Erik Satie

Composer Erik Satie

A stinging gadfly in the dead white male club, Satie rejected most ideas of “great” music he inherited, and struck out on his own to discover a modern, un-Romantic style.

Vital Statistics
May 17, 1866, Honfleur
July 1, 1925, Paris
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
George Braque and Pablo Picasso invent Cubism in painting, Marcel Duchamps and other artists challenge traditional art with Dada, which also splinters into surrealism. Henri Matisse and the Fauvist (wild beast) painters revolutionize use of color and form within traditional subject matter.
Biographical Outline

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.

Fun Facts
  • In the habit: Satie was a man of habits: every day he walked the 10 miles from his house to work, stopping at cafès along the way. He always carried an umbrella, and he stowed a hammer beneath his coat to defend himself if necessary.
  • Recluse: In the 27 years he lived in the apartment in Arcueil, Satie never let anyone in, that we know of. After his death, his brother Conrad and helpers including Darius Milhaud, took several cartloads of accumulated trash and paper to the dump before they were able to find his papers and manuscripts. The manuscripts themselves were found all over the place – behind the piano, in the pockets of his suits and other weird places. They included some of the earlier theater pieces –Genevieve de Brabant and The Dreamy Fish – and piano pieces that were never intended for publication, including Vexations.
  • Avant-garde champion: Satie's circle of younger composers included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, and Germaine Tailleferre, later joined by Darius Milhaud and Francois Poulenc, who were eventually dubbed “Les Six” and became leaders of the next generataion of musicians. Satie also was part of Tristan Tzara's circle, the founder of Dada art; and he became acquainted with many other Dada artists.
  • Re-purposed: On the day he met the Dada-ist artist Man Ray's they collaborated on his first “ready-made” sculpture, The Gift. The piece is an iron with 14 nails in the sole plate.
  • The writer: Satie was a prolific prose-writer, especially after finding success in music. His writing from 1911 on is more polished and ironic than his earlier work and includes Memoires d'un amnesiac (Memoirs of an amnesiac), and Cahiers d'un mammifère (A mammal's notebook).
  • In his own words:
    • “I only eat white foods: eggs, sugar, ground bone, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken boiled in white water; fruit mold, rice, turnips, bleached pudding, dough, cheese (white), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without skin).
    • “I breathe carefully ( a little at a time). I dance very rarely. When walking I hold my sides and look straight behind me. …
    • “My doctor has always told me to smoke. To this advice he adds, “Smoke, my friend. If you don't someone else will smoke in your place.” – From Memoirs of an Amnesiac. Translation: Richard Taruskin, in Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (Schirmer, 1984).
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Explore the Music

Satie valued simplicity in art, and all his music, whether funny or not, features clear, unadorned melodies, often with unusual harmonies. He avoided “development” in the sense that Romantic musicians used the term. Despite his dislike for his cabaret pianist career, Satie echoed jazz and popular music in many of his compositions, quoting Irving Berlin's That Mysterious Rag in his ballet Parade, for example.

  • What's a Gymnopédie?: In ancient Greece, the Gymnopaedia was a yearly festival in Sparta featuring naked men doing war dances. Satie probably found the term in a poem by his friend J.P. Contamine de Latour. His music, obviously, has nothing to do with the Spartan festival.
  • Irreverence: Satie liked to poke fun at musical Romanticism (especially German composers). He rejected its “puffed up” rhetoric – the extreme length of pieces, the striving for profundity, the enormous, amped up orchestras, the extravagant, grand flourishes. In Dessicated Embryos, a set of short, modest piano pieces from 1913, Satie writes a coda (finish) parodying a Beethoven symphonic coda: a half page of loud (fortissimo) chords and arpeggios. Over the coda, he writes: “Obligatory cadenza (by the composer).”
  • Off-the-wall humor: Satie was one of the best at coming up with funny titles for pieces: Dessicated Embryos; Teasing sketches of a fat man made of wood; Limp preludes (for a dog); Being jealous of his comrade, who has a big head (from the set Tiresome Peccadillos), and many more.
  • Familiar Sounds: Among the instruments in the Parade orchestra are a siren, a typewriter, a pistol (firing blanks), and a rotating lottery wheel.
  • A Vexing Problem: Among Satie's not-for publication works is a piano theme in a (deliberately?) confusing notation, titled Vexations. It appears to be from 1893, during the time when Satie was involved in mysticism and cultish religious beliefs. At the head of the piece, Satie wrote: "In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” We don't know what he meant by that, but in the 1950s another avant-garde circle decided that it must be a direction to perform the theme 840 times. In 1963, John Cage and a group of pianists around him actually performed the piece that way. It took 18 hours.
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