Erik Satie
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"Le Gymnopédiste"

An article by Olof Höjer - a Swedish pianist and Satie expert.
Taken from his CD: Erik Satie - the complete piano music vol. 1.
© 1996 Prophone Records, Stockholm, Sweden.

Erik Satie's piano compositions 1884-1890


Satie's first great piano period dates back to his youth and his first time spent in Montmartre. During these years he wrote some 20 piano pieces, five songs, some sketches for string quartet, theatre music for Joséphin Péladan and a little orchestral piece, later re-used as the penultimate movement in Trois morceaux en forme de poire for piano duet.

These early compositions stand against a background of Gregorian chant and salon and cabaret music. Satie's personal life was also in a turnmoil: his conservatory studies failed, while at the same time he found a new interest in the "esoteric". He also met artists and writers and got to know the special atmosphere that permeated Bohemian life in Montmartre during La Belle Époque - this curious mixture of serious seeking, mysticism, an unbridled sense of fun and the general madness that were par for the course in the famous cafés of the day: Chat noir, Auberge du clou, Le lapin agile and many others.

During the years of his youth in Honfleur, two people came to have a great, perhaps decisive, importance in Satie's future development: his uncle Adrien Satie, and his first music-teacher Vinot, the organist of the church of Saint-Léonard.

The uncle, who went by the name "Uncle Seabird", appears to have been a most eccentric man and something of the black sheep of the family. He devoted little attention to his profession - he was a ship-broker - but all the more so to boats, horses and frivolous theatre. This charming, rather mad, gentleman and his young nephew spent much time together, which certainly left deep traces in the personality of the latter. When Satie later came into contact with the cultural climate of Montmartre he evidently had no problems adapting to it himself. It would also appear to be a popular misconception that Satie should first have become jocular in the early 1910s. His special brand of humour and sense of the absurdities of life was part of him from the

beginning, as was the equally characteristic deep strains of melancholy.

In the spring of 1874 Satie's grandfather brought his musically gifted grandson to the organist Vinot, who undertook his musical education. Vinot had received his education at the École Niedermeyer in Paris, the most famous school for church musicians in the latter half of the 19th century. He was the organist and choir leader of the Saint-Léonard church in Honfleur between 1873 and 1878. It was probably through him Satie first was subjected to Gregorian chant, which serene, distant and endless melodic lines are traceable in almost everything he wrote from the Ogives in 1886, to Socrate in 1918. But Vinot also had another, less expected, trick up his sleeve: he composed slow waltzes that were sometimes played by the orchestra association of Honfleur. Thus the two main tonal foundations of Satie's musical creation were already in place in the mid-1870s, clearly defined and established: Gregorian chant and light music.

Charcoal drawing of Erik Satie by Ramón Casas from 1892.

Satie had no doubt already encountered the latter on going to the theatre and the circus with Uncle Seabird. Moreover, his many-talented father was quite a passable amateur composer who wrote salon music and cabaret songs. When he remarried in 1879, it was to the piano teacher Eugénie Barnetche (who also composed salon pieces for piano). Together they founded a music business which included a shop, a publishing company and a comprehensive piano and song-teaching school. Satie's father presumably turned the
new home in Paris to a proper centre for popular music.

It was in all probability the step-mother, whom young Erik immediately loathed, who was the driving force behind his studies at the conservatory; studies which were certainly decisive in his artistic
and personal development, if in a very negative capacity.

He sought companionship amongst writers and artists rather than fellow musicians. Early reading experiences of H.C. Andersen, Gustave Flaubert and Joséphin Péladan, amongst others, grew more important and inspirational than musical experiences (with the possible exception of Chabrier's opera Le roi malgré lui). Of special importance to him was the friendship with the young Spanishborn symbolist poet Contamine de Latour (1867-1926). "Le vieux modeste", as Satie ironically called him, is said to have claimed kinship with Napoleon and considered himself entitled to the throne of France. As a writer his talents were mediocre, at least if one is to judge by the texts Satie put to music in the mid-1880s, but he became a great source of inspiration, both as a Montmartre practical joker and a guide to medieval mysticism and esotericism.


Satie's earliest known composition is an as yet unprinted Allegro for piano dated "Honfleur. Sept. 9th 1884". It is, however, hardly likely that this should be his first attempt at composing. This piece is only nine bars long (taking 20 seconds to play), but the elegant signature suggests that the young composer saw the little piece as complete. The notation is flowing, almost nonchalantly so, and moreover it seems that he wished to compress the piece even further by striking out a short bridge passage.

The Satie researcher Laurent de François has shown that the piece is based on a popular tune with the refrain J'irai revoir ma Normandie" (a method Satie also used much later in his humorous piano pieces 1912-1915). This fact naturally prompts the thought that it is simply a little musical "postcard" from his summer holidays in his home town by the Atlantic Coast, far away from the hated conservatory and the energetic step-mother. It still resounds with bright optimism, far from the melancholy and slow tempo that would later come to dominate his music.

Valse-ballet & Fantaisie-valse

Among the first works by young Satie to be published were two salon-waltzes printed as supplements in his father's publication La musiques des familles on March 17th and July 28th of 1887. The first appended with the curious numbering "Opus 62" (!), and the second with the following introduction:

"Today we publish a charming Fantaisie-valse for piano by Erik Satie. This work by a very young musician is elegant in structure and gracious in rhythm, without dryness. All the author's works, amongst which we will mention Three Melodies, indicate a propensity for reverie and a tendency to move away from the strict laws of symmetrical rhythm."

The rather trivial, frequently-repeated phrases and the bassnotes around the basic

chords are typical of the style of the simple salon music of the day.

At the same time, it can be noted that Satie - conciously or not - managed to avoid the sentimentality to the style. Instead, both waltzes have traits of timeless simplicity. Perhaps, even, something of the starkness one usually associates with the Gymnopédies.


In 1886 Satie met the poet José Maria Vicente Ferrer Francisco de Paula Patricio Manuel Contaime, born in Tarragon in Spain and ten months his junior. Their friendship, which at the start almost took the form of an artistic symbiosis, was to last into the twentieth century. They seem to have been kindred spirits to the point where they even shared a suit. Contaime de Latour, as he called himself, wrote short stories and symbolist poems that would certainly have been long-forgotten had Satie not put them to music. It was probably he who introduced Satie to the writings of the esoteric Joséphin Péladan; and also maybe one of the sources of inspiration for Satie's devotion to medieval
mysticism, though it must be said that this was typical of the period.

Instead of practising at the piano Satie now spent his time daydreaming in the darkness under the arches of Notre Dame or at the library, poring over books on Gothic art. He deepend his studies in Gregorian chant and dressed shabbily - his friends came to call him "Monsieur le pauvre". The musical result of all this was four piano pieces he called Ogives, "rib vaults". This structurally lean music must have been, by and large, incomprehensive to those who heard it. In Satie's family home, where the piano students' repertoir echoed by day and Eugénies's salon pieces and Alfred's cabaret
songs filled the evenings, confusion and shock must have reigned.

The Ogives can be described as a kind of paraphrase on the antiphonal, liturgical song. The pieces are confusingly alike, as though Satie had composed the same piece in different ways (a technique to which he later returned). All follow the same pattern: a quasi-Gregorian melody is intoned, piano, and then repeated three times, first in sonorous parallel fortissimo chords, then in pianissimo in another harmonic guise (reminiscent of an organ's action), after which the fortissimo version concludes the piece. The pattern could also be described: choir leader - choir - organ (action) - choir.

All time-honoured musical dialectics have disappeared and been replaced by church-mode-sounding static blocks without any connection whatsoever to normal piano music (though the piano remains its only sensible tonal medium). This music seems to lean two ways: on the one hand it echoes the medieval parallel organum, on the other it points the direction to Debussy, for instance the prelude La cathédrale engloutie of 1911.

There was certainly no question of printing the Ogives in La musique des familles. They weren't published until 1889, by which time Satie had left home for Montmartre. Admittedly it was published through his father's firm, but at Satie's own cost. He then announced their arrival in the press organ of Chat Noir in the following manner,

characteristic of both Satiean self-irony and Montmartre high spirits:

"At last! Lovers of cheerful music may be given joy of their hearts. The indefatigable Erik Satie, sphinx-man, lunkhead composer, announces the arrival of a new musical opus, which, he says, is the greatest of all time. It is a suite of melodies created in the mystico-liturgic vein so loved by the author, bearing the suggestive title Ogives. We wish Erik Satie a success as great as that he has already reached with his third
Gymnopédie, now playing on all pianos. On sale at 66, bd. Magenta."*

* The music shop of Erik Satie's father.

In September 1887, after composing the Ogives and a series of songs to lyrics by Contaime de Latour (Elégie, Les anges, Les fleurs, Sylvie and Chanson), Satie composed three Sarabandes. As unexpected as the Ogives must have seemed in relation to the two salon waltzes, Satie now turned his back on the Middle Ages and the organum-like, petrified movement of Ogives and instead wrote music with a kind of solemn dance character, constantly shifting between immobility and movement, between melodic expressivity and vibrant chords. The harmonic language is very advanced, presenting sequences of unprepared, dissonant and unresolved chords. It has often been suggested that this new harmonic palette should have been inspired by the unconventional composer Emmanuel Chabrier and his opera Le roi malgré lui, that Satie heard with great fascination in May of 1887. But there are clear tendencies to a similar advanced harmony in the above-mentioned songs from the previous year, for instance Sylvie and Les fleurs.

In these Sarabandes one can also perceive, more clearly than in the Ogives, the growth of that curious method of composing which was to develop into a singular complexity in certain works from his so-called Rosicrucian period. The phrasings shrink in the Sarabandes, short sections are set against each other, with sometimes abrupt shifts between different registers. They are repeated, mirrored, and so forth. A mosaic-like structure is created rather than a continous development. Satie is finding his way into his own musical time, his own musical space, where everything already exists, circling around itself. Originally, the manuscript of Sarabande No. 1 contained a stanza from Latour's poem The Damnation (La Perdition), rendered below in free translation:

Then did the damned fall from the heavenly seam
Shrieking, jostling in a whirl as they were thrown;
And when in starless night they found themselves alone
They thought each other black, so began to blaspheme.

This dramatic picture appears totally unmotivated and without connection to the music (and was moreover deleted upon publication), but it may still provide a key to Satie's frame of mind when he wrote the Sarabandes. The saraband, a dignified baroque dance, originated in an Oriental female fertility dance, which in bygone days was considered morally offensive, lustful and lascivious, due to its execution with enticing hip and pelvic movements. In some countries it was forbidden. Perhaps this forms the background for the unmistakable hint of decadent sensuality beneath the surface of the music.

The Sarabandes did not go the galleys in Alfred Satie's printing-office, either. They were left dormant and were first published in 1911, when Maurice Ravel and Les Jeunes showed a newly-awakened interest in Satie's early music. In this context, the young composer Roland-Manuel wrote about them:

"I wish it to be made clear that these sarabands are a milestone in the evolution of our music: here are three short pieces written with an unprecented harmonic technique and sprung from a wholly new æsthetic, instituting a particular atmosphere, a totally original magic of sound."


Some time in December of 1887, Satie was introduced to the poet plumber Vital Hoquet to the Chat Noir, incomparably the most famous of all Montmartre's artistic and literary cabarets, frequented by famous symbolists and esoteric mystifiers, with curious tourists and royalty among the audience. Satie had himself introduced as a gymnopédiste - though no-one knows why. Perhaps he caused some sensation with this suggestive profession, which was described as "most agreeable" by Rudolphe Salis, the proprietor, but probably not more than what was usual in this nocturnal cultural centre of enlightened madness. He created far more confusion for posterity, which is as yet not in agreement on the link between Satie, the word gymnopédiste and the music it gradually engendered.

It is generally thought that he found his inspiration in a verse by Latour, printed with the music of the Gymnopédie No. 1 when Alfred Satie published it in La musique des familles in August of 1888, but deleted in later impressions:

Sidelong through the shadow a sparkling stream did veer
Flowing over polished flagstone in waves of gold
The amber atoms mirrored in the fire there
With gymnopeadia their saraband made bold

(From Les Antiques)

It may be worth noting that both saraband and gymnopædia are mentioned in the poem, so it cannot be ruled out that it was Latour who was inspired by Satie. He himself named Flaubert's Salammbô a source of inspiration, but did not say if it was there that he found the word. As Eric F. Jensen points out in an interesting essay in Music & Letters (1994), Satie may simply have found the word gymnopédie in any of the musical dictionaries then available. In one of these its meaning is given as "a dance accompanied by song and performed by naked Spartan girls". The strangely sonorous word with its air of serenity and sensuality, ageless antiquity and ceremony, must also have appealed both to Satie and Latour. (Researchers today agree that the Gymnopædia was an Apollonic celebration in ancient Sparta where men of all ages danced, not naked, but unarmed.)

Perhaps the exotic word had lain germinating inside him for a while when he entered the Chat Noir. When he transformed his visions of antiquity to music in February to April of 1888, he made yet another artistic about-turn. After the Gothic choir and organ tones of the Ogives and the sometimes almost Brahmsianly ringing chord mosaics of the Sarabandes, he now found a thin, ascetic, "naked" piano structure in which lonesome and singularly expressive melodies circle like falling autumn leaves; a monotonous, low bass line accompaniment, and against it softly dissonant chords in the middle register, constantly repeating the same iambic rhythm-pattern. Together this creates an atmosphere of vague melancholy, of mysticism and exoticism. Perhaps there is also a fin-de-siècle feeling, even some salon nostalgia.

None of Satie's other works prompted such immediate and lasting response. It is certainly significant that Alfred Satie quickly published Gymnopédie No. 1 in La musiques des familles. Still today, more than a century after Satie passed the threshold of the Chat Noir and the Montmartre cultural establishment, he remains a gymnopédist to most listeners.

The other two Gymnopéides he had to publish at his own cost, the third in 1888 and the second not until 1895. In December of 1888 he marketed Gymnopédie No. 3 thusly in La lanterne japonaise:

"We receive letters from all corners asking where one may obtain a copy of the collected works of Erik Satie. Once and for all: the definitive printing of the composer's subtle melodies has not yet been launched. Nonetheless, the first to arrive will find the Gymnopédies No. 3 (one of the most beautiful) in exchange for a rather paltry sum at 66, bd. Magenta. Let it hereby be proclaimed."


The 1889 World Fair in Paris became a great source of inspiration to many French musicians through the exotic musical groups that performed there. Satie was mainly said to be fascinated by the slow, plaintive strains of a Roumanian folk music group. In July of the same year he wrote a little piece where slowly wandering chords (mainly triads in root position and the odd seventh chord, shifting between G major and E minor) carry a melody filled with arabesque-like ornaments, both oriental and church tonal in its nature. He called it a Gnossienne - and thereby gave Satie researchers yet another enigmatic title to investigate. This piece was published posthumously only in 1968 as Gnossienne No. 5. The more frequently played Trois Gnossiennes (Nos 1-3) were probably written in 1890 and were first published in Le Figaro musical (Nos 1 and 3) and the esoteric review Le Coeur (No. 2). The other two Gnossiennes published in 1968, Nos. 4 and 6, were written in 1891 and 1897 respectively. A seventh should be mentioned in this connection: it formed part of the theatre music to Péladan's play Le fils det étoiles of December 1891 and was re-used in 1903 as the first movement in Trois morceaux en forme de poire. It has been said that the word gnossienne refers to the antique Knossos and the crane dance that was performed outside the labyrinth where the Minotaur was held captive (Ægean culture was very much in the public eye at this time thanks to Schliemann's archaelogical digs in Greece). Perhaps, therefore, the Gnossiennes may have a similar background to that of the Sarabandes and the Gymnopédies: a poetic and suggestive word inspired by the neo-Greek atmosphere that was in vogue at this time, yet another exotic, antique dance to a slow beat, dreamt up by the imaginative accomplices Satie and Latour...

Others consider that the word gnossienne should stem from the Greek "gnosis", that is to say "knowledge" (Greek seems to have been one of the few subjects that stirred Satie as an otherwise rather absent-minded schoolboy). Within gnosticism, "gnosis" refers to the "right knowledge", that which can lead Man along the true path in life. "Gnosis" was also a central idea for the esoterics and especially the rosicrucians. The "Gnossiennes" could therefore be looked upon as the first musical expression born out of Satie's collaboration with Péladan and his Rose et Croix sect.

Satie playing the harmonium in 1891. Charcoal drawing by Santiago Rusiñol.

In the Gnossiennes we see a further musical and pianistic development of the style of the Gymnopédies. The structure is similar: lonely melodies against accompaniment of rhythmic stereotype, consisting of long bass notes in combination with chords in the middle register. In the Gymnopédies this was often coloured by the dissonance - here it is almost continously based on simple triads. The melody, however, is full of appogiaturas, held notes, augmented seconds and tritones; and the refined atmosphere of Greek antiquity of the Gymnopédies has been replaced by a kind of plaintive exoticism (perhaps of Oriental or Balkan origin). This is especially true of Gnossiennes Nos. 1-3 and 5. In the fourth, dated January 22nd 1891, Satie has found a different structure: against a slow and monotonously undulating accompaniment of broken triads, a melody filled with long "Oriental" melisma is placed. The sixth, which was not written until 1897, was also called a Gnossienne but has more in common with Airs à faire fuir written at the same time.

In pure terms of composition technique, however, the Gnossiennes have more in common with the Sarabandes (and perhaps also the Ogives) than the Gymnopédies, which comparatively comprise more traditional musical developments. In the Gnossiennes as in the Sarabandes, normal musical development is replaced by a joining of parts of different length, different types of repetitions and sequences. Crescendi and diminuendi and an almost consistently muted pitch; harmonic development substituted by static blocks; and rhythmic variation replaced by constant repetition. In all, this results in a kind of upheaval of musical time.

In the Gnossiennes there is no clear-cut beginning, nor any indisputably logical ending. In theory, the music could begin in any of a series of places, continue for any amount of time and end in many different places. It has been said that this music seems to spiral around itself (Gnossienne No. 1 is a case in point). As if to stress the timeless quality of this eternal musical circularity, Satie abstains from using bar-lines. He had already done this in the Ogives, perhaps for similar reasons, but also, perhaps, to give the music a different look - this later became a norm of Satie's, especially in the writing of more serious music.

It is in the Gnossiennes that one first encounters another particularity of Satie's that has spawned much bemusement: the bizarre playing directives. Latour has told of how he and Satie used to compete in finding new, absurdist musical terms to replace the old, often stale ones. The idea as such is in no way new - and moreover, the contemporary symbolism movement was an exclusive, literary direction which prided itself in remaining unattainable to the layman. Gnossienne No. 2, published in the esoteric review Le Coeur in 1893 (the same year it was written, according to Ornella Volta), has indications such as: "With amazement", "don't leave", "with great kindness", "more intimately", "lightly, with intimacy" and "don't be proud". (Gnossiennes Nos. 1 and 3 were given their indications only when published by Rouart-Lerolle in 1913.)

Designations of this kind may not be as meaningless as they first appear. Perhaps one should rather call them "poetry of interpretation": what is needed for them to function in the way Satie probably intended is some poetic imagination and the will to see Satie's music from a different angle, liberated from centuries of layered conventions regarding the transformation of notation into music.

With the Gnossiennes, Satie had largely finished his first "searching period". He had found a new way to compose, which, for better or for worse, was his own. The French music journalist Anne Rey has expressed it thus: "No-one had composed that way before, not were they to do it afterwards."

One could also quote the following lines from the Memoirs of an Amnesiac (a later fragment, published in 1924 under the main heading Recollections of my life):

"After a short adolescence, I became an ordinarily tolerable young man, no more. It is at this point in my life that I started to think and write musically. Yes. What an unfortunate idea!... What a very unfortunate idea!... Indeed, as before long, I came to use a displeasing (original) originality, out of context, anti-French, against nature, etc. Then, life became so intolerable for me that I resolved to retire to my land and spend

the rest of my days in an ivory - or any other (metallic) metal - tower."