reception? :lol:

8 thoughts on “Modern Times – Satie, Picasso, and Cocteau’s Crazy Parade

  1. “That’s quite a team! I’d pay to see that theater production, wouldn’t you?”

    You bet, I’d pay even more to see three such individualists collaborating, butting heads, putting it together!

    • artmodel says:

      Jim,

      That would be amazing! To witness those brilliant artists “behind the scenes”, and watch the creative processes.

      In the case of Parade, I don’t think there was much butting heads among these three. From my research, they all seemed to get along well, with no significant creative differences. That’s a rarity!

      Claudia

  2. dougrogers says:

    The very first record I ever bought – yes, the very only first one, was a copy of Shostakovitch’s 10th Symphony. For some reason. I can’t explain it. It’s still my favourite piece of music. It was also the very first piece of classical music I ever listened to. I didn’t even know who Shostakovitch was.

    Weird.

    I have loved every little bit of Satie I have ever heard. I love this little sketch from Parade. I’m willing to expand my ‘classical’ music horizons.W ho can recommend – something other than Gymnopedie that I should listen to?

    • artmodel says:

      doug,

      My brother Chris would give you a high-five for your Shostakovich love. He got into him at a fairly early age. The Tenth Symphony is a great piece of music.

      If you want to expand your classical horizons regarding Satie, I’m in the same boat as you. I really like the “Gymnopedies” piano works, but have listened to them for so many years I’m ready to try something else. I listened to the entire Parade score for this post and I thought it was excellent. But I’ve always been more of a Ravel fan generally.

      Thanks for sharing and commenting, doug, my sweet ;-)

      Claudia

  3. Jennifer says:

    A most interesting post – a lot of work certainly went into putting this together for our edification! Enjoyed the music, which of course doesn’t sound discordant to our ‘modern’ ears …

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      That’s so true. These so-called “scandalous” works of art – whether painting, music, literature – seem hardly scandalous at all after many decades have passed. Our modern ears wonder, “What was the big deal?”. How times and sensibilities change!

      Thanks for your comment.

      Claudia

  4. What a wonderful anecdote – thank you for writing it up! I had never heard it before, and it’s so delightful…

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