Only decades after his 1925 death was French composer Erik Satie hailed as a genius of contemporary classical music. His work was extremely simple in structure, yet innovative and marked by a characteristic wit. His reliance on unusual harmonic configurations was a reaction against the heavy, symbol-rich music of his era, a time when the works of Romantic European composers like Richard Wagner were still very much in vogue. Satie left a relatively scarce body of work behind, most of it written for the piano. But his ground-breaking use of bitonal or polytonal notes would become a hallmark of twentieth-century modernist music.
Satie was born Erik Alfred Leslie Satie in 1866 in Honfleur, near Le Havre, France. Both his father and his uncle—known as “Uncle Seabird,” who instilled in him a love a theater and a disdain for the conventional—were ship brokers. Satie’s mother Jane was Scottish and wrote her own pieces for the piano. She died when he was just six.
Satie was left with his grandparents in Honfleur by his widowed father. They had Satie re-baptized in the Roman Catholic faith. His musical ability was already in evidence, and he began lessons with the local organist, a man named Vinot, who introduced him to Gregorian plainsongs, the serenely monophonic religious chants dating back to music of the 13th century. Satie later showed a marked preference for such constructions in his own compositions, and was deeply interested in medieval music for much of his early career.
In 1878, he moved to Paris with his father, who remarried the following year. Satie disliked his stepmother, another musically gifted individual named Eugenie Barnetsche, who favored the Romantic compositions of Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin and other popular composers of the time. It was likely her influence, however, that led Satie to take up study at the rigorous, but conservative Paris Conservatoire. He was a mediocre student who made up his own piano exercises and was eventually dismissed. The first two pieces Satie wrote for the piano, Valse-Ballet and Fantaisie-Valse, were published in 1885. Instead of subtitling them in the usual style using “Opus 1” to indicate the first entry in his catalog, Satie demonstrated his wry sense of humor and used “Op. 62.”
Satie was conscripted into the military in 1886, but fell ill with bronchitis and was discharged. During his recuperation he read a great deal by Josephin Peladan, the leader of a mystical artistic society called Rose et Croix, also known as the Rosicrucians. In 1890 he met Peladan, and became the society’s unofficial composer. The work lasted until around 1895. He grew increasingly immersed in medieval music and Gothic art during this period, and a set of four piano pieces, Ogives (whose name refers to the rib vaults of Gothic architecture) was written during this era and published in 1886. Around this same time Satie befriended a Spanish symbolist poet known as Contamine de Latour, who claimed a kinship with Napoleon as well asa right to the French throne. Satie began setting some of Contamine’s mediocre verse to music and his compositions Elégie, Les anges, Les fleurs, Sylvie and Chanson date from this time.
With Sarabandes in 1887, “Satie now turned his back on the Middle Ages and the organum-like, petrified movement of Ogives and instead wrote music with a kind of solemn dance character, constantly shifting between immobility and movement, between melodic expressivity and vibrant chords,” wrote Olof Höjer in the liner notes for a 1996 CD of Satie’s piano works. “The harmonic language is very advanced, presenting sequences of unprepared, dissonant and unresolved chords.” A saraband was a stately baroque dance with origins in Asian female fertility dance and was considered sexually suggestive.
Satie sometimes paid for the publication of his music out of his own pocket. Ironically, his father and stepmother had begun a music publishing firm, and his next work,
For the Record…
Born Erik Alfred Leslie Satie, May 17, 1866, in Hon fleur, France; died July 1, 1925, in Paris, France; son of Alfred (a ship’s broker and composer) and Jane (a pianist and composer) Satie. Education: Studied at Paris Conservatory, 1879-82; earned degree in counterpoint from Schola Cantorum, 1908.
Composed 84 musical works between 1885 and 1924; first piano works, Valse-Ballet and Fantaisie-Valse, published in 1885; worked as a music hall pianist, 1890s; major compositions include Ogives, 1886; Trois Gymnopedies, 1887; Trois Sarabandes, 1887; Trois Gnossiennes, 1889-96; Vexations, 1894; wrote first ballet, Parade, with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, 1917.
Gymnopedies in 1888, was included in the firm’s La musiques des familles catalog. These three piano pieces took their name from a celebratory rite thought to have been performed by naked youths in ancient Greece, The subject of the pieces earned Satie some notoriety in bohemian Paris.
For Gnossiennes, three more piano pieces, Satie was inspired by the excavations on Crete of a great palace at Knossos being carried out at the time. The title may have been also been a pun that referred to the Greek term gnosis, or “knowledge.” Gnosticism was an integral part of Rosicrucianism, and as Höjer wrote, “In the Gnossiennes there is no clear-cut beginning, nor any indisputably logical ending. In theory, the music could begin in any of a series of places, continue for any amount of time and end in many different places. It has been said that this music seems to spiral around itself.” This latter quality may have inspired Satie to gradually abandon the use of bar lines in his compositions.
By all accounts Satie lived an eccentric life. Until 1898 he had quarters on the Rue Cortot in Montmartre, a place where he was a familiar neighborhood figure. He wrote his works in Montmartre cafes, and was always seen with bowler hat and umbrella. Reportedly he never used soap, but rather a pumice stone, and wore only gray velvet suits. At one point after he inherited some money, Satie founded his own church. He never went anywhere except on foot, even after he moved to a working-class neighborhood in the southern section of Paris called Arcueil. He even walked home in the middle of the night from the piano-playing jobs he took at cafes and music halls like Chat noir, Auberge du clou, Le lapin agile. It was at the Auberge de clou he met Suzanne Valadon, a former trapeze artist, artist’s model, and painter. Their romance lasted a good part of 1896, but after its dissolution Satie remained a bachelor.
Around 1891 Satie met Claude Debussy, a man who would eclipse him as one of the greatest French composers, and helped sway Debussy toward a fresher style. Darius Milhaud, another renowned French composer, also befriended Satie and drew great inspiration from his radical ideas about tone and form.
Satie became famous for his brief piano piece he titled Vexations, published in 1893. “To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities,” he wrote at the top of the score. Later musicians interpreted this statement to mean that the piece should be played, literally, 840 times, an arduous challenge that was only undertaken first in September of 1963 by the modernist composer John Cage. It took a relay team of ten pianists over 18 hours to perform.
Satie’s move to Arcueil had marked the onset of a lonely, impoverished time for him, but he revived when he enrolled at well-regarded Schola Cantorum in 1905. After three years of study he earned diploma marked “tres bien.” He began writing again after a few years’ hiatus, and gave his works whimsical titles like Desiccated Embryos, Flabby Preludes for a Dog, and Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. The last name was the result of criticism that Satie’s music had “no form.” With such compositions Satie included similarly whimsical instructions: not forte or “loud,” but “light as an egg” or “with astonishment.”
Satie also wrote and sketched. His Memoirs of an Amnesiac, culled from his journals, was published in 1953. In satirical verse he discussed such topics as the rigor’s of a composer’s life, his bizarre diet of only white foods, and the intelligence of animals. “That animals have intelligence cannot be denied,” Satie wrote. “But what is Man doing to improve the mental condition of his resigned fellow-creatures?.... Homing pigeons have absolutely no preparation in geography to help them in their job; fish are excluded from the study of oceanography; cattle, sheep and calves know nothing of the rational organization of a modern slaughter-house, and are ignorant of the nutritive role they play in the society Man has made for himself.”
Satie began to gain recognition from other composers and artists in the years prior to World War I. French composer Maurice Ravel performed his Sarabandes at a concert of the Societe Musicale Independante in 1911, and his earlier works were finally published and began to earn him a modest income. The Surrealist poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau became a great fan. With Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, Satie wrote Parade, a ballet performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in May of 1917. Its realistic setting and anti-war sentiment were met with scandalized reviews, and Satie sent a postcard to one critic that was deemed imprudent, for which he was sentenced to eight days in prison. Only the good connections of a friend got him off. But the publicity brought a new generation of composers and musicians near to Satie, and a group of young French composers known as Les Six proclaimed themselves his heirs, and strove to write music that was as austere as Satie’s.
Satie began working on the symphonic drama Socrate around 1917, a composition he hoped would be “white and pure like antiquity,” according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. “The result was a creation in which his restricted means came into perfect focus and balance.” It was not performed publicly until 1920. Two festivals of Satie’s works were held that same year.
As he entered his sixties, Satie grew increasingly eccentric. One of his last works was Musique d’ameublement, or “Furnishing Music.” The painter Henri Matisse had coined the term to describe music that would make up the background of another artistic event, and therefore was to be regarded as utterly unimportant. Satie wrote some pieces that premiered at an art opening in March of 1920, and reportedly became unnerved that patrons paid attention to the music. Later such music would become commonplace in contemporary films. He also worked with painter Francis Picabia and filmmaker Rene Clair on a joint ballet/film project called Relache (“Theater closed”), which closed after one night.
A heavy drinker for much of his life, Satie suffered health problems and friends in Paris began looking after him. He died on the first day of July in Paris in 1925 of sclerosis of the liver. No one had seen his Arceuil apartment since he had moved there in 1898. After his death his friend Milhaud found that it contained nothing more than a bed, chair, table, and piano whose pedals had to be pulled by string.
Only in the mid-twentieth century, several decades after his death, did Satie’s works begin to attract serious scrutiny. Vexations was periodically resurrected, and a solo pianist once tried to play it in its entirety, but stopped after fifteen hours, the result of recurring hallucinations. On its centenary in honor of Satie’s birth, it was again performed in New York City by a team of pianists. Alex Ross reviewed the performance for the New York Times and wrote that “the imposed repetition has the virtue of focusing attention on the revolutionary nature of this music, its defiance of harmonic order.... Sketchy, diminished chords alternate in hypnotic succession, with brief melodic shapes drifting through the upper lines and a chaconnelike theme churning in the bass.”
3 Gymnopedies & Other Piano Works, PGD/London Classics, 1987.
Music of Erik Satie, Collins Classics, 1991.
Erik Satie, WEA/Atlantic/Erato, 1993.
Satie Favorites, Denon, 1993.
Erik Satie: The Complete Piano Music/Olof Höjer, Vols. 1-4, Prophone Records, 1996-98.
Satie: Gnossiennes; Gymnopedies; Ogives; Petite Ouverture a Danser; Sarabandes, Philips, 1996.
After the Rain: The Soft Sounds of Erik Satie, PGD/London Classics, 1996.
Satie on Accordion, Winter & Winter, 1998.
Erik Satie: Encore!, Bis, 1998.
Satie: Gnossiennes/Gymnopedies, Glossa, 1998.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1980.
New York Times, May 20, 1993.
Stereo Review, December 1996.
“Le Gymnopédiste,” by Olof Höjer, for the notes to Erik Satie: The Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1, Prophone Records, 1996.
SATIE, ERIK (1866–1925), French composer.
One of most influential and problematical composers of the twentieth century, Erik-Alfred-Leslie Satie was born on 17 May 1866 in the town of Honfleur, France, whose seascapes figure in many an impressionist painting. The family moved to Paris when he was four, but, after his mother's death in 1872, Erik and his brother were sent back to their grandparents in Honfleur. Erik was an unruly student but showed some predilection for music. When he was twelve, he rejoined his father in Paris, and his formal schooling was never resumed. Within several months, his father remarried a pianist and salon composer, Eugénie Barnetche, who was determined that her stepson study piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Satie impressed his teachers with his fine tone, weak sight-reading, and general laziness. In fall 1882 he was dropped from his class for insufficient progress. A second stint (1885–1886), undertaken with a view to reducing his term of military service, was no more successful. But his father had meanwhile set up shop as a music publisher and sometime composer of popular songs and facile piano music. Erik soon followed his father's example, writing piano waltzes and songs that may have benefited from his stepmother's polishing. These began to be published in 1887, a crucial year that witnessed Satie's first works of importance (because of their pathbreaking harmonic language), the Trois Sarabandes. Later that year, Satie left home and began frequenting the artists' cabarets and cafés-concerts of Montmartre. After having himself announced as a gymnopédiste in the Chat Noir, he wrote Trois Gymnopédies (1888), the haunting slow waltzes by which he is best known today.
The bohemian world of the Montmartre cabarets deeply affected Satie's aesthetic priorities, which ran toward the esoteric and outrageous. His penchants for odd titles, notational puzzles, extravagant calligraphy, bizarre performance instructions, and harmonic schemes that had little to do with traditional tonality were manifest nearly from the start. He associated briefly (1891–1892) with the writer Joséphin Péladan and wrote some pieces for Péladan's Rosicrucian sect based on an ancient Greek scale. Soon Satie was imitating Péladan's zanier pretensions, submitting himself (thrice) as a candidate to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, founding his own "church," and publishing crackpot tracts. He also befriended Claude Debussy, who called him a "gentle, medieval musician wandered into this century for the joy of his friend" (Whiting, p. 111). The relationship was hardly an easy one, but it lasted until Debussy's death. Off and on until 1909, Satie worked as a cabaret pianist and composer, writing songs for two prominent entertainers of the day, the satirist Vincent Hyspa and the chanteuse Paulette Darty. His work for Hyspa left an enduring mark on his compositional strategies, which perennially relied on parodic allusion. His work for Darty brought him into contact with the idiom of ragtime that was imported from the United States after 1900. A stylistic résumé is provided by the Trois morceaux en forme de poire (1890–1903; Three pieces in the shape of a pear), a seven-movement anthology of short pieces drawn from his Rosicrucian and cabaret music.
In 1905 the determined autodidact entered the Schola Cantorum to study counterpoint. During the ensuing years, Satie honed his piano writing into a lean-textured, dissonant, but still whimsical style. In January 1911 sponsorship by Maurice Ravel drew him out of bohemian obscurity and into the limelight, a position Satie maintained for the rest of his career. While attention first attached to the harmonic audacity of his early works (the sobriquet "precursor of genius" would come to haunt him), the public soon caught up with the humoristic piano suites he was now writing. The Descriptions automatiques (1913; Automatic descriptions) and Embryons desséchés (1913; Desiccated embryos) rely on techniques of parodic distortion of familiar musical materials learned in the cabarets, with a narrative overlay of fragmentary stories, which were not, however, to be read aloud in performance. The Sports et divertissements (1914; Sports and diversions) pose a daunting complex of musical, verbal, and visual imagery—for they add illustrations by Charles Martin and Satie's calligraphy to the mix—a complex that challenges the very notion of the musical "work." Satie became no less active as a writer of musical journalism, whimsical autobiography, and even an absurdist play, Le piège de Méduse (1913; Medusa's trap).
In 1915 the poet Jean Cocteau took Satie under his wing. The high point of their several collaborations was surely the ballet Parade, which involved Pablo Picasso as set and costume designer, Léonide Massine as choreographer, and Sergei Diaghilev as producer. At its premiere in May 1917, Parade caused a stir (though not quite the riot touched off three years earlier by Le sacre du printemps [The rite of spring]). The noise-making instruments (sirens, typewriter, pistols) added to the orchestra made Satie notorious, even though they were Cocteau's idea. Satie soon found himself at the head of a new "school" of young French composers (which included Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, and Georges Auric) dubbed les six (by comparison with the Russian Five). Parade led to a string of further projects for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and Rolf de Maré's Ballets Suédois, for whom he wrote his last work, Relâche (1924; No show today), with its cinematic interlude filmed by René Clair. In these last projects, the solidity of Satie's musical structure is in marked contrast to the absurdist scenarios. To those who bemoan Satie's studied avoidance of the "serious," one may recommend the "symphonic drama" Socrate (1918) and the gravely serene Nocturnes for piano (1919). Satie died on 1 July 1925 in Paris.
Orledge, Robert. Satie the Composer. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.
Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885–1918. New York, 1958. Rev. ed., published as The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I. New York, 1968.
Volta, Ornella, ed. Satie Seen through His Letters. Translated by Michael Bullock. London, 1989.
Whiting, Steven Moore. Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall. Oxford, U.K., 1999.
Steven M. Whiting
Satie, Erik (Alfred Leslie)
STAGE: Le Fils des Étoiles, incidental mus. (1891, prelude re-orch. Ravel 1913); Genéviève de Brabant, marionette opera (1899); Le Piège de Méduse, lyric comedy (1913); Parade, ballet (1917); Mercure, ballet (1924); Relâche, ballet (1924).ORCH.: En Habit de cheval (1911); Cinq Grimaces (1914); Trois petites pièces montées (1919, also for pf. 4 hands, 1920); La belle excentrique (1920); Jack-in-the Box (1900, unperf. pantomime, orch. Milhaud 1926).CHORAL: Messe des Pauvres, with organ or pf. (1895, orch. version by D. Diamond 1960); Socrate, 4 sop.. small orch. (1918).VOICE & PIANO: 3 Mélodies de 1886; 3 Poèmes d'Amour (1914); 3 Mélodies (1916); Ludions (5 songs) (1923).VIOLIN & PIANO: Choses vues à droit et à gauche (sans lunettes) (1914).PIANO: 3 Sarabandes (1887–8, orch. Caby); 3 Gymnopédies (1888, Nos. 1 and 3 orch. Debussy 1896, No.2 orch. H. Murrill and by Roland-Manuel); 3 Gnossiennes (1890, orch. Lanchbery; No.3 orch. Poulenc 1939); Trois Préludes from Le Fils des Étoiles (1891, orch. Roland-Manuel); Valse, Je te veux (c.1900, arr. for v. and orch., also arr. for orch. by C. Lambert); 9 Danses gothiques (1893); 4 Préludes (1893, Nos. 1 and 3 orch. Poulenc, 1939); Prélude de la porte héroïque du Ciel (1894, orch. Roland-Manuel 1912); 2 Pièces froides (1897); 3 Nouvelles pièces froides (pre–1910); Le Poisson rêveur (1901; version for pf. and orch. by Caby); 3 Morceaux en forme de poire, for 4 hands (1903; orch. Désormière); 12 Petits Chorals (c.1906); Passacaille (1906); Prélude en tapisserie (1906); Aperçus désagréables, 4 hands (1908–12); 2 Rêveries nocturnes (1910–11); En Habit de cheval, vers. for 4 hands (1911); 3 Véritables Préludes flasques (pour un chien) (1912); 3 Descriptions automatiques (1913); 3 Embryons desséchés (1913); 3 Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois (1913); 3 Chapitres tournés en tous sens (1913); 3 Vieux Séquins et vieilles cuirasses (1913); Enfantines (9 pieces) (1913); 6 Pièces de la période 1906–13; 21 Sports et divertissements (1914); Heures séculaires et instantanées (1914); 3 Valses du précieux degoûté (1914; orch. Greenbaum); Avant-dernières pensées (1915); Parade, suite for 4 hands from ballet (1917); Sonatine bureaucratique (1917); 5 Nocturnes (1919); Premier Menuet (1920).
Erik Satie (1866-1925) was an eccentric but important French composer. His works and his attitude toward music anticipated developments of the next generation of composers.
Erik Satie was born in Honfleur to a French father and a Scottish mother. Because he showed musical talent, he was sent to the conservatory, but his real interest lay in the cafés of Montmartre, where he played the piano and for which he composed sentimental ballads.
From the beginning Satie had a flair for novel musical ideas, and his first serious compositions reveal this originality. The Gymnopédies for piano (1888) avoid all the clichés of the time and strike a note of chasteness, quite different from the feverish and sentimental music of the day. His Three Sarabandes for piano (1887) include some very interesting parallel ninth chords that later became an important feature of the styles of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In some of his compositions of the next few years Satie used Gregorian modes as well as chords built in fourths, again anticipating musical idioms that would be extensively developed in the next 25 years.
In 1898 Satie "withdrew" to Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, where he spent the rest of his life. He lived quietly, spending a day each week with Debussy, writing café music, and studying counterpoint. He gave the piano pieces he wrote at this time ridiculous, almost surrealistically humorous titles, such as Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear, Three Flabby Preludes for a Dog, and Desicated Embryos—perhaps parodying the elaborately evocative titles Debussy sometimes gave his compositions. Satie also included in his scores such puzzling directions as "play like a nightingale with a toothache," "with astonishment," "from the top of the teeth," and "sheepishly."
Satie's tendency to underplay the importance of his compositions reached its climax in the music he wrote in 1920 for the opening of an art gallery. The score, for piano, three clarinets, and a trombone, consists of fragments of well-known tunes and isolated phrases repeated over and over, like the pattern of wallpaper. In the program he stated, "We beg you to take no notice of the music and behave as if it did not exist. This music … claims to make its contribution to life in the same way as a private conversation, a picture, or the chair on which you may or may not be seated."
This violently antiromantic attitude toward music attracted the attention of the group of young French composers who were to become known as "Les Six" and of Jean Cocteau, their poet-artist-publicity agent. Another group acclaimed Satie as the leader of the "School of Arcueil." Serge Diaghilev commissioned Satie to write the music for a surrealist ballet, Parade (1917). Cocteau wrote the libretto, and Pablo Picasso designed the cubist sets and costumes. Satie's Mercure (1924) and Rélâche (1924), again with the collaboration of Picasso, anticipated surrealism with their noticeable lack of connection between the action on the stage and the mood of the music. A surrealist movie, part of the ballet, is accompanied by music that alternates between two neutral, "wallpaper" compositions.
Socrate (1919), for four solo sopranos and chamber orchestra, is a serious work. The words are fragments from three Platonic dialogues, one having to do with the death of Socrates. Socrate is distinguished by its atmosphere of calm and gentle repose. It is completely nondramatic, for one of the sopranos sings Socrates's words. The music consists of simple melodic lines and repetitive accompaniment figures. It is this simplicity, this avoidance of the big gesture that made Satie's music important and prophetic of an important branch of 20th-century musical developments.
Two studies of Satie's life and music are Pierre-Daniel Templier, Eric Satie (1932; trans. 1969), which contains many photographs of Satie's friends and family, and Rollo H. Myers, Eric Satie (1948). Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years (1958), contains an interesting chapter on Satie in the context of Paris in the early years of the century.
Gillmor, Alan M., Erik Satie, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Harding, James, Erik Satie, New York: Praeger, 1975.
Satie remembered, Portland, Or.: Amadeus Press, 1995.
Templier, Pierre-Daniel, Erik Satie, New York: Da Capo Press, 1980, 1969. □