The Velvet Gentleman’s Intentional Notes
"I have never written a note I didn't mean." - Erik Satie
Erik Satie (May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925) was born Eric Alfred Leslie Satie in Honfleur, Normandy, France to a British mother and French father. He was a conservatory trained composer and pianist whose innovative style helped determine the course of Western music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His music is distinguishable by its seemingly sparse textures, unusual harmonies, and humor.
Early Life and Education
Satie's mother died during his childhood and he and his siblings were sent to live wit their father's parents. His musicality was recognized by his family during his childhood and his grandmother became his first music teacher. When he outgrew her tutelage, he studied organ with the local organist, Gustave Vinot, who encouraged Satie's study of old church music, especially modal compositions and Gregorian chant, which proved highly influential on Satie's later harmonic language which was not major or minor but modal.
After the death of his grandmother, Erik went to live with his father in Paris who had remarried a pianist and composer, Eugénie Barnetche. of whom the 12 year old Erik did not care. However, Eugénie believed that Erik should become a professional musicians and, in Nov. 1879, enrolled him in the Paris Conservatoire. Satie did not care for his formal education, with his teacher Émile Decombes calling him "the laziest student in the Conservatoire. He in turn wrote that the school was like a prison to him. In 1882, he was expelled from the institution due to his poor performance. Satie then joined the military but his career was cut short due to poor health.
The Parisian Bohemian
At the age of 21, Satie moved to Montmartre in Paris and became a part of the "Bohemians," a community of creatives, artists, and revolutionaries. He supported himself by as a pianist in the local cafés as well as conducting. He began composing music in a compositional system of his own design, including his sets of "Gymnopédies" and "Gnossiennes." Both sets of pieces are reminiscent of modal melodies and monophonic textures of Gregorian chant. His sparse style contrasted greatly with the harmoniously rich and lush music of the previous generation of Romantic composers.
While living in Montemartre, he fell in love (for the only time) with painter Suzanne Valadon (September 23, 1865 – April 7, 1938). Although Valadon moved into the apartment next to Satie, she turned down his proposal of marriage. When she left after only six months, Satie was devastated and went to live alone in Arcueil and became increasingly eccentric. It was also around this time that Satie began dressing in gray velvet suits (as seen the painting by Ramon Casas below), gaining him the nickname "the velvet gentleman," as well as taking to unusual dietary restrictions such as only eating white foods.
Satie's Music & Language
Satie's music was influenced by the emerging Symbolist movement in literature and art. He composed pieces that reflected the ironic and sometimes absurd themes of Symbolism, such as "Trios Moreceaux en forme de poire" [Three Pear-shaped Pieces]. His performance notes and instructions would often include unexpected and unique descriptions such as "arm yourself with clairvoyance" or asking the player to repeat the phrase "840 times in immediate succession." While his musical language and choices may have seemed unusual to his many of his contemporaries and to many of us today, Satie's choices were deliberate. When playing, studying, or listening to his music, it is important to cognizant of this. He wrote that "I have never written a note I didn't mean." When he consider this, as outsiders we can begin to really understand the sonic world that Satie's music creates. Satie also published writings on music and many other subjects include his "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" and "A Mammal's Notebook." Satie's music and writings were influenced by and influential in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements of art.
Along with his contemporaries and friends Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, Satie was birthing a new music language with harmonic, rhythmic. and melodic influences being drawn from around the global and throughout music history. Throughout his life, Satie formed significant friendships with some of the most influential figures in the arts. Debussy so admired Satie's music that he arranged some of Satie's piano works for orchestra. Satie bridged many artistic movement and was also connected with the Dadaism and Surrealism. These associations provided him with opportunities to explore interdisciplinary art forms, including ballet and theater, leading to groundbreaking works like 1917's "Parade" in collaboration with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso.
Part of this approach to musical composition, which Satie referred "Musique d'ameublement" [furniture music] music was part of an ambience. It was simply part of the scene not meant to be the center of attention but to add to an overall sensory experience. Satie summed up his musical philosophy, "To have a feeling for harmony is to have a feeling for tonality… the melody is the Idea, the outline; as much as it is the form and the subject matter of a work. The harmony is an illumination, an exhibition of the object, its reflection."
Erik Satie's influence extended way beyond his lifetime. His experimental compositions and rejection of established norms paved the way for later movements, such as Surrealism, Neo-Classicism, and Minimalism. Composers like John Cage, Philip Glass, and Brian Eno have acknowledged Satie's impact on their own work. This musical philosophy is even directly influential in the "chill out," "ambient," and "lo-fi" styles of today. In fact, his early work in music for film has set the foundation for today's music for media which uses both musical and non-musical sound design to create a sonic atmosphere.
To have a feeling for harmony is to have a feeling for tonality… the melody is the Idea, the outline; as much as it is the form and the subject matter of a work. The harmony is an illumination, an exhibition of the object, its reflection.
Satie spent his final years in relative obscurity, focusing on composing and revisiting earlier works. His financial situation remained precarious throughout his life, he had difficulties managing finances. On July 1, 1925, sadly Satie died at the age of only 59 of liver cirrhosis. Although he was famous for his excellent care to his own appearance, his home in Arcueil was squalid. Several of his works thought to have been lost were found amongst the disarray. Satie left behind a body of work that defied specificity and continues to challenges the Western musical conventions.
"Erik Satie: A Life Less Ordinary." Minnesota Public Radio. [http://music.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/0003_satie/satie.shtml#:~:text=It%20was%20around%20this%20time,outside%20only%20during%20bleak%20days].
"Composer Erik Satie Was Weirder Than You Realize." Soundfly. [https://flypaper.soundfly.com/discover/composer-erik-satie-was-weirder-than-you-realize/].
"Erik Satie and the Art of Simplicity." Library of Congress NLS Music Notes Blog. [https://blogs.loc.gov/nls-music-notes/2021/05/erik-satie-and-the-art-of-simplicity/].
"Companion Website for 'Erik Satie: Music, Art, and Literature'." Oxford University Press. [https://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780190658298/cast/satie/].
"Tracing the Legends of Bohemian Paris and Magical Montmartre." The Culture Trip. [https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/paris/articles/tracing-the-legends-of-bohemian-paris-and-magical-montmartre#].
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.