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Essential Satie

The must-have works of Erik Satie
By Gary Barton

Erik SatieErik Satie (1866-1925) played such an important part in the direction of French classical music that it is shocking that, for a time, no recordings of his music were available, and few people outside academia were aware of its existence. Neither were they aware of the influence he had on Debussy and Ravel in their formative years.

He was born in Honfleur, Normandy (where the Seine meets the English Channel), to a French father, a ship's broker who later moved to Paris, and a Scottish mother, who died early. Satie's father remarried, and his new bride and her mother moved in. Erik preferred the company of his uncle, who pianist Frank Glazer refers to as a "solitary and strange creature with a bizarre, although original and fanciful turn of mind whose influence on the nephew was strong and permanent... Erik had music lessons with a local church organist who, no doubt, fed his pupil a large dose of Gregorian Chant; its rhythm (or lack of conventional rhythm) and its modal melody became the first and fundamental influence on Satie's musical outlook." Once in Paris, Satie struck out on his own as soon as possible, playing piano in cabarets on Montmartre where he was to meet Debussy and Ravel.

You probably best know Satie's Three Gymnopédies, either in their original piano version or in Debussy's orchestrations. The simple melodic lines of Gymnopédies reflected Debussy's idea for a truly new and, above all, French school of music. Said Satie: "I explained to Debussy the need for a Frenchman to disengage himself from the Wagner adventure, for the latter did not answer to our natural aspirations… I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but… we had to have a music of our own—without Sauerkraut if possible." Debussy recognized the efforts Satie was making in his earliest piano compositions, his most well known today, to free music from a "century of overwrought romantic aesthetics and to set down only what was essential to his imagination."

Erik SatieIn recent years another group of Satie keyboard pieces have begun to approach the Gymnopédies in popularity. Many recordings now follow the Gymnopédies with Satie's Six Gnossiennes, because they have the same mystery, serenity and beauty that have made the Gymnopédies so popular. (Gnossienne refers to the women of Knossos.)

In addition, Satie wrote some lovely and wonderfully absurd music and theater pieces. He gave his piano pieces names like Veritable Flabby Preludes for a Dog, Desiccated Embryos, Chapters Turned Every Which Way, Three Next to Last Thoughts, Three Waltzes of Exquisite Bad Taste and Sketches and Scratches of a Fat Good Fellow of Wood, sometimes poking fun at fellow composers who gave "poetic titles" to their works, such as Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso (Dawn Song of a Jester) or Jeux D'eau (The Play of Water).

Like most composers, Satie added notation to his pieces to aid the performer in achieving the proper expression. He strictly forbade the pianist to utter any of these in performance and indicated that they not be in the recital program. Here are some from Pieces Froides (Cold Pieces, sometimes translated as Cold Cuts).

  • "Melodies That Scare You Away. In a very particular manner. Obey."
  • "Complete. Descend. Become fixed. Don't torment yourself."
  • "Weary. Important. Enigmatic. Aside. At Bottom."
  • "With fascination. Farther away. Pure. Modestly. Without frowning."
  • Ending II, the instruction to the performer reads "To be sucked. In the profoundest silence."
  • In III, Satie tells the pianist, "Invite yourself. Don't eat too much."
Stravinsky called Satie the oddest person he had ever known...

Satie was happy, however, but extremely poor, a state of being that he came to take pride in. For the most part Satie lived a life of near poverty, he even wrote a "Mass for the Poor". He eventually did come into a considerable sum of money, which he used to buy 7 identical gray velvet suits with matching umbrellas.

I find Satie so appealing for the same reasons his contemporaries found him special—humor, directness of appeal, a sense of the absurd and contempt for unquestioned authority. Satie seemed to remain a child throughout his life. He was loved by his neighborhood children and took them on outings when possible. Satie is, in many ways, classical music's Peter Pan.

Satie has quite a salutary effect on my disposition. I've found particularly the Gymnopédies & Gnossiennes as well as the Nocturnes to be excellent antidotes for road rage. There is such sublime calm in these pieces that it is almost difficult to get upset by anything adverse that happens by while the music is playing.

The Essential Satie

I suggest purchasing several different CDs, as the subtle differences in interpretation are quite interesting for such "simple" music.

The Early Piano Works: Reinbert de Leeuw, pianoThe Early Piano Works
Reinbert de Leeuw, piano

Philips (Polygram) #462161 (2 CDs)

Perfection! If you teethed on Ciccolini's interpretations of the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes these performances are going to seem v e r y  s l o w. Give them a chance and they will grow on you, I guarantee. Afterwards, other performances will seem too fast.

Works for solo piano & piano 4 hands / After the RainWorks for solo piano & piano 4 hands
Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes, etc.
Anne Queffélec & Catherine Collard, piano

Virgin #61846

After the Rain... The Soft Sounds of Erik Satie
Pascal Rogé, piano

London (Polygram) #444958

Superb. The first 9 tracks are played in the same order on each CD (Gymnopédies 1-3 & Gnossiennes 1-6), and the atmosphere created by both is magical.

Ciccolini/GlazerL'Oeuvre Pour Piano Volumes 1 & 2
Aldo Ciccolini, piano

Angel #74534 (5 CDs)

Piano Music
Frank Glazer, piano

Vox #5011

Ciccoloini's were, in the late 60s, the only available recordings of all Satie's keyboard works. They were ground breaking performances and at the time revelatory, but today seem, for Ciccolini, more like effort to have gotten through them all. Glazer was also among the first to approach recording all of Satie's works for piano. A for effort.

The Magic of Satie: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianoThe Magic of Satie
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Universal #470290

Very satisfying individual performances but the arrangement of pieces on the CD can be distracting, with some jarring transitions. Credit is due however for variety. Thibaudet plays many works not represented in other Satie collections, the very lively Jack in the Box, for example.

Erik Satie
Michel Legrand, piano

Erato (Elektra) #92857

Legrand's approach is quite relaxed and entirely apropos for a pianist with his background of more popular music. He seems to be having quite a good time.

Górecki, Satie, Milhaud, BryarsSatie: "Mass for the Poor" (Messe des Pauvres)
Górecki, Satie, Milhaud, Bryars

ECM #21495

I am so thankful for this recording that I won't even complain that the choir part is not heard, only solo organ. Christopher Bowers-Broadbent is the soloist playing this haunting, powerful and very "un-Satie-like" early work. The Mass is about 17 minutes long, and is so entrancing that I listened to it 5 times in succession when I first heard it. The CD contains as well two Preludes by Milhaud, one of "the six". The disc opens with Henryk Gorecki's serene O Domina Nostra with soprano Sarah Leonard joining Mr. Bowers-Broadbent. Rounding out this disc is Gavin Bryars' The Black River.

Bargain Hunting

The Music Of Satie: Works for Orchestra, Piano, VoiceThe Music Of Satie: Works for Orchestra, Piano, Voice
Vox #5107 (2 CDs)

This set features some lovely and seldom performed French Art Songs, works for Piano 4-hands, the Entr'acte cinematographique from the ballet Relache, and the Symphonic Drama with Voice in Three Parts, Socrate with various soloists and ensembles including the Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg, Louis de Froment conducting, and the Ensemble Die Reihe, Frederic Cerha conducting.

Satie: Orchestra Works
Naxos #554279

Although we think of Satie today as a tongue-in-cheek miniaturist, he also created several large-scale theatre pieces. These are the ballets that scandalized audiences early in the 20th Century, using items such as a typewriter and siren. As the notes say, his "scores (are) full of brilliant and uninhibited orchestral colors, the impudent melodies still fresh and invigorating." Surprisingly sensitive and wild (in the best sense), here is some very fine work by Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy conducted by Jerome Kaltenbach.


A Mammal's Notebook: Collected Writings of Erik SatieA Mammal's Notebook: Collected Writings of Erik Satie
by Erik Satie, Ornella Volta (Editor), Anthony Melville (Translator)

Serpent's Tail

Regarding one of Satie's titles Volta writes: "...the title of Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear, on the one hand mocks the 'poires' (which can be translated as 'suckers') who cannot recognize a musical form which does not follow academic rules; and yet refers most of all to a spinning top, the 'pear shaped' toy which was very popular with children in Satie's day, and which went round and round eternally like the music of the Three Pieces." This is quite a delightful book and a must for Satie lovers.

The Banquet YearsThe Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France, 1885 to World War I
by Roger Shattuck

Random House Trade Paperbacks

An enjoyable examination of the lives and influence of Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, & Guillaume Apollinaire.

Erik Satie
by Pierre-Daniel Templier; Translated by Elena L. & David S. French

MIT Press

Out of print, but an indispensable Satie biography. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com or abebooks.com in English or the original French.

Alternative Satie

If you followed popular music in the late 60's, chances are you were listening to the music of Erik Satie without knowing it. On their first album for Columbia, Blood Sweat and Tears performed their own treatments of piano pieces written by the eccentric French composer.

Ravel, Debussy, Satie: Orchestral Works
Sony #63056

A CD with just two Satie pieces, but nice to have to provide context. Debussy's orchestrations of the 1st and 3rd Gymnopédies played by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Louis Lane. Also Debussy's Petite Suite; Ravel's Introduction & Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet & Orchestra; Pavane for a Dead Princess and La Valse, with Michael Tilson Thomas, George Szell and Eugene Ormandy doing the honors.

The Music Of Satie: Works for Orchestra, Piano, VoiceSatie: Gymnopédies & Gnossiennes
Jacques Loussier Trio

Telarc #83431

For some tasteful jazz interpretations of Satie I suggest the Jacques Loussier Trio. Loussier began a very successful career in the early sixties performing J.S. Bach's works as jazz, the "Play Bach" series on London records. He balances very carefully the freedom of jazz with the rigorousness of Bach, and does some very nice improvisational playing around several of Satie's most popular compositions.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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