The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music survey: Do you also hear Erik Satie in this Chopin nocturne?

February 7, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I was watching the 2008 movie “Man on Wire” the other night.

It’s the very moving documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, and I highly recommend it.

It is also very current because it is also featured as a unifying event in Colum McCann’s novel “Let the Great World Spin,” which won the National Book Award and recently came out in paperback.

The movie is moving because of the poignancy you feel for the people who pulled off this incredible event that can never be duplicated and then went their separate ways.

And it is sad to see the Twin Towers going up and standing — only to know they came down tragically on 9/11.

But one of the wire-walking scenes features Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, with its slow and graceful sadness, its almost static movement. (In the movie, it is played by the great French pianist Pascal Roge.)

Then I was practicing Chopin and reading through his nocturnes. And I came across the Nocturne is G minor, Op. 15, No. 3.

And I thought: How uncanny that the two pieces are so close in spirit and sound — with that slow, stately, bittersweet atmosphere. Just as Chopin’s mazurkas foreshadow the jagged harmonies and rhythms of Bartok’s ethnic dances, his nocturne foreshadows a certain turn-of-the-century modernism that looked backwards to ancient Greece.

Ever the classicist, Chopin was.

It’s a good lesson and comparison to remember right now for the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth.

But don’t trust my say-so. Take a listen for yourself:

Here is someone playing the Satie, which may also be familiar to Baby Boomers from the rock version by Blood, Sweat and Tears, coupled to a suitably nostalgic video, almost Proustian and from the same epoch as when it was composed:

And here is the great Sviastoslav Richter playing the Chopin nocturne:

Do you too hear a connection, an influence?

Do you know of other Chopin-Satie links?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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