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Erik Satie

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Erik Satie

Erik Satie
Born Éric Alfred Leslie Satie
(1866-05-17)17 May 1866
Honfleur, France
Died 1 July 1925(1925-07-01) (aged 59)
Paris, France
Occupation Pianist, composer
Partner(s) Suzanne Valadon

Éric Alfred Leslie Satie (French: ; 17 May 1866 – 1 July 1925) — he signed his name Erik Satie after 1884 — was a French composer and pianist. Satie was a colourful figure in the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde. His work was a precursor to later artistic movements such as minimalism, repetitive music, and the Theatre of the Absurd.[1]

An eccentric, Satie was introduced as a "gymnopedist" in 1887, shortly before writing his most famous compositions, the Gymnopédies. Later, he also referred to himself as a "phonometrician" (meaning "someone who measures sounds") preferring this designation to that of a "musician", after having been called "a clumsy but subtle technician" in a book on contemporary French composers published in 1911.[2]

In addition to his body of music, Satie also left a remarkable set of writings, having contributed work for a range of publications, from the dadaist 391 to the American culture chronicle Vanity Fair. Although in later life he prided himself on always publishing his work under his own name, in the late 19th century he appears to have used pseudonyms such as Virginie Lebeau and François de Paule in some of his published writings.

Early life and training

Satie house and museum in Honfleur, Normandy

Satie was the son of Alfred Satie and his wife Jane Leslie (née Anton), who was born in London to Scottish parents. Erik was born at organist. When he was 12 years old in 1878, his grandmother died, and the two brothers were reunited in Paris with their father, who remarried (a piano teacher) shortly afterwards. From the early 1880s onwards, Satie started publishing salon compositions by his step-mother and himself, among others.

In 1879 Satie entered the [3] Émile Descombes called him "the laziest student in the Conservatoire".[4] Years later, Satie related that Mathias, with great insistence, told him that his real talent lay in composing. After being sent home for two and a half years, he was readmitted to the Conservatoire at the end of 1885 (age 19), but was unable to make a much more favourable impression on his teachers than he had before, and, as a result, resolved to take up military service a year later. However, Satie's military career did not last very long; within a few months he was discharged after deliberately infecting himself with bronchitis.[5]



A caricature of Eric Satie by Santiago Rusiñol, 1891

Satie moved from his father's residence to lodgings in Montmartre in 1887. By this time he had started what was to be an enduring friendship with the romantic poet Patrice Contamine, and had his first compositions published by his father. He soon integrated with the artistic clientele of the Le Chat Noir Café-cabaret, and started publishing his Gymnopédies. Publication of compositions in the same vein (Ogives, Gnossiennes, etc.) followed. In the same period he befriended Claude Debussy. He moved to a smaller room, still in Montmartre (rue Cortot Nº 6, now a museum), in 1890. By 1891 he was the official composer and chapel-master of the Rosicrucian Order "Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal", led by Sâr Joséphin Péladan, which led to compositions such as Salut drapeau!, Le fils des étoiles, and the Sonneries de la Rose+Croix. Satie gave performances at the Salon de la Rose + Croix, organized by Péladan.

By mid-1892, Satie had composed the first pieces in a compositional system of his own making (Fête donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l'honneur d'une jeune demoiselle), had provided incidental music to a chivalric esoteric play (two Prélude du Nazaréen), had had his first hoax published (announcing the premiere of Le bâtard de Tristan, an anti-Wagnerian opera he probably never composed), and had broken with Péladan, starting that autumn with the Uspud project, a "Christian Ballet", in collaboration with Contamine de Latour. While the comrades from both the Chat Noir and Miguel Utrillo's Auberge du Clou sympathised, a promotional brochure was produced for the project, which reads as a pamphlet for a new esoteric sect.

In 1893, Satie met the young Camille Saint-Saëns) as much as owed him such membership. Such proceedings without doubt rather helped to wreck his popularity in the cultural establishment. In 1895 he inherited some money, allowing him to have more of his writings printed, and to change from wearing a priest-like habit to being the "Velvet Gentleman".

Move to Arcueil

By mid-1896, all of Satie's financial means had vanished, and he had to move to cheaper and much smaller lodgings, first at the Rue Cortot,[6] and two years later, after he'd composed the two first sets of Pièces froides in 1897, to Arcueil, a suburb some five kilometres from the centre of Paris. During this period he re-established contact with his brother Conrad for numerous practical and financial matters, disclosing some of his inner feelings in the process. The letters to Conrad made it clear that he had set aside any religious ideas.

From 1899 on, Satie started making money as a cabaret pianist, adapting over a hundred compositions of popular music for piano or piano and voice, adding some of his own. The most popular of these were Je te veux, text by Henry Pacory; Tendrement, text by Vincent Hyspa; Poudre d'or, a waltz; La Diva de l'Empire, text by Dominique Bonnaud/Numa Blès; Le Picadilly, a march; Légende californienne, text by Contamine de Latour lost, but the music later reappears in La belle excentrique; and many more, many of which have been lost. In his later years Satie would reject all his cabaret music as vile and against his nature,[7] but for the time being, it was an income.

Only a few compositions that Satie took seriously remain from this period: Jack in the Box, music to a pantomime by Jules Depaquit (called a "clownerie" by Satie); Geneviève de Brabant, a short comic opera on a serious theme, text by Lord Cheminot; The Dreamy Fish, piano music to accompany a lost tale by Lord Cheminot; and a few others that were mostly incomplete, hardly any of them staged, and none of them published at the time.

Both Geneviève de Brabant and The Dreamy Fish have been analysed by Ornella Volta as containing elements of competition with Claude Debussy, of which Debussy was probably not aware, Satie not making this music public. Meanwhile, Debussy was having one of his first major successes with Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, leading a few years later to ‘who-was-precursor-to-whom’ debates between the two composers, in which Maurice Ravel would also get involved.

In October 1905, Satie enrolled in Vincent d'Indy's Schola Cantorum de Paris to study classical counterpoint while still continuing his cabaret work. Most of his friends were as dumbfounded as the professors at the Schola when they heard about his new plan to return to the classrooms, especially as d'Indy was an admiring pupil of Saint-Saëns, not particularly favoured by Satie. Satie would follow these courses at the Schola, as a respected pupil, for more than five years, receiving a first (intermediate) diploma in 1908. Some of his classroom counterpoint-exercises, such as the Désespoir agréable, were published after his death. Another summary, of the period prior to the Schola, also appeared in 1911: the Trois morceaux en forme de poire, which was a kind of compilation of the best of what he had written up to 1903.

Something that becomes clear through these published compilations is that Satie did not so much reject Romanticism and its exponents like Wagner, but that he rejected certain aspects of it. From his first composition to his last, he rejected the idea of musical development, in the strict definition of this term: the intertwining of different themes in a development section of a sonata form. As a result, his contrapuntal and other works were very short; the "new, modern" Fugues do not extend further than the exposition of the theme(s). Generally, he would say that he did not think it permitted that a composer take more time from his public than strictly necessary. Also Melodrama, in its historical meaning of the then popular romantic genre of "spoken words to a background of music", was something Satie avoided. His 1913 Le piège de Méduse could be seen as an absurdist spoof of that genre.

In the meantime, other changes had also taken place: Satie was a member of a radical socialist party (he later switched his membership to the Communist party in that area after December 1920),[8] and had socialised with the Arcueil community: Amongst other things, he'd been involved in the "Patronage laïque" work for children. He also changed his appearance to that of the 'bourgeois functionary' with bowler hat, umbrella, etc. He channelled his medieval interests into a peculiar secret hobby: In a filing cabinet he maintained a collection of imaginary buildings, most of them described as being made out of some kind of metal, which he drew on little cards. Occasionally, extending the game, he would publish anonymous small announcements in local journals, offering some of these buildings, e.g., a "castle in lead", for sale or rent.

Height of success and influence

Sketch for a bust of himself, by Satie, 1913

Starting in 1912, Satie's new humorous miniatures for piano became very successful, and he wrote and published many of these over the next few years (most of them premiered by the pianist Ricardo Viñes). His habit of accompanying the scores of his compositions with all kinds of written remarks was now well established so that a few years later he had to insist that these not be read out during performances. He wrote in the first edition of Heures séculaires et instantanées, "To whom it may concern: 'I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the musical performance. Ignorance of my instructions will incur my righteous indignation against the presumptuous culprit. No exception will be allowed.'"[9] He had mostly stopped using barlines by this time. In some ways these compositions were very reminiscent of Rossini's compositions from the final years of his life, grouped under the name Péchés de vieillesse.

However the acceleration in Satie's life did not come so much from the success of his new piano pieces; it was Ravel who inadvertently triggered the characteristics of Satie's remaining years and thus influenced the successive progressive artistic and cultural movements that rapidly manifested themselves in Paris over the following years. Paris was seen as the artistic capital of the world, and the beginning of the new century appeared to have set many minds on fire. In 1910 the "Jeunes Ravêlites", a group of young musicians around Ravel, proclaimed their preference for Satie's earlier work from before the Schola period, reinforcing the idea that Satie had been a precursor of Debussy.

At first Satie was pleased that at least some of his works were receiving public attention, but when he realised that this meant that his more recent work was overlooked or dismissed, he looked for other young artists who related better to his more recent ideas, so as to have better mutual support in creative activity. Thus young artists such as Jean Cocteau, started to receive more of his attention than the "Jeunes ".

As a result of his contact with Roland-Manuel, Satie again began publicising his thoughts, with far more irony than he had done before (amongst other things, the Mémoires d'un amnésique and Cahiers d'un mammifère).[10]

With Jean Cocteau, whom he had first met in 1915, Satie started work on incidental music for a production of Georges Braque, with whom he would work on other, aborted, projects.

With Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, and Germaine Tailleferre Satie formed the Nouveaux jeunes, shortly after writing Parade. Later the group was joined by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. In September 1918, Satie – giving little or no explanation – withdrew from the Nouveaux jeunes. Jean Cocteau gathered the six remaining members, forming the Groupe des six (to which Satie would later have access, but later again would fall out with most of its members).

From 1919, Satie was in contact with Tristan Tzara, the initiator of the Dada movement. He became acquainted with other artists involved in the movement, such as Francis Picabia (later to become a Surrealist), André Derain, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Hugo and Man Ray, among others. On the day of his first meeting with Man Ray, the two fabricated the artist's first readymade: The Gift (1921). Satie contributed writing to the Dadaist publication 391. In the first months of 1922, he was surprised to find himself entangled in the argument between Tzara and André Breton about the true nature of avant-garde art, epitomised by the failure of the Congrès de Paris. Satie originally sides with Tzara, but manages to maintain friendly relations with most players in both camps. Meanwhile, an "Ecole d'Arcueil" had formed around Satie, taking the name from the relatively remote district of Paris where Satie lived,[11] included young musicians like Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob, Roger Désormière and Henri Cliquet-Pleyel.

Satie's last compositions were two 1924 ballets. Mercure reunited him with Picasso and Massine for a mythological spoof produced by Count Étienne de Beaumont's Soirées de Paris; and he wrote the "instantaneist" ballet (Relâche) in collaboration with Picabia, for the Ballets suédois of Rolf de Maré. In a simultaneous project, Satie added music to the surrealist film Entr'acte by René Clair, which was given as an intermezzo for Relâche.

Personal life

Satie and Suzanne Valadon, an artists' model and artist in her own right and a long-time friend of Miguel Utrillo (and mother of Maurice Utrillo), began an affair early in 1893. After their first night together, he proposed marriage. The two did not marry, but Valadon moved to a room next to Satie's at the Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, and writing impassioned notes about "her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet". During their relationship, Satie composed the Danses gothiques as a kind of prayer to restore peace of mind, and Valadon painted a portrait of Satie, which she gave to him. After six months she moved away, leaving Satie broken-hearted. Afterwards, he said that he was left with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness the heart with sadness".[12] It is believed this was the only intimate relationship Satie ever had.[13]

Intriguingly, a rare autochrome photograph of Satie exists that dates from 1911. It was reproduced on the cover of Robert Orledge's book on the composer (1995). But where this autochrome was found has not been made known.


After years of heavy drinking (including consumption of absinthe),[14] Satie died on 1 July 1925 from cirrhosis of the liver.[15] He is buried in the cemetery in Arcueil. There is a tiny stone monument designating a grassy area in front of an apartment building – 'Parc Erik Satie'. Over the course of his 27 years in residence at Arcueil, where Satie lived in stark simplicity,[16] no one had ever visited his room. After his death, Satie's friends discovered an apartment replete with squalor and chaos. Among many other unsorted papers and miscellaneous items, it contained a large number of umbrellas, and two grand pianos placed one on top of the other, the upper instrument used as storage for letters and parcels.[17] They discovered compositions that were either thought to have been lost or totally unknown. The orchestral score to Parade was thought, by Satie, to have been left on a bus years before. These were found behind the piano, in the pockets of his velvet suits, and in other odd places, and included the Vexations; Geneviève de Brabant and other unpublished or unfinished stage works; The Dreamy Fish; many Schola Cantorum exercises; a previously unseen set of "canine" piano pieces; and several other works for piano, many untitled. Some of these would be published later as additional Gnossiennes, Pièces froides, Enfantines, and furniture music.


Performed by Robin Alciatore. Courtesy of Musopen
Composed c. 1890.
Composed c. 1890.
Composed c. 1890.


Recordings and arrangements

Piano works

Recordings of Satie's piano works have been released by Cristina Ariagno, Jean-Pierre Armengaud, Jean-Joël Barbier, Aldo Ciccolini, Claude Coppens (live recording), Reinbert de Leeuw, Eve Egoyan, Philippe Entremont, Frank Glazer, Olof Höjer, Michel Legrand, Alexandre Tharaud, Jacques Loussier, Anne Queffélec, Bill Quist, Lara Custódio, Pascal Rogé, João Paulo Santos, Yūji Takahashi, Branka Parlić, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, John Lenehan and Daniel Varsano, among others.

Orchestral and vocal

Arrangements in popular music


  • In 1968, Blood, Sweat & Tears released their eponymous second album, which included an adaptation of Gymnopédie No. 1 (arranged by Dick Halligan) which they titled as Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie (First and Second Movements). The first movement is a straightforward elaboration of the basic theme using flutes, an acoustic guitar and a triangle. The second is a far more abstract variation using only brass instruments. In 1969, Halligan received a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance for the piece.
  • In 1979 the band Sky included a version of Gymnopédie No. 1, which was arranged by John Williams, on the band's first album Sky.
  • In 1990, Movement 98's (Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne) single "Joy and Heartbreak" used the opening phrase of Trois Gymnopédies as the intro and instrumental.
  • The 1993 John Tesh album Winter Song contains an arrangement of Gymnopédie No. 1 entitled Seabury Road.
  • Janet Jackson released the single "Someone to Call My Lover" in 2001 from her seventh studio album, All for You. The chorus of the song includes a loop of Gymnopédie No. 1 played in 4/4 time instead of the original 3/4. Jackson had loved the Gymnopédie since childhood and wanted to incorporate its theme into one of her own songs.
  • The English electronic duo Isan recorded versions of the Trois Gymnopédies for a 2006 7-inch single, "Trois Gymnopédies" on the Morr Music record label.
  • The 2006 video game Mother 3 features an arrangement of the Gymnopédie No. 1 as background music, titled "Leder's Gymnopédie".
  • In 2012, Gymnopédie No. 1 was used in the video for Lana Del Rey's song "Carmen"


  • In 1994, Malcolm McLaren arranged Gnossienne Nos. 3 and 4 in his concept album Paris.
  • In 1995, Folk Implosion used a sample of Gnossienne No. 1 in the song 'Wet Stuff', which was part of the soundtrack of "Kids", a movie by Larry Clark
  • The 2006 movie The Painted Veil features Gnossienne No. 1 throughout the film.
  • The 2008 documentary film Man on Wire features both Gymnopédie No. 1 and Gnossienne No. 1.
  • In 2011, singer-songwriter Tori Amos released an album entitled Night of Hunters, where her song "Battle of Trees" is a variation on Gnossienne No. 1.
  • Gnossienne No. 1 was used in the 2011 film Hugo.
  • In 2011, James Blake used Gnossienne No. 5 as the opening track of his BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix.[18]


  • In 1972, Satie was fashioned for the Moog synthesizer as "The Electronic Spirit of Erik Satie," performed with the Camarata Contemporary Chamber Orchestra. The same orchestra had created another Satie interpretation called "The Velvet Gentleman" in 1970.
  • In 1987, the Serbian and former Yugoslav electronic music composer Mitar Subotić on his debut album Disillusioned!, released under the pseudonym Rex Ilusivii, recorded a twenty-five minute long instrumental track "Thanx Mr. Rorschach – Ambijenti na muziku Erika Satija" ("Thanx Mr. Rorschach – Ambient to the music by Erik Satie"), as a kind of a musical Rorschach test to the music by Satie. The Disillusioned! album back cover featured a review by the head of the Erik Satie Foundation saying: "It is a great pleasure to see that in Yugoslavia works a musician Mitar Subotić – Rex Ilusivii who composed some significant material, especially a piece, a homage to Satie, composed in a way that Satie would like best – that everyone finds one's own path and one's personality. The music of Rex Ilusivii presents exactly this formula, this procedure."[19]
  • In 1989, the Vienna Art Orchestra (directed by Mathias Rüegg) released The Minimalism of Eric Satie, a 2-LP set on the Swiss HatART label that included "reflections" on a number of Satie's works, notably three performances of Vexations in various instrumental/vocal combinations.
  • In 1997, the Canadian soprano Patricia O'Callaghan included songs by Satie on her debut solo album Youkali and still performs them as part of her cabaret act.
  • In 1999, electronic music act Plaid's CD Restproof Clockwork included a track called "Tearisci" which is an uncredited version of Satie's "Pièces Froides, No. 2: Danses De Travers: III. Encore".
  • In 2000, ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett released the album Sketches of Satie, performing Satie's works on acoustic guitar, with contributions by his brother John on flute.
  • In 2001, the Josh G. Abrahams Radio Remix of "Come What May" from the film Moulin Rouge! sampled Satie's "Petit prélude à la journée" from Enfantillages pittoresques prominently throughout the single.[20]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Je suis phonomètre avant d’être musicien" Aperçus phonométriques & autres sous-entendus
  3. ^ Orledge, Robert. "Satie, Erik". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 24 April 2012. 
  4. ^ The Ensemble Sospeso New York
  5. ^ p.25 in: Mary E. Davis: Erik Satie. Reaktion Books – Critical Lives. ISBN 978-1-86189-321-5. Published June 2007.
  6. ^ Plaque #3265 on Open Plaques.
  7. ^ Erik Satie in a 17 January 1911 letter to his brother Conrad, quoted in Volta 1989 and in Gillmor 1992 (Chronology p. xxix)
  8. ^ Robert Orledge (1990). Satie the Composer. Cambridge University Press. p. 233.  
  9. ^ Williamson, John (2005). Words and music. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. p. 176.  
  10. ^ English translations of these pieces were published in A Mammal's Notebook, see Sources section below.
  11. ^ Anderson, Keith, Sleeve Notes The Best of Erik Satie, Naxos 8.556688
  12. ^ Valadon and Erik Satie Retrieved 12 June 2010.
  13. ^ Orledge, Robert. "Erik Satie". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 17 April 2010. 
  14. ^ Forgotten English (17 May page), Jeffrey Kacirk, (c) 2009
  15. ^ Eric Satie – Biography at
  16. ^ Anderson, Keith, Sleeve notes The Best of Erik Satie Naxos 8.556688
  17. ^ Melissa Lesnie, "Five things you didn't know about Erik Satie". Limelight, 13 June 2012. Retrieved 22 October 2014
  18. ^
  19. ^ "Images for Rex Ilusivii – Disillusioned!". Retrieved 2012-03-03. 
  20. ^ Bassanese, Paola. "Classical Music Made into Pop Music: Sampling and Homages". Itcher Magazine. Retrieved 9 March 2014. 


In English, unless indicated:

Writings by Satie

  • A Mammal's Notebook: Collected Writings of Erik Satie (Serpent's Tail; Atlas Arkhive, No 5, 1997) ISBN 0-947757-92-9 (with introduction and notes by Ornella Volta, translations by Anthony Melville, contains several drawings by Satie)
  • Correspondence presque complète: Réunie, établie et présentée par Ornella Volta (Paris: Fayard/Imes, 2000; 1265pp) ISBN 2-213-60674-9 (an almost complete edition of Satie's letters, in French)

Books and articles on Satie

  • Allan, Kenneth R. "Metamorphosis in 391: A Cryptographic Collaboration by Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and Erik Satie." Art History 34, No. 1 (February 2011): 102–125.
  • Davis, Mary E., Erik Satie. Reaktion Books – Critical Lives. June 2007. ISBN 978-1-86189-321-5
  • Gillmor, Alan M., Erik Satie (Twayne Pub., 1988, reissued 1992; 387pp) ISBN 0-393-30810-3
  • Myers, Rollo H., Erik Satie. (Dover Publications, New York 1968.) ISBN 0-486-21903-8
  • Orledge, Robert, Satie Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, London, 1995)
  • Orledge, Robert, Satie the Composer Cambridge University Press: 1990; 437pp – in the series Music in the Twentieth Century ([ed.] Arnold Whittall) ISBN 0-521-35037-9
  • Templier, Pierre-Daniel (translated by Elena L. French and David S. French), Erik Satie (The MIT Press, 1969, reissued 1971) ISBN 0-262-70005-0 and (New York: Da Capo Press, 1980 reissue) ISBN 0-306-76039-8. Note: Templier extensively consulted Conrad, Erik Satie's brother, when writing this first biography that appeared in 1932. The English translation was, however, criticised by John Cage; in a letter to Ornella Volta (25 May 1983) he referred to the translation as disappointing compared to the formidable value of the original biography.
  • Vella, Alfonso, "Satie, la subversión de la fantasía", Ediciones Península 2013 ISBN 978-84-9942-248-0
  • Volta, Ornella and Simon Pleasance, Erik Satie (Hazan: The Pocket Archives Series, 1997; 200pp) ISBN 2-85025-565-3
  • Volta, Ornella, transl. Michael Bullock, Satie Seen Through His Letters (Marion Boyars, 1989) ISBN 0-7145-2980-X
  • Whiting, Steven, Satie the Bohemian: from Cabaret to Concert Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999; 596pp). A fully researched account of Satie's musical career in what then was regarded as popular music.


  • Satie Home page – Niclas Fogwall's website dedicated to Satie

External links

Information and listening

  • Erik Satie on Find A Grave
  • UbuWeb's Erik Satie pages – including an Erik Satie Primer and downloadable recordings
  • About Erik Satie – The eccentric Impressionist French composer and musician
  • Erik Satie at Pytheas Center for Contemporary Music
  • Three Gymnopedies by Eric Satie
  • Gnossienne No. 3 played on a modulated synthesizer on YouTube
  • (French) Website dedicated to the musician, with blog, timeline, gallery, biography
  • Works by or about Erik Satie in libraries (WorldCat catalog)


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