Érik Satie

1866 1925

Érik Satie



Erik Satie was an innovative, idealistic composer of the late 19th and early 20 th centuries. His musical compositions are widely celebrated for their beauty and simplicity. They are full of musical ideas that seem ordinary nowadays but at the time they were an avant-garde milestone: Satie's position in musical history is remarkable in that he anticipated much later artistic movements, such as modernism, serialism and minimalism. Besides his vast corpus of musical compositions, he was also a published writer.

Erik Satie was born in 1866 in Honfleur and the family moved to Paris when Satie was a young child. Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire and was said to be the laziest student there. He was known have a bit of a flair as a pianist, yet he was completely unmotivated. His closest friend, the poet Latour claimed that Satie persevered through his years at the conservatoire only in order to serve less time in the military.

Satie escaped his restrictive home life aged 21 and became acquainted with the reckless bohemian Paris life, moving into a room in rue Condorcet. His place of residence was close to the famousChat Noir (Black Cat) cabaret, where he became a regular, introducing himself as “Erik Satie – gymnopédiste”. By 1890, the year in which he moved to Montmartre, he was the conductor of the Chat Noir orchestra that accompanied Henri Riviere’s shadow theatre spectacles, until disagreements with Rodolphe Salis, owner of the Chat Noir, caused him to leave his position a year later.

In the 1890s, Paris encountered a renewed intellectual interest in the Roman Catholic Church. Satie developed interests in mystical, esoteric religion and became associated with Joséphin Péladan, official composer of theMystic Order of the Rose+Cross. While some intellectuals became averse to religion, others became strongly involved in religious sects. Péladan organised six avant-garde ' Salons Rose+Croix' that included many of the prominent symbolist painters, writers and composers of the period. Satie’s aim at this time was to compose using his limited technical means as a pianist, so that he could make his name widely known as the performer of his own works.

After two years, Satie broke away from the Rosicrucian sect of Péladan and started his own sect, of which he was the only member, calledL’Eglise Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur. It was around this time that Satie published attacks on his artistic enemies, showing signs of paranoia. During this period, Satie had a love affair with his neighbour, the artist Suzanne Valadon, which was the only documented love affair in Satie’s life. Also marking the end of hisRose+Cross years was his new appearance as the ‘Velvet Gentleman’, after he bought seven identical velvet suits, one for each day of the week.

In 1898, Satie moved to the more affordable neighbourhood of Arcueil in the southern suburbs of Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. In this new apartment, he hoarded many objects and lived in squalor, unbeknownst to anybody, since he never invited any guests to visit him there. In contrast to his dwellings, he adopted a new respectable bourgeois appearance, meticulously groomed each day, wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella and walked 10 kilometers each day to the centre of Paris and home again. He disliked sunny days and shielded himself with his umbrella, as well as making sure to always have a hammer on his person as a self-defense precaution. He was also known to eat exclusively white food. The most significant piece from these years was his Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear), which he completed in 1903. They consisted of a mixture of songs written in 1890-91 along with arrangement of cabaret songs from the early 1900s.

The sense of the bizarre does not end there: Erik Satie ended up in jail for eight days for defamation and yelling the word‘cul’ in public. Altercations came about because his ballet,Parade, a collaboration he made with Cocteau and Picasso which premiered in May 1917, was not to the music critics’ taste, particularly that of Jean Poueigh whose unfavourable review led Satie to extremes. In response, Satie wrote several postcards to Poueigh, one that read “Monsieur et cher ami – vous etes un cul, un cul sans musique! Signe Erik Satie” (Sir and dear friend – you are an arse, an arse without music! Signed Erik Satie) The music critic sued Erik Satie and at his trial he was arrested and beaten by police for yelling ‘arse’ repeatedly.

The simplicity in Satie’s style can be seen clearly in the lack of motivic development, minimal harmonic progression towards any climax, golden section proportioning and experimentation within a limited textural range. The pragmatism that accompanied this style was the fact that Satie was a composer/performer and therefore wrote within the scope of his own pianistic abilities.

Gymnopédies remains Satie’s most prized work. It consists of a set of three gently lilting piano pieces, which unpredictably wander through their modality. They also exist in orchestrated form -  the most well-known orchestrated versions are byDebussy and Dirk Brossé. The Gnossienne consists of more melodic decorations and more static basslines. Satie always searched for a perfect compositional system. In hisRose+Croix years (1891-95) he was endlessly experimenting, which resulted in theFanfares of the Rose+Cross and his even more well-knownOgives, which are slow and modal. Again, they are simple, however the thinking behind them is way ahead of its time.

His piece Uspud is one of the earliest works involving absurd theatre, and its text was the first ever text to be published in fully lowercase.

During his own lifetime, Satie influenced Debussy, Ravel and the composers ofLes Six and after his death he continued to have a hugely important influence, particularly in the 1960s by the likes ofJohn Cage, who held concerts of his works, declaring his influence fundamental to the development of contemporary music.