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Erik Satie - Gymnopedies, Gnossiennes, etc

Erik Satie

Piano Music

Aldo Ciccolini

Polygram 463190

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Erik Satie
Erik Satie
In the world of classical music, the music of Erik Satie is an oddity. Think of music in the late 1800's and you think of large-scale orchestral works of Brahms, Wagner, Dvorak. Big names, big music, big sounds.

Satie made his name writing odd little works with odd little names, each just a few minutes long and with a spartan use of notes. Music unlike anything written before.

And yet, this odd little man with his odd little pieces has gone on to influence classical music in ways even he would never had imagined.

Erik Satie was born in 1866 in Honfleur, France. An eccentric uncle, Adrian Satie, known by the family as Uncle Seabird, was his first musical influence, and probably his major life influence.

He later studied with the local church organist, Vinot, who introduced Satie to Gregorian chant, the repetitive, hypnotic melodic lines becoming a ever-present feature of satie's works.

He enrolled in the Paris Conservatory where he distiguished himself by being expelled. He joined the military, found it disagreed with his personality and feined illness to get discharged.

He re-enrolled in musical study at the Schola Cantorum, run by Vincent d'Indy in 1905, aged 40 and from then on his music took a more rigorous path.

Erik Satie
Erik Satie by Man Ray
Satie's music and life is famous for his unusual sense of humour. Who else would call a peice of music Dessicated Embryos, Three Flabby Preludes for a Dog or Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear. And who else would instruct his performers “To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities” as Satie does for his Vexations

And yes this has been performed the required number of times in 1963 by an entire team of pianists working in shifts!

Satie's music is characterised by a spartan economy. No more is put into the music than is absolutely necessary, and out of this threadbare, tenuous creation emerges something quite unique and often beautiful.

Three Sarabandes

The Sarabands of 1887 are his first famous works. They introduced Satie to the musical world, and introduced his style. His unusual scales, his use of dissonances that are not resolved but left hanging for the listener to make sense of, and his dry, laconic wit.

Three Gymnopedies

Soon after the Sarabandes, Satie wrote the works for which he is most famous, the Gymnopedies. The very name is a mystery. Satie used to introduce himself as a Gymnopediste, which aroused, no doubt, confusion and an air of mystery in his company.

One meaning of the term is from ancient Greece, the Gymnopedies being a festival of dance of naked warriers, but there is little in the music to suggest that source of inspiration.

The music itself is instantly recognisable, having been used and abused by television and movies since the 1960's when Satie's music was revived.

Its familiarity is its downfall - we have heard it so many times in corrupted versions that to hear the original for single piano is a revelation. Each of the three peices explores the same idea from different perspectives: a monotonous, low bass line accompaniment, and against it softly dissonant chords in the middle register, constantly repeating the same iambic rhythm-pattern. Together this creates an atmosphere of vague melancholy, of mysticism and exoticism.

Three Gnossiennes

The 1889 World fair in Paris influenced Satie greatly. He was especially moved by the slow, plaintive singing of the Romanian folk choir and later wrote three mystical works of wandering chords and bittersweet harmonies.

They are annotated with Satie's trademark comments. In the first work he instructs the player to perform “monotonously and whitely” and “very shiningly”. The pianist is also told to “ask insistently within yourself”, “arm yourself with clairvoyance” and to “dig into the sound” while playing “with great kindness”.

The second set of three Gnossiennes also famous are not quite as deep or original, and in fact remind one of the Gymnopedies. The name again is a mystery. Perhaps they refer to the ancient palace of Knossos, a similar classical inspiration to the Sarabandes and Gymnopedies. Others think the origin is from the Greek word gnosis meaning right knowledge as in gnosticism.

Satie's Influence

While Satie wrote music independent from the prevailing standards, his music had a far-reaching effect. He directly influeced Debussy's Impressionism, as well as Ravel, Stravinsky and Poulenc, all of who admired and openly admitted their debt to Satie.

Satie's style of short phrases repeated over and over, with subtle variations in colour and harmony is of course very similar to the minimalists of today - Philip Glass, Gorecki and the like. It is not too much to say that minimalism was formalised by Satie and simply resurected by the 1960's minimalists.

Aldo Ciccolini

This 2 CD set of the (almost) complete piano works of Satie is regarded as definitive. It has been compiled from Ciccolini's late 1960's and early 1970's recordings. He plays them simply, drily, the music is almost stated rather played, just as Satie would have liked. Although there are some who still say that they are played too romantically.

The recording quaility varies from superb to acceptable, given 1960's recording technology. There is some extraneous noise on some of the performances, but overall they are crisp and clear.

While the entire set may be a bit much at one sitting, this is music unlike any other before or since. Yet despite its unique style, it is beautiful, pensive, a little sad, a little cheeky. It is certainly an experience.

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Track Listing

Erik Satie
Piano Works
Aldo Ciccolini

    Gymnopédies (3), for piano, complete (also orchestrated by Debussy)
  1. Lent Et Douloureux
  2. Lent Et Triste
  3. Lent Et Grave

    Les valses (3) distinguées du précieux dégoûté (3 distinguished waltzes of a disgusted dandy)
  4. Sa Taille
  5. Son Binocle
  6. Ses Jambes

    Gnossiennes (6)
  7. I. Lent
  8. II. Avec Étonnement
  9. III. Lent
  10. IV. Lent
  11. V. Modéré
  12. VI. Avec Conviction Et Avec Une Tristeese Rigoureus

    Morceaux (3) en forme de poire (3 pieces in the form of a pear), for piano duet or orchestra
  13. Maniere de commencement
  14. Prolongation du meme
  15. I
  16. II
  17. III
  18. En plus
  19. Redite

    Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois (3 sketches and exasperations of a big wooden fellow)
  20. Tyrolienne
  21. Danse maigre (A La Maniere De Ces Messieurs)
  22. Espanana (Sorte de valse)
  23. Sonatine bureaucratique

  24. Doux Et Calme
  25. Simplement
  26. Un Peu Mouvementé

    Première pensée Rose + Croix
  27. Air De L;Orde
  28. Air Du Grand Maitre
  29. Air Du Grand Prieur

    Le fils des étoiles, Chaldean pastoral, preludes and incidental music
  30. Prelude Du 1 Acte: La Vocation
  31. Prelude Du 2 Acte: I'Initiation
  32. Prelude Du 3ème Acte: I'Incantation

    Jack-in-the-Box, pantomime ballet for piano (orchestrated by Milhaud)
  33. Prelude
  34. Entracte
  35. Final

    Sports et divertissements (Sports and diversions), 21 pieces for piano
  36. Choral Inappetissant
  37. La Balancoire
  38. La Chasse
  39. La Comedie Italienne (A La Napolitaine)
  40. Le Reveil De La Mariee
  41. Colin-maillard
  42. La Peche
  43. Le Yachting
  44. Le bain de mer
  45. Le Carnaval
  46. Le Golf
  47. La Pieuvre
  48. Les Courses
  49. Les Quatre-Coins
  50. Le Pique-Nique
  51. Le Water-Chute
  52. Le Tango
  53. Le Traineau
  54. Le Flirt
  55. Le Feu D'Artifice
  56. Le Tennis

    Embryons desséchés (3 dried-up embryos)
  57. D'Holothurie
  58. D'Edriophtalma
  59. De Podophtalma

    Préludes flasques; pour un chien (Flabby preludes; for a dog)
  60. Voix D'Interieur
  61. Idylle Cynique
  62. Chanson Canine
  63. Avec Camaraderie

    En habit de cheval (In riding habit), 4 pieces for piano duet
  64. Choral
  65. Fugue Litanique
  66. Autre Chose
  67. Fugue De Papier

    Aperçus désagréables (Unpleasant glimpses), 3 pieces for piano duet
  68. Pastorale
  69. Choral
  70. Fugue

    Descriptions automatiques
  71. Sur Un Vaisseau
  72. Sur Une Lanterne
  73. Sur Un Casque

    Petites pièces (3) montées (3 Little Stuffed Pieces)
  74. De L'Enfance De Pantagruel (Reverie)
  75. Marche De Cocagne (Demarche)
  76. Jeux De Gargantua (Coin De Polka)

    Peccadilles importunes (Tiresome Peccadilloes)
  77. Etre Jaloux De Son Camarade Qui A Une Grosse Tete
  78. Lui Manger Sa Tartine
  79. Profiter De Ce Qu'il A Des Cors Aux Pieds Pour Lui Voler Son Cerceau

    Pièces froides (Cold Pieces) - No 1 Airs A Faire Fuir
  80. D'une Maniere Particuliere
  81. S'Inviter

    Pièces froides (Cold Pieces) - No 2 Danses De Travers
  82. En Y Regardant Par Deux Fois
  83. Passer
  84. Encore

    La belle excentrique, "serious fantasy" for orchestra (or piano, 4 hands)
  85. Grande Ritournelle
  86. Marche Franco-Lunaire
  87. Valse Du "Mystérieux Baiser Dans L'oeil"
  88. Can-can Grand-mondain

    Sarabandes (3)
  89. No.1
  90. No.2
  91. No.3

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