Erik Satie's music is better described by what it isn't than what it is.
A contrarian, he wrote anti-emotional, anti-virtuosic and anti-Wagnerian music, basically rejecting all the major trends of 19th-century classical music and blazing a new trail — maybe unwittingly — for modernism.
But was he serious? Yes and no. Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky all cite Satie as an important influence, and his currency with the leading artists and poets of his day was high. And yet, his music is full of gags, some at the listener's expense. He gave his compositions absurd titles, made up words and filled his scores with instructions like "wonder about yourself" or "open your mind." When he quoted other composers' music, it wasn't to be respectful. He even wrote silly articles for Vanity Fair, including this one about his admiration for animals, which includes the line, "I like chickens, sheep, ducks, smoked salmon, beef and turkey stuffed with chestnuts."
Today, Satie is misunderstood. Because of his famous down-tempo piano music from the 1880s and '90s, with no emotional highs or lows, he has been dubbed the father of ambient music, which is apt, but only tells part of his story. It's time to discover the rest. Here are 10 essential pieces to complete the Satie picture.
1. Trois Gymnopédies (1888)
The obvious place to start is Trois Gymnopédies for solo piano, Satie's best-known compositions. With their winding, quarter-note melodies and slowly waltzing left-hand accompaniments, they're often found on relaxation compilations.
They're also decidedly anti-virtuosic: You don't need to be Franz Liszt to make music on the piano, he seems to be saying. In fact, many pianists are drawn to these pieces because they're so easy to play. But don't be deceived, cautions David Jalbert, who has recorded Satie's Trois Gymnopédies on ATMA Classique:
"A piano can't sustain long notes forever, as we all know, and sustained sound often comes at the cost of a rather loud attack, which is not the kind of thing one looks for in these fluid melodies. I had to listen hard in order to be able to play them with nice long lines, softly, at the tempo suggested by Satie.
"I only make a point of this because very few pianists bother to play them as slowly as Satie wanted them to be," he continues. "Most recordings are much faster; but to me something is lost of the spirituality of these works."
For more pieces by Satie in this vein, check out Pièces froides (1907).
2. 'Je te veux' (1903)
Satie dropped out of music school because he didn't fit in. (In fact, his piano professor described him as the laziest student in the Conservatoire.) To make ends meet, he played piano at a café, which was surely where he drew inspiration for his charming cabaret-style song "Je te veux." He wrote it for Paulette Darty, a chanteuse of distinction whom Satie often accompanied on the piano.
It's a delicious waltz with affectionately suggestive lyrics: "J'ai compris ta détresse/ cher amoureux/ et je cède à tes vœux/ fais de moi ta maîtresse." (I understand your distress/ dear lover/ and I yield to your wishes/ make me your mistress.)
The song's well-known melody has become a sort of theme song for the Parisian Belle Époque. Recognizing its catchiness, Satie also arranged "Je te veux" for brass ensemble and for full orchestra. Here's a stunning version from soprano Karina Gauvin and Ensemble Caprice:
3. Parade (1917)
No composer is more closely associated with the surrealist movement than Satie. In fact, the word surrealism was used for the first time in the program notes, written by Guillaume Apollinaire, for Parade, a ballet for which Satie composed the music.
Parade depicts the attempts of a circus troupe to attract a public to its performance — not a particularly surreal scenario, but the events that unfolded at the ballet's première at Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet were pretty strange: The performance caused a minor scandal, primarily over the unconventional cubist sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Satie actually spent eight days in prison for writing an insulting letter to the music critic who gave Parade an unfavourable review.
The music Satie wrote for Parade is as boisterous as his Gymnopédies are calm. It includes lots of brass, percussion and elements of ragtime. Best of all, it invites the mind's eye to reconstruct the events on that bizarre opening night almost 100 years ago.
4. Trois morceaux en forme de poire (1903)
"Now, as a true friend may I warn you that from time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form," wrote Claude Debussy to Satie.
With typical humour, Satie responded to Debussy's criticism by publishing a set of pieces for piano duet called Trois morceaux en forme de poire (Three pieces in the form of a pear). There are in fact seven pieces in this collection, but never mind.
In these compositions for piano four hands, Satie's melodic lines refuse to conform to traditional accompaniment. There's always some element — harmonic or rhythmic — that isn't quite right, challenging our preconceived notions of how music should go. They're the musical precursor to René Magritte's famous painting La chambre d'écoute, a realistic depiction of an apple that surrealistically fills an entire room.
5. Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes) (1914)
This three-movement suite for violin and piano is possibly not top-drawer Satie, but it's a perfect example of his irreverent wit, turned in this instance on the music of the past.
While Satie's Paris contemporaries all composed neo-baroque works with great respect for the traditions of the past — Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite and Debussy's Suite Bergamasque — Satie instead took a satirical approach to the forms and conventions of baroque music.
The title, which translates as Things seen to the right and to the left (without glasses), is typically enigmatic and we're not even sure Satie understood it.
The third movement, Fantaisie musculaire (muscular fantasy), is a send-up of violin technique that subverts expectations by ending quietly and ambiguously. The second movement is called Fugue à tâtons (Groping fugue), which is not technically a fugue and uses a childish theme to be played "with silly but adequate candor." The first movement, Choral hypocrite (hypocritical chorale), is actually hauntingly beautiful and includes an inscription in the score: "Mes Chorals égalent ceux de Bach, avec cette différence qu'ils sont plus rares et moins prétentieux." (My chorales are equal to those of Bach with this difference: they are rarer and less pretentious.)
6. Embryons desséchés (1913)
While Embryons desséchés (Dessicated embryos) is another neo-classical work from the same period as Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes), what strikes the modern listener first is actually its proto-minimalist qualities. The opening of the first movement is pure Philip Glass!
This work finds Satie engaging in a bit of musical biology, with each movement named for an obscure marine organism. (One also gets the feeling the composer is testing the limits of his own absurd sense of humour.)
The first movement, d'Holothurie (Sea cucumber), is a study in perpetual motion — a toccata, basically. The score contains the not-so-helpful expressive marking "Comme un rossignol qui aurait mal aux dents" (Like a nightingale with a toothache.)
The second movement, d'Edriophthalma (a type of crustaceon), quotes the third movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 even though Satie states clearly in the score that he's quoting a famous Mazurka by Schubert. (At this point, we confess to losing our patience, although the real nonsense happens in the next movement.)
De Podophthalma (another type of crustaceon) is the title of the third movement, a sort of hunting song. It ends with a full page of bombastic F-major chords, a send-up of the self-important conclusions of so many orchestral works of the 19th century. It's so exaggerated and ridiculous, you almost expect Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd to appear.
7. Trois Gnossiennes (1893)
An iconoclast, Satie did not write preludes, études, sonatas, impromptus or music belonging to other established piano forms. With his Trois Gnossiennes, he invented a new genre and coined a new term for solo piano pieces written in free time. They're the successors of his earlier Gymnopédies and Sarabandes, except with subtle ornamentation that points to the powerful influence of the Far East on fin-de-siècle French art. (Is this music to accompany some ancient Eastern ritual? Satie's Rosicrucian leanings may be showing here.)
In Trois Gnossiennes, the effusive expression of so much late Romantic music has been left in the dust. (Satie is waving goodbye to Richard Wagner in his rearview mirror.) Gone are the crescendos, climaxes and crashing chords of 19th-century piano music, and in their place we get spare textures and complete emotional detachment. There's no more narrative, just a neutral unfolding of modal melody over a spare chordal backdrop.
These pieces erase any doubt that Satie was a musical innovator on the level of Debussy or Ravel. (Patrick Watson's adaptation of Gnossienne No. 1 is just one example of its lasting power.)
8. Danses Gothiques (1893)
Unlike the Gnossiennes and the Gymnopédies, which use left-hand accompaniment to support a melodic line in the right hand, these Danses Gothiques (Gothic dances) unfold as a 10-minute sequence of chords, often with suprising and unconventional harmonic juxtapositions. There are 12 of them, although they're generally played in one uninterrupted block. (Also, these pieces look as good on the page as they sound, which points to Satie's interest in visual art.)
Satie composed these Danses Gothiques while he was in the middle of a love affair with the artist Suzanne Valadon. (He proposed to her after their first liason; she said no.) Valadon moved next door to Satie and even painted his portrait, but their romance was short-lived.
Possibly due to bitter memories associated with that unhappy relationship, Satie only allowed the first of the 12 Danses Gothiques to be published during his lifetime. It was composer Darius Milhaud who got the entire collection published after Satie's death. Next to the Trois Gymnopédies, these may be his best compositions.
9. 'La Diva de l'Empire'
Here's another piece originating in Satie's days as a cabaret pianist.
The Empire referenced in this saucy song's title is actually the Empire Theatre in London's Picadilly district, a known hangout for that city's prostitutes at the turn of the last century. The French text — sprinkled with English — never gets racier than "Ses jolis dessous de fanfreluches" (Her frilly undergarments), but there's an implied sexiness that makes this piece a popular choice as an encore at the end of a serious song recital.
Note the cakewalk rhythm in the piano accompaniment, one of the earliest instances of African-American influence on European art music.
10. Ogives (1886)
We return to one of Satie's earliest works to conclude our list.
An ogive is a feature of cathedral architecture, a fact that helps explain why Satie grounded the music of these four short piano pieces in Gregorian chant and used big octaves and full chords to evoke the sound of a pipe organ. Satie was only 20 when he published these pieces and they marked the beginning of his mystical period. In fact, an advertisement for Ogives — likely written by Satie himself — that appeared in Le Journal du Chat Noir said: "It is a suite of melodies conceived in the mystic-liturgical genre that the author idolizes and suggestively titled Les Ogives."
Claude Debussy picked up on the modal harmonies and striking neo-Medieval aesthetic of Ogives, and the sound world of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, while avant-garde, nevertheless owes a lot to Satie.
More to explore: