Music Review: Gymnopédies by Erik Satie

There are some pieces of classical music that, when you listen to them, feel as if every nerve, muscle, tissue in your body is gently unfurling under soft waves of cool, flowing water. If you ever need one of those slow-yourself-down moments and, say, those cleansing breaths from Yoga class aren’t doing the trick, try Satie’s brilliant Gymnopédies. Even just playing them on the piano is calming.

Satie said that he was inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbô, for these particular musical compositions. And, you get the impression, as you listen, that, like Flaubert’s obsession to find the right word (le mot juste) in his story-writing, Satie, as fellow countryman, must have obsessed over just the right notes and progressions in his composing.

Interestingly, Debussy, another popular French composer and friend of Satie’s, orchestrated the music – #s 1 and 3 – but transposed them. So, what we listen to now as #1 was actually composed as #3.

Satie’s music did not adhere to any aesthetic during his time. He was a minimalist to the extreme, though. And, he greatly influenced Debussy and Ravel, two other great French composers, who we will also get to soon. Some consider Satie’s work to be the precursor to the ambient music movement because of the smooth, haunting and melodic arrangements. Also, he’s often called the “father of cabaret” for his piano-playing at that most famous of Montmartre night-clubs, Le Chat Noir.

Known for his dry wit and humor, in his compositions, he often had little absurd notes for the performers like “Think like a pear.” And, he named his compositions with titles such as ‘Flabby Preludes for a Dog’ and ‘Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear’Read this very interesting portrait of the man’s rather marching-to-his-own-drummer style of living, which I find rather sweet, actually. He was sometimes called “The Velvet Gentleman” due to his fondness for corduroy suits, of which he owned several identical ones.

He had one big collaboration in the early-20th century with Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist playwright, and Pablo Picasso, the Cubist artist. It was a ballet called Parade. Satie’s music, Cocteau’s words and Picasso’s costumes and designs. The story was set in a fairground with a large cast of entertainers and performers – as in a circus. Satie’s music was well before his time – in terms of the different sound effects and percussion that he used – and caused quite a critical uproar. Satie sent rude postcards to one of the critics and was sued successfully for defamation (a sentence that got suspended).

John Cage, another famous composer, arranged for Satie’s Vexations to be played in New York on September 9, 1963, 70 years after Satie had composed it in Paris. Due to Satie’s rather whimsical instructions of “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”, Cage had 12 pianists (plus 2 reserves) to play the piece 840 times over. He was rather an eccentric himself – read how he arranged that first performance.

Satie wrote some 400 letters between 1892 and 1925 to many people, including himself (for future reminders). Many are still in private collections and unpublished. However, this published letter collection is a lovely window into him and his world. They do not include the unsent love letters to the only love of his life, his friend and neighbor, Suzanne Valadon, with whom he had a 6-month affair. She was an artist as well as an artist’s model for many famous artists at the time – e.g. Renoir. Bundles of those love letters were discovered under his bed and secreted around his Paris apartment after he died of cirrhosis of the liver from too much alcohol at age 59 years.

Read another recent tribute to the man here by Alistair McGowan. And, do listen to the this 30-minute radio program, also by McGowan, if you get a chance.

Eccentric, whimsical, humorous, complex, solitary and musically-gifted, Satie never composed a symphony or a concerto. Still, he left a lasting influence in the world of classical music. There will only ever be one Erik Satie. Not so much a case of the mold being broken after him but, I like to think, he made it impossible for any mold to be cast.