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Erik Satie and the Art of Simplicity

Erik Satie (1866-1925) was a French composer. Born in Honfleur on May 17, 1866, he spent most of his life in Paris. He financed his Bohemian lifestyle mainly by playing the piano at the Montmartre Cabaret bars “Le Chat Noir,” and “Le Lapin Agile.”

Erik Satie Potrait

Erik Satie, 1917. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Satie played a significant role in re-shaping a French musical identity in the early 20th century, and he did so by creating a music of simplicity, clarity, and popularity. It was a complex period when his country yearned for more independence. France had just lost the region of Alsace and Lorraine in the French-Prussian war (1870-1871); and it would take until the end of World War I (1918) for France to regain it. The longing for independence was also reflected in music representations, since the rich German musical traditions, deeply anchored in music by Bach and culminating in late romantic masterworks by Wagner, were also dominating French musical teachings and concert halls.

“Experience is a form of paralysis,” Satie said. He seemed to have followed his own motto when he published his music many years before he completed a formal music education at the Schola Cantorum. From the beginning, Satie offered a refreshingly different and compelling music. It featured an unheard kind of minimalism (decades before the genre ‘minimalism’ was coined), was surprising and easily likeable, and had unusual titles. Satie’s music appealed to a broad audience that reached far beyond the intellectual and artistic Parisian circles.

In 1888, Satie published his first Gymnopédie in a popular magazine entitled La Musique des familles (Family Music). Listen to the first few measures:

 

The title Gymnopédie is based on the Greek word gymnopaedia, which originally represented an annual festival celebrated in ancient Sparta to solidify Spartan identity, where generations of naked Spartan men participated in war dancing and chorus singing.

Photograph of Paris Metro Station Sign, Art Nouveau. Vignette style photo taken by Juliette Appold, October 2018.

Paris Metro Station Sign, Art Noveau. Photo taken by Juliette Appold, August 2019.

Satie continued composing works with highly unusual titles including “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear,” “March of the Great Staircase,” or “Genuine Flabby Preludes for a Dog.” Being part of the vibrant artistic circles with Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Matisse, Cocteau, and others, he had a big influence on many of them. He collaborated on productions with Picasso, Diaghilev and Cocteau in the choreographed ballet Parade, where his musical score includes a typewriter, gunshots and whistles.

When Satie wrote the Gnossiennes in 1889, nobody knew what that meant—for a good reason: that word did not exist; Satie had invented it. Lately there have been thoughts that the word may etymologically be related to Gnosis, a Greek noun for knowledge, but no sources confirm a direct link. Listen to the beginning:

 

Two more aspects about the Gnossiennes are noteworthy: Unlike in many print editions available today, in the original work, Satie omitted bar lines. Secondly, he added new extra-musical performance annotations on top of the notes, including “sur la langue” (on the tip of the tongue), “sans orgueil” (without pride) and “de clairvoyance” (of perceptiveness).

Just as his Gymnopédies did, the music of his Gnossiennes struck a chord with a broad audience and greatly inspired the French composers of the 20th century. Maurice Ravel pointed to this on several occasions, and wrote that Satie “has exercised an influence on several generations of French composers: on Debussy, on myself [Ravel], on the so-called group Les Six, and on many younger ones…”

Poster of Le Chat Noir. Paintint with black cat with yellow eyes. Color Lithographie from 1896.

Poster of “Tournee du Chat Noir,” Color Lithography, 1896.

To this day, Satie remains a fascinating and an influential composer with unique and at the same time very adaptable music. His music appeals especially during very complex times where the values turn towards: less is more.

Here is what Jean Cocteau wrote: “Satie teaches what, in our age, is the greatest audacity, simplicity” and that “simplicity must not be taken to be the synonym of ‘poverty,’ or to mean a retrogression.” Simplicity “detaches and condenses the richness acquired.” He further noted that, “each of his works, intimately connected with its predecessor, is, nevertheless, distinct and lives a life of its own. They are like a new kind of pudding, –a surprise,–and a deception for those who expect one always to keep on treading the same piece of ground.”

Satie died in Paris on July 1, 1925 of liver cirrhosis.

Would you like to play Satie’s Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes? You can learn them by ear, braille or large print score. Download some materials from BARD or ask for hard copy scores and audio-cartridges from the NLS Music Section. Contact us to find out about more music materials you may like to borrow by calling 800-424-8567, extension 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. Below is a selection of works by Erik Satie.

Talking Books

Gymnopédie No. 1. Piano by ear taught by Bill Brown. (DBM02994)

Gymnopédie No. 2. Piano by ear, taught by Bill Brown. (DBM02998)

Gymnopédie No. 3. Piano by ear, taught by Bill Brown. (DBM02999)

Braille

3 Gymnopédies. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM22921)

3 Gnossiennes. Gnossiennes 1-3 for piano in bar over bar format. (BRM28749)

6 Gnossiennes. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM24007)

Jack in the Box. For flute. In Play-Along Flute: Selected Easy Pieces from Bach to Satie, selected by Barbara Hisler-Haase. (BRM36455)

Piano Music of Erik Satie. Bar over bar format. (BRM25264)

Large Print

3 Gymnopédies. For piano. (LPM00787)

3 Gnossiennes. Numbers 1-3. (LPM00870)

3 Sarabandes. (LPM00801)

Talking Books about Erik Satie

Fascination with What is Difficult. By Gilbert Highet. Cartridge only. (DBM01509)

The Narrated Life History of Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and Erik Satie. By Marcia Dangerfield. (DBM03408)

The Vexations. By Caitlin Horrocks. (DB 96230)

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