Eric Satie - the Composer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Eric Satie - the Composer

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Eric Satie was born in 1866, in the town of Hornfleur in Northern France. While he was still very young, his mother died, and his father moved to Paris, leaving Eric to be raised by his uncle, Adrien Satie, and grandfather. He must have shown early promise as a musician, because in 1874 he became a pupil of the organist Vinot1, until Vinot left in 1878.

In 1879, Satie went to Paris, and successfully auditioned to study piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Contemporary accounts indicate that his tutors thought little of him. He did not do well in his studies, and left after three years. In 1885 he re-auditioned and was re-admitted, but he left again after a year, never to return.

At this point in his life, he began to compose. His father was running a music publishing company, and was able to sponsor the publication of many of Satie's works. Up to the turn of the century he lived in a variety of small bed-sits in Monmartre, joining enthusiastically in the artistic and social life of the district. By all accounts, he was an eccentric character, always donning overcoat and umbrella to go out ... ‘in case of rain’, frequently forgetting where he put the umbrella, and leaving with someone else's.

In 1887 he began his 'trademark' traits of giving his pieces weird titles, and adding bizarre playing directions to them. These two features, apparently similar, form a skilful anti-establishment counterpoint. The titles are deliberately meaningless, while the playing directions are meaningful, though unusual, and are intended to make the performer stop and think about how the piece should be played.

Here are some examples of Satie's directions on how to play passages from his pieces (translated from the original French):

  • In the morning, on an empty stomach
  • Hypocritically
  • Crabbed and cantankerous
  • Moderate and very restless
  • Pianissimo, short of breath
  • With a lot of difficulty
  • Run!

Here are the titles of some of his works (translated from the original French):

  • Cold Portions
  • The Dreaming Fish
  • Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear - There are six pieces in this collection.
  • Desiccated Embryos
  • Things Viewed from the Right and the Left, Without Spectacles
  • Chimes to Awaken the King of the Apes

He was introduced to the Rosicrucians, a religious sect, possibly by Debussy, and became involved with them. In 1890, he composed music to accompany their rituals, but he soon split from them, becoming the high priest and sole member of the Church of Jesus the Leader before abandoning his links with religion. The next quarter century was his most productive period.

He resolved to complete his formal musical education, and in 1905 enrolled in the Paris Schola Cantorum, studying under d'Indy. He graduated successfully in 1908. For the next four years he composed very little music, but between 1912 and 1915 he was extremely prolific, composing 25 quirky piano works, best described as 'ironic'.

After 1915, he wrote very little music, turning instead to his other talents of writing magazine articles, calligraphy and sketching. He died in 1925.

Styles and Influences

The techniques he learned from his first tutor, Vinot, can be seen throughout his compositions. Satie loved the sound of Gregorian chants, and transferred the serenity and continuity of melody from these chants into his own works. Vinot's other skill was that he composed slow waltzes for a local orchestral society, and the concept of popular light music is embedded in much of Satie's work.

As a result of his brief association with the Rosicrucians, a few religious compositions resulted. This allowed him to return to the use of Gregorian style chants in his other pieces of the time. More importantly, at the Paris World Fair in 1899, he was able to listen to music from many countries. In particular, he was taken by Romanian folk music, with its plaintive, slow arrangements and unconventional key changes. These, with some exotic embellishments, became a feature of his subsequent works.

Contemporary Impressionist composers were certainly an influence, but not in the usual sense. Although Satie was friendly towards Debussy, he was firmly anti-Impressionist in his music. While Debussy selected descriptive titles with care, and painted sound pictures that were intended to convey their meaning, Satie mocked this style with meaningless titles.

Unlike Debussy and Ravel, Satie's work seems unaffected by the start of the Great War, though he composed few works after 1915.

What is a Gymnopedie Anyway?

The delicate lilting piece Gymnopedie number 1 is the best known of all Satie's works. Typically, it has a quirky title, the meaning of which is obscure. Here is an explanation:

When Satie was introduced to the famous 'Chat Noir' cabaret in 1887, he did not want to be classified as a musician, so he declared himself to be a Gymnopediste, though nobody was sure what it meant. It is thought he got the name from a poem by Latour, which mentions 'gymnopedia' - describing them as naked Spartan dancing girls2. He relished the confusion that his title caused, and used it as the title for three piano pieces for this reason.

Satie and the Piano. Composer or Performer?

The majority of Satie's music was written for piano. Even some of his instrumental works were first performed on piano, so the instrument is central to his composing career. Even so, his attitude towards the instrument was ambivalent and even confusing. Some sources maintain that he rarely played the instrument, and for long periods in his life, he did not have one in his home. This has led to an image of Satie as a poor, amateur player, but this image may not be correct.

When young, Satie was a gifted pianist. At age 13, he auditioned for the Conservatory playing an ambitious piece - a movement from a Dussek piano concerto. In later life, he earned a living by playing piano in the Monmartre clubs. This evidence indicates that he was a capable performer, even though he chose not to perform his own works in public.

Some Major Compositions

  • Ogives (1886)
  • Trois Gymnopedies (1887)
  • Trois Sarabandes (1887)
  • Trois Gnossiennes (1889 - 1896)
  • Premiere Pensee de la Rose et Croix (1890)
  • Sonneries de la Rose et Croix (1892)
  • Quatre Preludes (1893)
  • Pieces Froides (1897)
  • Carnet d'Esquisses et de Croquis (1897)
  • Le Poisson Reveur (1901)
  • Trois Morceaux en forme de Poire (1901)
  • Allons-y Chochotte (1906)
  • Nouvelle Pieces Froides (1907)
  • Apercus Disagreables (1908 - 1912)
  • En habit de Cheval (1911)
  • Preludes Flasques (1912)
  • Embryons desseches (1913)
  • Enfantillages pittoresques (1913)
  • Choses Vues a Droite et a Gauche (1914)
  • Cinq Grimaces (1914)
  • Sonneries pour reveiller le Roi des Singes (1914)

1Vinot was resident organist at the church of Saint-Leonard in Hornfleur.2Historically, they are Spartan dancers, but of either gender, and not naked.

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