Erik Satie

Jack-in-the-Box, pantomime ballet for piano (orchestrated by Milhaud)

    Description by Alexander Carpenter

    Satie composed this little "pantomime" in two acts in 1899, but the work was not premiered until 1926, two years after his death. Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev approached Satie in 1922 with a request for a ballet, and again in 1924. Nothing came of either request, and Diaghilev had to settle for the misplaced Jack in the Box, which was revived after Satie's death by his pupil Darius Milhaud. Satie referred to this work as a "suite anglaise," and composed three jigs for it: Prelude, Entr'acte, and Finale. The work was mislaid sometime after 1905, and was only discovered decades later by accident; the score for Jack in the Box, along with a score for a marionette opera called Genevieve de Brabant, was found in a pile of soiled, discarded papers in one of Satie's apartments.

    Jack in the Box is based on a scenario by Jules Depaquit, and has little to offer in the way of dramatic substance: it is essentially a Vaudevillian experiment, a "pantaloonery" which pokes fun at "the evil men who live in this world." Musically, the work is relatively simple, and in many ways typically Satiean. The overall harmonic framework is diatonic; the work is cast in the key of C major. Satie employs unresolved seventh chords, bitonal harmonies, constant metric shifts, and repetitive motives in what musicologist Eric Gillmor describes as Satie's appropriation of "the sounds and boisterous atmosphere of the music hall." Gillmor also notes that certain aspects of the music look ahead to the work of Milhaud, who was thus the obvious choice to revive the work after Satie's death.

    The ballet was finally performed in June of 1926, choreographed by famous Stravinsky collaborator George Balanchine. In the Balanchine production, the music accompanies the dancing of the principal figure, the Jack in the Box puppet, along with several other characters, including two harlequin-like ballerinas dressed in half-black/half-white costumes. As with many of Satie's works, Jack in the Box was not well received by critics, in this case on both sides of the English channel. The French dismissed the work as banal, while English critics decried it as "pert but hollow." Perhaps the failure of Jack in the Box is not so surprising, given that it was written during a period in Satie's life--around the turn of the century--when he was deeply depressed, and feeling resigned to failure as a composer.


    1. Prélude
    2. Entr'acte
    3. Final

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Brilliant Classics 95350BR
    2016 Erato 555263
    2015 Erato
    2015 Erato / Warner Classics 0825646047963
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099967815326
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94087
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099968582
    2008 Naxos 8572132
    2008 Naxos 8503204
    2007 Brilliant Classics 93559
    2006 Marsyas 1801
    2005 Artemis Classics 1612
    2005 Centaur Records 2731
    2003 Decca 000144702
    2003 Apex 41380
    2003 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243585602
    2003 Decca 000023002
    2003 EMI Classics
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 74534
    2002 Decca 470290
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 568994
    2000 Mandala 4975/79
    2000 EMI Music Distribution 73705
    1999 CBC Records 5122
    1996 London 443897
    1994 Mandala 4821
    1993 Erato 92857
    1993 Erato 4509928572
    1993 Vanguard 4030
    1992 Supraphonet 111117
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 67282
    Supraphon 111117
    Ades 20376
    Naxos 8572115
    EMI Music Distribution 62017
    Carlton 569151
    Brilliant Classics 93559/5