Uncertain times 1871-78: Eric (later Erik) is five when the Franco-Prussian War breaks out and his family moves to Paris in its wake. A year later, his mother dies and he and his brother are sent back to Honfleur to be raised by their paternal grandparents. Erik begins music lessons with a local organist. But in 1878 his grandmother mysteriously drowns and he is sent back to Paris.
The Conservatory Penitentiary, 1878-87: His stepmother sends him to the Paris Conservatory as a prep student. Satie hates his time there, becomes known as the laziest student in the school and only continues in order to avoid military service. In 1886, he is drafted into the infantry but deliberately contracts bronchitis in order to get a medical discharge in April, 1887.
Independence, 1887- 1893: Satie moves to Montmartre (in Paris) at the end of the year. He takes rooms next to the famous Chat Noir (Black Cat) cabaret and soon is engaged there as a pianist, fitting in well with the long-haired crowd. He composes his three Gymnopédies in 1888. In 1891 he becomes the chapel-master of a newly founded Christian Rosicrucian Order led by a flamboyant self-promoter, Joséphin Péladan. Given a platform at a fashionable salon, Satie presents his so-called “Rose et Croix” pieces.
The Velvet Gentleman, 1893-98: After breaking with Péladan, Satie becomes a pamphleteer, writing as much prose as music. He has a disastrous and brief love affair with his painter neighbor, and composes the pieces later published as the Messe des pauvres (Mass for the poor). With a small inheritance, he buys seven identical suits and dubs himself “The Velvet Gentleman.” He is soon broke again, and moves to the suburb of Arcueil to save money.
The Search for Meaning, 1898-1905: While searching for a new artistic direction, Satie supports himself as a cabaret pianist, arranging and also writing hundreds of popular songs and pieces. He works seriously on several theater pieces, few of which see the light of day. Satie is so struck by Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande (1902) that he begins to redo his own style.
Back to School, 1905-1910: Surprisingly, Satie enrolls in Vincent d'Indy's Schola Cantorum de Paris and studies classical counterpoint there for three full years, graduating with a diploma. In the meantime, he joins a socialist party and changes his outward persona again, creating the “bourgeois functionary.”
Sudden Success, 1911-17: Maurice Ravel presents several of Satie's works in concert and unexpectedly sets off major interest in the composer. Debussy's orchestrations of the Gymnopédies are another major hit. Satie gives up his despised cabaret work and publishes new piano pieces such as the collection Sports et divertissements (1914). Satie cultivates the support of young artists, such as Jean Cocteau, who secures Satie a commission from Serge Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes. The resulting work, Parade (1917), with a scenario by Cocteau and scenery by Pablo Picasso, is a scandalous success.
Celebrity Influence, 1917-1925: Satie becomes a celebrity among younger artists, sort of the mascot and inspiration for avant-garde explorers. He continues to compose, most famously the monodrama Socrate (1918) and the ballet Relâche (No performance today). He dies of cirrhosis of the liver, after years of heavy drinking.