Losing sense, making music: What Erik Satie's music and poetry do for each other

Peter Dayan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract / Description of output

The latter half of the long nineteenth century was the golden age of the idea of absolute music; which is, to put it at its simplest, the notion that music can have a kind of meaning that is inaccessible to words, that cannot be translated into any other medium, or indeed translated at all. Innumerable composers and poets of the period (and of the subsequent two or three decades), including a disproportionate number of those who remain the most famous, expressed, in words of course, solidarity with this idea. However, all of them, as far as I know, also acknowledged that music nonetheless normally does appear to have the kind of meaning accessible to words. This is most obvious when words are set to music, or when music imitates extra-musical sounds or rhythms – the sound of the cuckoo, or the rhythm of rowing, for example; but in the nineteenth century generally, it was recognized as a wider phenomenon. It seemed to be a natural human instinct to associate music, almost as soon as it was written or heard, with words or images. For an intellectually intransigent and obstinately lucid composer such as Erik Satie, this posed a challenge. How could one, in one's music, both make it clear that music has a kind of meaning inaccessible to words, and take into account the fact that music was generally received as if its meaning could be expressed in words?

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWords and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century
PublisherBoydell and Brewer Ltd
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781782041375
ISBN (Print)9781843838111
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


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