Why was Erik Satie sentenced to eight days in jail?

In July 1917 Erik Satie got sentenced to eight days in jail for libel. Here's why...

Why was Erik Satie sentenced to eight days in jail?

At first, everything seemed to be going so well for Erik Satie. At the dress rehearsal of his new ballet Parade, he had been approached by one of Le carnet de la semaine’s critics Jean Poueigh, keen to congratulate him on a job well done. So, while the new work had its fair share of experimental elements that might raise the hackles of the Théâtre du Châtelet audience – not untypically for this quirkiest of composers – Satie would at least be able to count on the support of one of Paris’s most influential opinion formers.

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But all was not quite what it seemed. For some reason, Poueigh had a significant change of heart between rehearsal and performance – or, of course, he may simply have been lying in the first place – and when his review was published the next week, it was an absolute shocker. The critic evidently now hated the work, pulling it apart with the most spiteful words he could summon up. Satie could have shrugged his shoulders with a resigned ‘C’est la vie’ and moved on. Instead, he responded in kind. Big mistake.

Involving some of the finest creative talent of the day, Parade was always intended to cause a stir. The plot – in short, about a group of performers trying to entice people into a show – was the brainchild of the writer Jean Cocteau, and it was he who invited Satie to come on board as the composer. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, whose infamous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was still fresh in Parisian minds, now sought to repeat the trick with Parade, for which Pablo Picasso designed the set and Léonide Massine masterminded the choreography. Even the programme notes were written by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, no less.

Satie’s score, though, was not all his own work. Deciding that things needed spicing up a little, Cocteau chose to add a few ‘instruments’ of his own, and by the time Parade reached the stage, the orchestra had welcomed the likes of a typewriter, a foghorn, a pistol and a selection of milk bottles into its ranks. Cocteau’s additions, along with Picasso’s unconventional stage designs, did just the trick – as with The Rite four years earlier, the first-night audience threw a collective tantrum.

Was it this reaction that triggered Poueigh’s rethink? Who knows. What we do know is that, on later finding his work destroyed in the press, Satie decided to pen a few words of his own. ‘My dearest Sir,’ he wrote to Poueigh in immaculate handwriting on a postcard; ‘You’re nothing but an arse, and an unmusical arse. Signed: Erik Satie.’

Unfortunately for the composer, Poueigh also didn’t take kindly to being insulted, especially in a manner that anyone could read. And so on 12 July 1917 Satie found himself standing in the dock of a Parisian court, sued for libel and defamation of character. ‘I was at the hearing,’ recalled the painter Gabriel Fournier many years later; ‘I can still see Satie, his eyes twinkling, but overcome with emotion and outraged by the injustice of it all, tiptoeing to the witness box, with his gloved hands holding his bowler hat in an elegant gesture tightly against his chest and, as always, with the eternal umbrella hanging over his arm.’

When the judge read out the sentence – eight days in prison, 1,000 francs in damages and a 100-franc fine – the reception from Satie’s friends in the courtroom was every bit as riotous as at the ballet itself. These included Cocteau who, ‘white with rage under his yellow-ish make-up’, soon found himself frogmarched down to the police station for slapping Poueigh’s lawyer.

Following abject apologies from Satie, however, Cocteau was released without charge. And as things panned out, Satie never actually did his time in prison. His sentence was first suspended and then abandoned, while his fine and damages were paid off by Princesse de Polignac, a wealthy patron. It pays to have friends in the right places.

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Read our reviews of the latest Satie recordings here