When Erik Satie Took a Picture of Debussy & Stravinsky (June 1910)

Erik Satie knew his way around not just the piano but the cam­era as well. This is evi­denced by the image above, a 1911 por­trait of Claude Debussy and Igor Stravin­sky. Described by Christie’s as “an out­stand­ing pho­to­graph of the two com­posers in the library at Debussy’s home,” it was tak­en by Satie at the time when Serge Diaghilev’s Bal­lets Russ­es were per­form­ing Debussy’s Jeux and Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring. In the back­ground appears what looks like Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai’s The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa, a work of art “used by Debussy on the front cov­er of the first edi­tion of his sym­phon­ic sketch­es La mer.”

Just above appears anoth­er pic­ture cap­tured in Debussy’s home, this one of Debussy and Satie. “The pho­to was tak­en by Stravin­sky, if my mem­o­ry did­n’t go wrong,” says one com­menter on the r/classicalmusic sub­red­dit. Anoth­er express­es con­fu­sion about the sub­jects them­selves: “I thought they did­n’t like each oth­er?”

One respon­der explains that “they were friends at first, for quite some time, but lat­er their rela­tion­ship got worse.” Debussy’s orches­tra­tion of Satie’s Gymno­pe­dies brought those pieces to promi­nence, but, Satie ulti­mate­ly came to feel that Debussy had been stingy with the fruits of his great suc­cess.

Or so, at any rate, goes one inter­pre­ta­tion of the dis­so­lu­tion of Debussy and Satie’s friend­ship. Dif­fer­ent Red­di­tors con­tribute dif­fer­ent details: one that “every time they met, Satie would praise Rav­el’s music to annoy Debussy,” anoth­er that “Debussy kept a bot­tle of the cheap­est table wine for Satie for when he came over.” It can hard­ly have been easy, even in the best of times, for two of the strongest inno­va­tors in ear­ly-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry music to occu­py the same social space for long stretch­es of time, let alone in com­pa­ny that includ­ed the likes of Rav­el and Stravin­sky. More than a cen­tu­ry lat­er, their artis­tic lega­cies could hard­ly be more assured — as, one faint­ly sens­es when look­ing at these pho­tos, they knew would be the case.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Debussy Play Debussy’s Most Famous Piece, “Clair de lune” (1913)

Hear the Very First Pieces of Ambi­ent Music, Erik Satie’s Fur­ni­ture Music (Cir­ca 1917)

Watch the 1917 Bal­let “Parade”: Cre­at­ed by Erik Satie, Pablo Picas­so & Jean Cocteau, It Pro­voked a Riot and Inspired the Word “Sur­re­al­ism”

The Night When Char­lie Park­er Played for Igor Stravin­sky (1951)

The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa by Hoku­sai: An Intro­duc­tion to the Icon­ic Japan­ese Wood­block Print in 17 Min­utes

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (3)
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  • Bret says:

    I real­ly enjoyed this open win­dow that brings the past alive — see­ing Claude Debussy the man “chez lui,” a genius for the ages liv­ing his day-to-day life. Thank you for post­ing.

  • Carlos says:

    If the pho­to is accu­rate­ly dat­ed to 1911 that would be two years before the pre­mieres (in May 1913) of Jeux at The­atre des Champs Elysées and Rite of Spring two weeks lat­er on May 29, 1913. Debussy began com­pos­ing Jeux in August 1912.

  • Brian says:

    As Car­los cor­rect­ly points out, at the moment this pho­to is dat­ed (1911), Stravin­sky had not yet com­plet­ed the Rite: he would do so only in ear­ly 1912, in time for the orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming date in the spring of that year for the Bal­let Russ­es. The pre­miere, how­ev­er, was post­poned to the spring of 1913. In this pho­to, we see Stravin­sky in the peri­od of the Petrouch­ka tri­umph.

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