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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Satie at the Piano

Some time ago in this blog I shared an article on the life and work of the German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel. Pachelbel was one of the most interesting and gifted composers of the late 17th century, and his surviving music comprises a large, dazzling legacy. But to most people who know his name, he is known for one piece, the Canon for three violins over a ground bass.

This piece, usually played far slower than the composer probably intended, has become a staple element in compilations of music for relaxation, for meditation, for chilling out. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this, there's another piece, written by a much more recent composer, which is almost guaranteed to be included in similar sorts of collections. And who wouldn't like to chill out to this piece of misty French music, full of wistful nostalgia and the atmosphere of a smoky cabaret in the small hours just before closing?

The first of the three Gymnopédies for piano by Erik Satie has become one of the most famous pieces of its kind. Its simplicity - a gentle melody in the right hand and a simple bass-and-chords accompaniment in the left - makes it immediately appealing and immediately accessible. Yet like Pachelbel's Canon, the popularity of this miniature has served to largely obscure the huge body of Satie's other work. This post is not an overview of Satie's life and the music he produced. Rather I want to focus on his substantial amount of piano music and try to put this famous little gem into some sort of context.

Rusiñol: Erik Satie playing the harmonium (1891)

Erik Satie was born in 1866 and died in 1925. His life thus spanned the most tumultuous upheavals in western music. He was born in the year Smetana's The Bartered Bride was premiered. In the same year Paris saw the first performances of Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne and Thomas's Mignon. Verdi, Wagner and Brahms all were in mid-career.

By the time Satie died, in 1925, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was twelve years old and Schoenberg had long abandoned tonality and was formalising serial composition. It was the year of Bartók's Dance Suite and Shostakovich's first symphony. In addition to all this, his life included the first world war, which changed the world - and especially Europe - forever.

Therefore, Satie's music needs to be seen in the light of its times, and indeed, many of Satie's preoccupations reflect those of the era in which he lived. He went through period of Bohemianism, he studied early music (and especially Gregorian chant), he was anarchic, individual, eccentric. He was part of the Dada movement, and yet in some ways was deeply conservative. All of these ideas can to some extent be seen in his piano music.

Casas: El Bohemio, Poet of Montmartre, is a portrait of Erik Satie near the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre (1891)

Satie's studies at the Paris Conservatoire began in 1879. All up he spent seven years - on and off - at the institution, which he described as "a sort of local penitentiary". His teachers described him variously as worthless, insignificant and - above all - lazy. The label of laziness was perhaps not inaccurate, as it was evident that he had real talent as a pianist, just no motivation for developing it.

In addition to studying piano at the Conservatoire, Satie also made during that time his first forays into composition. Indeed one of his professors told him bluntly that he had more talent for composing than for playing the piano. This little Allegro is Satie's earliest surviving piano work, dating from 1884 during his student years. Another student work is the Fantasy Waltz, composed the following year. [listen]

Oddly enough, these two works from the start of Satie's career give an indication of some of his later directions. Their brevity is typical of the man, whose music for piano is nearly always very brief and matter-of-fact. And even in these pieces, which might be called "salon music", there is a whiff of satire, of not taking things terribly seriously. But there's also another side to Satie's muse at this early stage, that of looking back to music of the past as inspiration for new works. In 1887 he wrote the Three Sarabandes. These pieces are more substantial - lasting 5 or 6 minutes each - and take the Baroque dance of the sarabande, much loved of Bach and his contemporaries, as their model.

This is the second sarabande of the set, dedicated to Maurice Ravel. [listen]

The year in which Satie wrote the Three Sarabandes, 1887, was the year in which he ended his studies and moved to Montmartre to start his independent life as a musician. The three famous Gymnopédies were written the following year and they inhabit a similar world to that of the sarabandes: static, wistful, gentle. But even before writing them, Satie had decided to call himself a "gymnopédiste" and embraced the bohemian lifestyle of the Parisian artist class with gusto.

Renoir: A Garden in Montmartre (1880s)

One of his first jobs was as a pianist at the famous cabaret at the Black Cat Cafe (Le Chat Noir). He affected a new "look", the first of three distinct "looks" he adopted throughout his life. This persona was that of a long-haired man-about-town in a frock coat and top hat. It was around this time, too (that is, around 1890) that his friendship with Claude Debussy developed. Debussy described Satie as "a gentle medieval musician lost in this century", and while their friendship had its ups and downs, they remained in contact, and largely supportive of each other's work for something like 25 years.

Black Cat Cafe (c. 1920)

Satie's piano music of the early 1890s, a period in which he seemed to go out of his way to offend the French musical establishment, includes the first three of the eventual set of six Gnossiennes. The meaning of the title, a word invented by him, is disputed by commentators. Some think it is linked to the Greek word "gnosis" (knowledge) and therefore connected with Satie's interest in religious sects and mysticism. Others believe it is derived from the Cretan word "knossos", establishing a connection between Satie's pieces and the excavations of famous archaeological sites which were then in the news.

Whatever the meaning of the word, the music develops the style Satie had established in the Gymnopédies and Sarabandes. This is the first piece in the set, one of Satie's most famous pieces. [listen]

In the early 1890s Satie effected a change in his artistic direction. The Bohemianism of the Montmartre period gave way to what is called the Rose+Croix period (Rose and Cross, or Rosicrucian), and he moved house further up the Montmartre. In this period was marked by interest in bizarre secret societies loosely based on the Knights of the Holy Grail. He even founded his own society - of which he was the only member - and embarked on his only known sexual liaison, a short affair with the painter Suzanne Valadon. This coincided with the adoption of a new look, one he called "The Velvet Gentleman", and for this he bought seven identical suits. By 1896, though, the Rose+Croix period was over and he was again seeking a new artistic direction.

Suzanne Valadon: Self-portrait (1898)

The first set of Cold Pieces dates from 1897 and is dedicated to the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, a pianist closely associated with Ravel. There are three pieces in the set; this is the third. [listen]

At the end of the following year, 1898, Satie moved somewhere even cheaper and less-distracting. He wanted to focus on his work and took on another look to make this official. He moved to the southern Paris suburb of Arcueil and closed his door to the world. He remained aloof and eccentric, and dressed as a respectable office worker (Grove uses the term "bourgeois functionary"), with bowler hat, wing collar and umbrella. He walked the ten kilometres into Paris every day, and returned home in the early hours of the morning by either the last train or on foot. He preferred to walk in the rain, and when it was wet he protected his umbrella by hiding it under his coat. His lodgings were discovered, after his death, to be filthy. What no-one ever understood was how he could emerge every day clean and neat, ready for his walk.

Satie earned a living from this time by accompanying singers in cafes and cabarets; many of his cabaret songs date from this period. He also contributed to theatrical entertainments both as composer and pianist. There are not a lot of piano works from the later 1890s and the first couple of years of the new century; maybe half a dozen short pieces in all. But despite his personal isolation, Satie was acutely aware of musical developments around him. His music for a tale called The Dreamy Fish in 1901 shows that he was aware of what his friend Debussy was writing, and it also shows that he was almost as capable as his more famous colleague of writing so-called "Impressionist" piano music. [listen]

By Satie's own admission, the experience of hearing Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande when it premiered in 1902 was "absolutely astounding". It helped Satie shake himself out of what had been a pretty directionless few years. As if to draw a line under the period, he produced his only significant work for some time in 1903, the Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear. This work for piano four hands is, despite its title, a set of seven pieces. The "three pieces" themselves are embedded in the middle of the set, with two short pieces before and another two after. [listen]

Satie by this stage was nearing forty. He was acutely aware of his lack of formal composing technique but had till now made a virtue of this in his simple, direct manner of writing. But in 1905 he enrolled as a mature student at the Schola Cantorum de Paris. He gained his diploma in counterpoint in 1908 and studied fugue and orchestration between 1905 and 1912. In his music he maintained his sense of parody but managed to add to this a greater finesse in counterpoint.

Erik Satie (1909)

In January 1911 Maurice Ravel performed some of Satie's earliest piano music in a concert at the Independent Music Society. The newer breed of composers - those not aligned with the old musical establishment - suddenly sat up and took notice, seeing Satie as a forerunner of musical Impressionism. Younger composers flocked to him, and a performance of Debussy's orchestration of the first and third of the early Gymnopédies only added to his new-found reputation. [listen]

It is from this time that the bulk of Satie's humorously-titled piano music dates. A number of pieces with the post script "(for a dog)" began to appear in 1912. The Flabby Preludes (for a dog) of 1912 were immediately followed by a sequel, the Real Flabby Preludes (for a dog) the same year. The publication of the second set helped make Satie's name as a witty, iconoclastic composer. The pieces in the second set are very short; all three together last for less than three minutes. The movements are "Severe reprimand", "Alone at home" and "Play time". Despite the humorous titles, the music shows clear evidence of Satie's more highly-developed compositional technique which resulted from his studies at the Schola Cantorum. [listen]

The publisher of this set, Demets, soon requested more pieces from Satie with humorous titles. The success of these sets enabled Satie to give up his cabaret work - which he by that time regarded as degrading - and focus on composition. Articles discussing Satie's music began to appear and the famous pianist Ricardo Viñes added lustre to the composer's reputation by mounting several first performances.

Ricardo Viñes (1919)

In 1913 Satie produced a huge amount of this music. The sets of pieces include Automatic Descriptions, Sketches and Provocations of a Portly Wooden Mannequin, Desiccated Embryos, Chapters turned every which way, Old Sequins and Armour, and five short sets of pieces for children.

Desiccated Embryos is particularly famous. Its three short movements take less than five minutes to play complete, but there's so much in them. For a start the music has no barlines and there is a running commentary in the score so the pianist knows exactly what's being described at any given moment. In fact some pianists recite these comments as they perform the music, so the audience is in on all the subtle gags. The first movement depicts (if that's the right word) the desiccated embryo of the Holothurian, or sea-cucumber. It starts by parodying a then-popular cabaret song, which Satie would no doubt have played often himself. A reference in this song to the "purring" of the sea-cucumber is reflected in the rapid, repeated patterns in Satie's piece. It ends with pompously grandiose tonic chords, played just a few times too often. [listen]

A sea cucumber (Actinopyga echinites), displaying its feeding tentacles and tube feet

The second desiccated embryo is that of the Edriophthalma, which are crustaceans with immobile eyes. The piece seems to reflect the underdog status of these creatures, to which Satie adds a joke. He pokes fun at the famous Funeral March of Chopin by calling it the famous Mazurka of Schubert. The fact that Schubert wrote plenty of dances but no mazurkas just adds to the fun. [listen]

The final movement is about the embryos of a Podophthalma, crustaceans with eyes on stalks, like crabs and lobsters. The piece is written as a hunt, complete with Baroque horn-call figures, and Satie notes that these animals are particularly delicious to eat. The final silliness is at the end, the "obligatory cadenza (by the composer)". This goes even further than the pompous ending of the first movement, with the last page given over to a ridiculously overblown ending. [listen]

During the first world war Satie had another lucky professional break, with his piano music being heard by Jean Cocteau. This led to him being involved in some important theatre projects, leading to Parade in 1917 and Socrates in 1918. This brought Satie into contact with Diaghilev, Massine and Picasso as well as Cocteau, and as a result his production of piano music for a while took a back seat. But a major piano work from the start of the war was Sports and Entertainments, written in 1914. This is an extraordinary set of no less than 21 pieces, the longest of which a minute and a half long (and the shortest is around fifteen seconds), which describes a wide range of sports, games and pastimes. [listen]

Jean Cocteau (1923)

In his final years, which were the years immediately following the first world war, Satie became increasingly involved with left wing politics and journalism. He joined the communist party in 1921 and was strongly identified with the Dada movement. He continued his theatrical work and this meant he didn't compose as much piano music in the early 20s as he had immediately before the war.

The five Nocturnes composed in 1919 were among his last piano works and they show Satie assimilating the worlds of Chopin and Debussy. These gorgeous pieces - the longest is three minutes - show that he was perfectly capable of writing serious music when he wanted to; the image of Satie as sending things up is only part of the picture. The Nocturnes show the man's more serious side; this is the second of the set. [listen]

Erik Satie is a man whose fame in the public eye rests on a single piece - the first of the early Gymnopédies - but as I hope this article has shown, there's a lot more to his piano music. And there's a lot of it; the complete piano music has been recorded by a number of pianists and takes five CDs. I hope you are inspired to explore more of it, the fun stuff and the serious stuff, in your own time.

Erik Satie (1920)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2013.

Wall of Love on Montmartre: "I love you" in 250 languages, by calligraphist Fédéric Baron and artist Claire Kito (2000)

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