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 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.
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.
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.
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
. Others think the origin is from the Greek word gnosis
meaning right knowledge
as in gnosticism
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.
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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Gymnopédies (3), for piano, complete (also orchestrated by Debussy)
- Lent Et Douloureux
- Lent Et Triste
- Lent Et Grave
Les valses (3) distinguées du précieux dégoûté (3 distinguished waltzes of a disgusted dandy)
- Sa Taille
- Son Binocle
- Ses Jambes
- I. Lent
- II. Avec Étonnement
- III. Lent
- IV. Lent
- V. Modéré
- 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
- Maniere de commencement
- Prolongation du meme
- En plus
Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois (3 sketches and exasperations of a big wooden fellow)
- Danse maigre (A La Maniere De Ces Messieurs)
- Espanana (Sorte de valse)
- Sonatine bureaucratique
- Doux Et Calme
- Un Peu Mouvementé
Première pensée Rose + Croix
- Air De L;Orde
- Air Du Grand Maitre
- Air Du Grand Prieur
Le fils des étoiles, Chaldean pastoral, preludes and incidental music
- Prelude Du 1 Acte: La Vocation
- Prelude Du 2 Acte: I'Initiation
- Prelude Du 3ème Acte: I'Incantation
Jack-in-the-Box, pantomime ballet for piano (orchestrated by Milhaud)
Sports et divertissements (Sports and diversions), 21 pieces for piano
- Choral Inappetissant
- La Balancoire
- La Chasse
- La Comedie Italienne (A La Napolitaine)
- Le Reveil De La Mariee
- La Peche
- Le Yachting
- Le bain de mer
- Le Carnaval
- Le Golf
- La Pieuvre
- Les Courses
- Les Quatre-Coins
- Le Pique-Nique
- Le Water-Chute
- Le Tango
- Le Traineau
- Le Flirt
- Le Feu D'Artifice
- Le Tennis
Embryons desséchés (3 dried-up embryos)
- De Podophtalma
Préludes flasques; pour un chien (Flabby preludes; for a dog)
- Voix D'Interieur
- Idylle Cynique
- Chanson Canine
- Avec Camaraderie
En habit de cheval (In riding habit), 4 pieces for piano duet
- Fugue Litanique
- Autre Chose
- Fugue De Papier
Aperçus désagréables (Unpleasant glimpses), 3 pieces for piano duet
- Sur Un Vaisseau
- Sur Une Lanterne
- Sur Un Casque
Petites pièces (3) montées (3 Little Stuffed Pieces)
- De L'Enfance De Pantagruel (Reverie)
- Marche De Cocagne (Demarche)
- Jeux De Gargantua (Coin De Polka)
Peccadilles importunes (Tiresome Peccadilloes)
- Etre Jaloux De Son Camarade Qui A Une Grosse Tete
- Lui Manger Sa Tartine
- 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
- D'une Maniere Particuliere
Pièces froides (Cold Pieces) - No 2 Danses De Travers
- En Y Regardant Par Deux Fois
La belle excentrique, "serious fantasy" for orchestra (or piano, 4 hands)
- Grande Ritournelle
- Marche Franco-Lunaire
- Valse Du "Mystérieux Baiser Dans L'oeil"
- Can-can Grand-mondain