Will a Love Letter Always Reach Its Destination? Works in Honor of Erik Satie suggest the Answer is Yes
Composer Elena Kats-Chernin pays homage to Erik Satie and the ill-fated story of his love.
If love could itself be compared to some form of writing, it might be to the letter. The resemblance is such that both share certain words. In both letters and in love we speak of correspondence, of a receiver and sometimes even of “reading between the lines.” One side has a love for the patience required to write a letter, for the care put into words and for the awareness of the places of both the sender and the recipient. This is both literal and symbolic: to write and to love, it’s necessary to know, with the heart, who is loved, and to whom you write.
As we know, some love letters are never delivered. Some letters are lost. There are some which are never finished or those which, through some oversight of the author, are either misplaced or confused. We know this well, too: some loves are unrequited. There are letters for which a sender must settle for silence as the only answer.
But what happens to the love letter which remains unsent?
Erik Satie was a composer both eccentric and equally, one deeply rooted in custom. Meurig Bowen, an English musical commentator and cultural official, is the author of a dramatic musical piece about the composer’s life. In an article, Bowen related that Satie, as a young adult, one day bought seven identical gray velvet suits, and thereafter never dressed in anything else. Satie also boasted of never having eaten anything that wasn’t white, signaling both his mania and his repetitiveness. In his youth, unable to any longer finance the “artist’s life,” he moved from the Paris of the late 19th century to a tiny apartment in Arcueil, a nearby suburb. He lived there for the next thirty years, subsisting with the bare minimum: a bed, a stove, two pianos, some other equipment for his work, and very little else.
With this kind of background, it may not be surprising to learn that Satie had one first, and only love. At least that’s how the story has come down to us in history. Suzanne Valadon was a painter who met the composer when they both lived in Montmartre. In addition to her own work – acclaim for which led her to be the first woman inducted into the French National Society of Fine Arts – Valadon was also a model for painters, among them Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Under these auspices, she’s also found within the chapter on impressionism in the history of French painting.
Her relationship with Satie was brief – some six months – but it was also, apparently intense, at least for the composer. After the breakup, he never manifested any similar passion for any other woman.
Upon his death in 1925, in his tiny Arcueil apartment where no one ever visited him, dozens of unsent letters were found. Many of these were love letters.
So, what happens when a love letter remains undelivered?
Nearly 100 years after their discovery, and the preceding events, composer Elena Kats-Chernin was the unexpected recipient of the letters. Fascinated by both Satie’s work and by his relationship with Suzanne Valadon, she further explored both. Her own work became a tribute both to the musical genius of the composer and to the frustrated outcome of his love affair: 26 piano compositions under the name of Unsent Love Letters.
The central mast of Satie’s work gives a unity to the compositions, and each piece evokes his work from time to time. There are subtle allusions, as when one remembers a cherished person of whom one hasn’t thought of for a long time. And sometimes the reference is more open, as in “Sarabande,” which recalls, at times, Satie’s Gnossiennes.
The exercise, although musical, is also literary in at least one point: in the “suspension of reality” induced by the compositions. As in reading, for a moment, we need to suspend belief for the literary artifice to work. The love letters we’re listening to bear, at any given moment, both the image of Satie and the resolute possibility of his proposal of love.
Every piece reverberates at whim but also with an awareness of the kaleidoscope by which it’s possible to imagine those never-delivered letters. As in Chopin’s Nocturnes, in which Chopin intended to traverse all of the stages of love, in Unsent Love Letters, there is also the creative will to describe that wholly unspeakable aspect of love. Kats-Chernin intended to pick up the interrupted dialogue between the musician and his beloved and to imagine how she might have replied: to respond, with a musical composition, to the love letters never sent.
Satie’s story, his untimely infatuation with Valadon, the letters discovered some 30 years later… all of it falling well beyond the register of mere anecdote, can nevertheless be still more. They might also be seen in the light not only of pretext and opportunity but of deep significance, if only we follow the trail of Kats-Chernin’s composition.
At first, one may believe that, because they’re “love letters” in the strictest sense of this literary form, they’re frustrated messages, and which never reached the eyes of their intended recipient. But let’s expand the horizon for but a moment. Let us imagine that love, in this case, is but the particular expression of a wider phenomenon.
It’s been said, not without reason, that it’s impossible to love another if one doesn’t love oneself, first. It’s also been said that in love for one’s neighbor, we might not find the perfect cure for all of our wounds, but it will help us to cope with them. In Plato’s Banquet, Socrates defends the idea that love is a force which may be directed at a loved one, but not exclusively, because it is always more broad and diverse. It is nothing more nor less than the energy of life itself.
Love for life is by necessity expressed in creation (and from here it follows innumerable routes). Love is nourished by existence, and at the same time, love nourishes existence, reciprocally. It makes space for itself in our lives and installs itself, at will, to generate more love from there. That’s its magic, so to speak: it multiplies without ever being exhausted, and it comes up where you least expect it. After all, one finds one’s complement despite all of the improbability. As happened in these compositions.
Perhaps this is what happens with those love letters which remain undelivered. They don’t reach their recipient, but they will realize their destiny.
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