Born Erik Alfred Leslie Satie, May 17, 1866, in Honfleur, France, (died July 1, 1925, in Paris, France); son of Alfred (a ship's broker and composer) and Jane (a pianist and composer) Satie. Education: Studied at Paris Conservatory, 1879-82.

Only decades after his 1925 death was French composer Erik Satie hailed as a genius of contemporary classical music. His work was extremely simple in structure, yet innovative and marked by a characteristic wit. His reliance on unusual harmonic configurations was a reaction against the heavy, symbol-rich music of his era, a time when the works of Romantic European composers like Richard Wagner were still very much in vogue. Satie left a relatively scarce body of work behind, most of it written for the piano. But his groundbreaking use of bitonal or polytonal notes would become a hallmark of twentieth-century modernist music.

Satie was born Erik Alfred Leslie Satie in 1866 in Honfleur, near Le Havre, France. Both his father and his uncle-known as "Uncle Seabird," who instilled in him a love a theater and a disdain for the conventional -were ship brokers. Satie's mother Jane was Scottish and wrote her own pieces for the piano. She died when he was just six.

Satie was left with his grandparents in Honfleur by his widowed father. They had Satie re-baptized in the Roman Catholic faith. His musical ability was already in evidence, and he began lessons with the local organist, a man named Vinot, who introduced him to Gregorian plainsongs, the serenely monophonic religious chants dating back to music of the 13th century. Satie later showed a marked preference for such constructions in his own compositions, and was deeply interested in medieval music for much of his early career.

In 1878, he moved to Paris with his father, who remarried the following year. Satie disliked his stepmother, another musically gifted individual named Eugenie Barnetsche, who favored the Romantic compositions of Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin and other popular composers of the time. It was likely her influence, however, that led Satie to take up study at the rigorous, but conservative Paris Conservatoire. He was a mediocre student who made up his own piano exercises and was eventually dismissed. The first two pieces Satie wrote for the piano, Valse-Ballet and Fantaisie-Valse, were published in 1885. Instead of subtitling them in the usual style using "Opus 1" to indicate the first entry in his catalog, Satie demonstrated his wry sense of humor and used "Op. 62."

Satie was conscripted into the military in 1886, but fell ill with bronchitis and was discharged. During his recuperation he read a great deal by Josephin Peladan, the leader of a mystical artistic society called Rose et Croix, also known as the Rosicrucians. In 1890 he met Peladan, and became the society's unofficial composer. The work lasted until around 1895. He grew increasingly immersed in medieval music and Gothic art during this period, and a set of four piano pieces, Ogives (whose name refers to the rib vaults of Gothic architecture) was written during this era and published in 1886. Around this same time Satie befriended a Spanish symbolist poet known as Contamine de Latour, who claimed a kinship with Napoleon as well as a right to the French throne. Satie began setting some of Contamine's mediocre verse to music and his compositions Elgie, Les anges, Les fleurs, Sylvie and Chanson date from this time.

With Sarabandesin1887, "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," wrote Olof Hjer in the liner notes for a 1996 CD of Satie's piano works. "The harmonic language is very advanced, presenting sequences of unprepared, dissonant and unresolved chords." A saraband was a stately baroque dance with origins in Asian female fertility dance and was considered sexually suggestive.

Gained Renown

Satie sometimes paid for the publication of his music out of his own pocket. Ironically, his father and stepmother had begun a music publishing firm, and his next work, Gymnopedies in 1888, was included in the firm's La musiques des familles catalog. These three piano pieces took their name from a celebratory rite thought to have been performed by naked youths in ancient Greece, The subject of the pieces earned Satie some notoriety in bohemian Paris.

For Gnossiennes, three more piano pieces, Satie was inspired by the excavations on Crete of a great palace at Knossos being carried out at the time. The title may have been also been a pun that referred to the Greek term gnosis, or "knowledge." Gnosticism was an integral part of Rosicrucianism, and as Hjer wrote, "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." This latter quality may have inspired Satie to gradually abandon the use of bar lines in his compositions.

Avoided the Paris Metro

By all accounts Satie lived an eccentric life. Until 1898 he had quarters on the Rue Cortot in Montmartre, a place where he was a familiar neighborhood figure. He wrote his works in Montmartre cafes, and was always seen with bowler hat and umbrella. Reportedly he never used soap, but rather a pumice stone, and wore only gray velvet suits. At one point after he inherited some money, Satie founded his own church. He never went anywhere except on foot, even after he moved to a working-class neighborhood in the southern section of Paris called Arcueil. He even walked home in the middle of the night from the piano-playing jobs he took at cafes and music halls like Chat noir, Auberge du clou, Le lapin agile. It was at the Auberge de clou he met Suzanne Valadon, a former trapeze artist, artist's model, and painter. Their romance lasted a good part of 1896, but after its dissolution Satie remained a bachelor.

Around 1891 Satie met Claude Debussy, a man who would eclipse him as one of the greatest French composers, and helped sway Debussy toward a fresher style. Darius Milhaud, another renowned French composer, also befriended Satie and drew great inspiration from his radical ideas about tone and form.


Satie became famous for his brief piano piece he titled Vexations, published in 1893. "To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities," he wrote at the top of the score. Later musicians interpreted this statement to mean that the piece should be played, literally, 840 times, an arduous challenge that was only undertaken first in September of 1963 by the modernist composer John Cage. It took a relay team of ten pianists over 18 hours to perform.

Satie's move to Arcueil had marked the onset of a lonely, impoverished time for him, but he revived when he enrolled at well-regarded Schola Cantorum in 1905. After three years of study he earned diploma marked "tres bien." He began writing again after a few years' hiatus, and gave his works whimsical titles like Desiccated Embryos, Flabby Preludes for a Dog, and Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. The last name was the result of criticism that Satie's music had "no form." With such compositions Satie included similarly whimsical instructions: not forteor"loud," but "light as an egg" or "with astonishment."

Satie also wrote and sketched. His Memoirs of an Amnesiac, culled from his journals, was published in 1953. In satirical verse he discussed such topics as the rigor's of a composer's life, his bizarre diet of only white foods, and the intelligence of animals. "That animals have intelligence cannot be denied," Satie wrote. "But what is Man doing to improve the mental condition of his resigned fellow-creatures?.... Homing pigeons have absolutely no preparation in geography to help them in their job; fish are excluded from the study of oceanography; cattle, sheep and calves know nothing of the rational organization of a modern slaughter-house, and are ignorant of the nutritive role they play in the society Man has made for himself."

Found Favor with New Generation

Satie began to gain recognition from other composers and artists in the years prior to World War I. French composer Maurice Ravel performed his Sarabandes at a concert of the Societe Musicale Independante in 1911, and his earlier works were finally published and began to earn him a modest income. The Surrealist poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau became a great fan. With Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, Satie wrote Parade, a ballet performed by Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in May of 1917. Its realistic setting and anti-war sentiment were met with scandalized reviews, and Satie sent a postcard to one critic that was deemed imprudent, for which he was sentenced to eight days in prison. Only the good connections of a friend got him off. But the publicity brought a new generation of composers and musicians near to Satie, and a group of young French composers known as Les Six proclaimed themselves his heirs, and strove to write music that was as austere as Satie's.

Satie began working on the symphonic drama Socrate around 1917, a composition he hoped would be "white and pure like antiquity," according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. "The result was a creation in which his restricted means came into perfect focus and balance." It was not performed publicly until 1920. Two festivals of Satie's works were held that same year.

Work Foreshadowed Movie Soundtracks

As he entered his sixties, Satie grew increasingly eccentric. One of his last works was Musique d'ameublement, or "Furnishing Music." The painter Henri Matisse had coined the term to describe music that would make up the background of another artistic event, and therefore was to be regarded as utterly unimportant. Satie wrote some pieces that premiered at an art opening in March of 1920, and reportedly became unnerved that patrons paid attention to the music. Later such music would become commonplace in contemporary films. He also worked with painter Francis Picabia and filmmaker Rene Clair on a joint ballet/film project called Relache ("Theater closed"), which closed after one night.

A heavy drinker for much of his life, Satie suffered health problems and friends in Paris began looking after him. He died on the first day of July in Paris in 1925 of sclerosis of the liver. No one had seen his Arceuil apartment since he had moved there in 1898. After his death his friend Milhaud found that it contained nothing more than a bed, chair, table, and piano whose pedals had to be pulled by string.

Only in the mid-twentieth century, several decades after his death, did Satie's works begin to attract serious scrutiny. Vexations was periodically resurrected, and a solo pianist once tried to play it in its entirety, but stopped after fifteen hours, the result of recurring hallucinations. On its centenary in honor of Satie's birth, it was again performed in New York City by a team of pianists. Alex Ross reviewed the performance for the New York Times and wrote that "the imposed repetition has the virtue of focusing attention on the revolutionary nature of this music, its defiance of harmonic order.... Sketchy, diminished chords alternate in hypnotic succession, with brief melodic shapes drifting through the upper lines and a chaconnelike theme churning in the bass."

by Carol Brennan

Erik Satie's Career

Composed 84 musical works between 1885 and 1924; first piano works, Valse-Balletand Fantaisie-Valse,published, 1885; worked as a music-hall pianist, 1890s; major compositions include Ogives, 1886; Trois Gymnopdies, 1887; Trois Sarabandes, 1887; Trois Gnossiennes, 1889-96; Vexations, 1894; wrote first ballet, Parade, with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, 1917.

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