Erik Satie

gigatos | March 23, 2022


Erik Satie (July 1, 1925), whose full name was Éric Alfred Leslie Satie, was a French composer and pianist. A precursor of minimalism and impressionism, he is considered an influential figure in the history of music.

He is also considered an important precursor of the theater of the absurd and repetitive music. Reviled by the academy and admired by other composers of his time, he unexpectedly entered the conservatory at the age of forty. This came as a surprise to those who knew him, since up to that time his training had been irregular and he was dedicated, among other things, to cabaret music. He adopted the name Erik Satie from his first composition, in 1884. Although in later life he took pride in publishing his work under his own name, there seems to have been a short period in the late 1880s when he published his work under the pseudonym Virginie Lebeau and François de Paule.

In addition to music, Satie was a thinker with a “great sense of eloquence,” who left a remarkable body of writings, having contributed to numerous publications, from 391 magazine to the American cultural magazine Vanity Fair.

First years

Erik Satie”s youth was spent between Honfleur in lower Normandy and Paris. When he was four years old, his family moved to Paris, where his father Alfred was offered a job as a translator. After the death of his mother, Jane Leslie Anton, in 1872, he was sent with his younger brother Conrad back to Honfleur, to live with his paternal grandparents. There he received his first music lessons from a local organist. When their grandmother died in 1878, the two siblings were reunited in Paris with their father.

In 1879, Satie entered the Paris conservatory, where he was soon labeled by his teachers as lacking talent. After being sent home, two and a half years later he was again accepted at the conservatory, at the end of 1885, but failed to make a better impression on his teachers, so he finally resolved to leave for military service a year later. This did not last long; within a few weeks he was out of the army by a ruse.

In 1887, he left home to stay in Montmartre. At that time he began what would become a lifelong friendship with the romantic poet Patrice Contamine and through his father published his first compositions. He soon joined the artistic clientele of the café-cabaret Le Chat Noir, and began publishing his Gymnopedies. The Ogives, the Gnossiennes, etc. followed. In the same period he met Claude Debussy. In 1891 he became the official composer and chapel master of the Rosicrucian order led by Joséphin Péladan, the Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal. He composed for it pieces of mystical inspiration, such as Salut Drapeau!, Le Fils des étoiles, and Sonneries de la Rose Croix.

Satie and Suzanne Valadon, impressionist painter and mother of Maurice Utrillo, began an idyll in 1893. Soon Valadon moved into a room near Satie”s on Rue Cortot. Satie became obsessed with her, calling her “my Biquí,” and writing passionate notes about “her complete being, lovely eyes, gentle hands and small feet.” Valadon painted Satie”s portrait and gave it to her, but six months later she moved away. During their relationship Satie composed his Danses Gothiques, as a prayer to bring peace back to her mind. Apparently, this was the only relationship with a woman that Satie had in his entire life.

The same year he met the young Maurice Ravel, on whose early compositions he exerted a notable influence. One of Satie”s compositions of that period, the Vexations, remained unknown until his death. At the end of the year he founded the “Eglise Métropolitaine d”Art de Jésus Conducteur” (Metropolitan Church of Art of Christ the Conductor), being its sole member, with the position of “Parcier et Maître de Chapelle” he began the composition of a Grande Messe, later known as the Messe des Pauvres, and wrote a wealth of letters, articles and pamphlets showing his conviction on religious and artistic subjects.


By mid-1897 he had exhausted all his financial resources, and had to find himself cheaper accommodation, in a room not much bigger than a closet, and two years later, after composing the first two series of Pièces froides in 1897, in Arcueil, on the outskirts of Paris, whose ten-kilometer distance to the city center he used to walk, given his aversion to streetcars.

At this time he resumed contact with his brother Conrad (in much the same way as Vincent van Gogh did with his brother Theo) for numerous reasons, both practical and economic, thus revealing his true feelings. For example, in his letters to his brother it is clear that he had put aside his religious feelings, which he would not resume until the last months of his life.

Debussy and Satie

The early works of Erik Satie, in the 1890s, will influence Debussy”s compositions. Debussy and Satie were contemporaries but the tremendous musical revolution developed by Debussy”s genius could not have been possible without Satie”s works. In turn, Debussy”s musical discoveries were essential to Satie”s music.

Both Geneviève de Brabant and The Dreamy Fish have been thought to contain (for example by Ornella Volta) elements of rivalry with Claude Debussy, of which Debussy himself was probably unaware (since Satie did not publish this music). Meanwhile, Debussy had one of his first great successes with Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, which would lead a few years later to the debate of who preceded whom between the two composers, in which Maurice Ravel was also involved.

Cabaret compositions

From 1899 onwards he earned his living as a cabaret pianist, adapting more than a hundred popular pieces for piano (or piano and voice), adding some of his own. The best known are Je te veux (with text by Henry Pacory), Tendrement (with text by Vincent Hyspa), Poudre d”or (a waltz), La Diva de l”Empire (text by Dominique Bonnaud

Only a few of the compositions that Satie took seriously during this period survive: Jack-in-the-box, music for a pantomime by Jules Dépaquit, Geneviève de Brabant, a short comic opera on a serious theme, with text by Lord Cheminot, The Dreamy Fish, music to accompany a lost tale by Lord Cheminot, and a few others (most of them incomplete, almost none premiered, and none published at the time).

Schola Cantorum

In October 1905, Satie enrolled, against Debussy”s advice, at Vincent d”Indy”s Schola Cantorum to study classical counterpoint (while continuing his cabaret work). Most of his friends were as perplexed as the Schola teachers when they learned of his intention to return to the classroom (especially since D”Indy was a faithful disciple of Camille Saint-Saëns, not particularly appreciated by Satie). As for the reasons that led Satie to take this step, there were possibly two reasons: first, he was tired of being told that the harmony of his compositions was erratic (a criticism from which he could not defend himself very well as he had not finished his studies at the conservatory). Secondly, he was developing the idea that one of the characteristics of French music was the clarity that could best be achieved with a good knowledge of how traditional harmony was perceived. Satie completed five years at the Schola, as a good student, and received a first intermediate level diploma in 1908.

Some of his counterpoint exercises were published after his death (e.g. Désespoir Agréable), but he possibly considered his work En Habit de Cheval as the culmination of his time at the Schola. Other pieces, from the pre-Schola period, also appeared in 1911: the Trois Morceaux en form de poire (Three pear-shaped fragments), though actually seven pieces, which was a sort of summary of the best he had composed up to 1903.

One thing that becomes clear from these published compilations is that perhaps he did not reject Romanticism (and its exponents such as Wagner) as a whole (in a sense he had moderated), but rather certain parts of it: musically, what he rejected most intentionally was, from his first to his last composition, the idea of development, certainly in the strictest sense of the term: the interweaving of various themes in a section of sonata form. Naturally this makes his contrapuntal works, and the others as well, very brief. For example, the “new and modern” fugues do not extend much beyond the exposition of the theme. In general he did not believe that the composer should take up more of the audience”s time than is strictly necessary, avoiding boredom. Melodrama, too, in its then-popular historical Romantic genre sense of “spoken text with a musical background,” is something Satie seems to have managed to stay away from (although his 1913 Piège de Méduse can be seen as an absurd sample of that genre).

In the meantime, there were other changes as well: he joined the Radical Party (socialist), fraternized with the community of Arcueil (among other things, he participated in the work of the “Patronage Laïque” in favor of children), and adopted the appearance of a bourgeois civil servant, with his bowler hat and umbrella. Also, instead of joining some medieval-type sect, he channeled his interest in that era into a peculiar hobby: in a filing cabinet he kept a series of drawings of imaginary buildings (mostly described as being made of metal) which he made on cards and scraps of paper. Occasionally, expanding the game, he would take out small ads in local newspapers offering these buildings (e.g. a “lead castle”) for sale or rent.


From this moment on, Satie”s life began to accelerate. To begin with, the year 1912 saw the success of his short humorous piano pieces; during the following years he would write and publish many of them (most of them premiered by the pianist Ricardo Viñes):

His habit of accompanying the scores of his compositions with commentaries of all kinds is now well established (see the section “Music and text” Erik Satie

In some respects these works are very reminiscent of the compositions of Rossini”s last years, grouped under the name Péchés de Vieillesse (sins of old age). Rossini also wrote humorous little pieces for piano, such as Mon prélude hygiénique du matin or Dried figs, and dedicated them to his dog on his birthday. These works had been performed at Rossini”s exclusive salon in Paris a few decades earlier. In all likelihood, however, Satie did not get to see or hear these pieces when he was composing his own works in the early decades of the 20th century; these Rossini works had not been published at that time. Diaghilev is said to have discovered the manuscript of these Rossini pieces around 1918 in Naples, before staging La Boutique Fantasque, around the same time that Satie stopped writing humorous comments in his scores.

But the real acceleration in Satie”s life did not come from the growing success of his piano works; in fact it was Ravel who, probably without knowing it, activated what was to become a characteristic of the later Satie: being part of all the avant-garde currents that developed in Paris in the following years. These currents quickly followed one another, undoubtedly making Paris the artistic capital of the time, when the beginning of the new century seemed to excite so many.

In 1910, the “Jeunes Ravêlites,” a group of young musicians who admired Ravel, expressed a preference for Satie”s early work (the pre-Schola period), reinforcing the idea that Satie had been a precursor to Debussy. At first Satie was flattered that at least some of his works were receiving public attention, but when he realized that his more recent work was being undervalued or scorned, he sought out other young artists who better understood his current ideas, in order to find greater mutual support in creative activity. Thus, artists such as Roland Manuel, and later Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau began to receive more attention from him than the “Jeunes”.

As a result of this contact with Roland Emmanuel, he began to publish again his writings, much more ironic than the previous ones (among others Memoirs of an amnesiac and Notebooks of a mammal).

With Jean Cocteau, whom he met in 1915, he began working on incidental music for a staging of Shakespeare”s A Midsummer Night”s Dream (which resulted in Cinq Grimaces). From 1916 Satie and Cocteau worked on the ballet Parade, which premiered in 1917 by Sergei Diaghilev”s Ballets Russes, with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Léonide Massine. Through Picasso, Satie met other cubists, such as Georges Braque, with whom he worked on other unfinished projects.

With Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre he formed the “Nouveaux Jeunes”, shortly after composing Parade. Later Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud joined the group. In September 1918 Satie, without further explanation, left the group. Jean Cocteau reunited the six remaining members, forming the “Group of Six”, which Satie would later join only to later fall out with them again.

Since 1919 he was in contact with Tristan Tzara, founder of the Dada movement. He met other Dadaists, such as Francis Picabia (who would later switch to surrealism), André Derain, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, etc. The day he met the latter, they created Man Ray”s first readymade: The Gift (1921). Satie participated in the Dadaist publication 391. In the first months of 1922 he was involved in the discussion between Tzara and André Breton about the true nature of the artistic avant-garde, summarized in the failure of the Paris Congress. Initially Satie aligned himself with Tzara, but managed to maintain good relations with both sides. Meanwhile, around Satie an Arcueil School had formed, with young musicians such as Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob, Roger Désormière and Henri Cliquet-Pleyel.

He was profoundly anti-Wagnerian. He used scales unusual in Western music, which made possible later non-tonal uses of tonality to escape typically Wagnerian musical development. From Satie onwards we can say that the axis moved from Wagnerian harmonic tension accumulation to timbre, color or rhythm.

He composed an “instantaneist” ballet (Relâche) in collaboration with Picabia, for Rolf de Maré”s Swedish Ballets. At the same time, Satie composed the music for René Clair”s Dadaist film Entr”acte, which was used for an intermezzo of Relâche.

Music and text

Although Satie had a close relationship with other arts related to music – Man Ray (painter) said of his painting that it was “the only musician with eyes” -, the deep reflection that the composer makes about the relationship that can exist between musical and textual meaning is perhaps the most characteristic of these encounters with other areas of creation. Ornella Volta states that Satie “is perhaps even the composer who has meditated the most on the limits of musical communication…” He had a relationship with great painters such as Valadon, Zuloaga, Picasso, Picabia, Juan Gris or Derain. He envied their ability to create works that were instantly and fully captured by sight. Recognizing the limitation he had as a composer in having to represent the music graphically (which did not reach either the listener or the music itself), he sought ways to embellish his manuscripts, bringing them visually closer to what the music was meant to convey.

Bearing in mind the particularity of having to go through an interpreter in music, he endeavored to make the latter his accomplice, creating a coded language to communicate with him. This is how his peculiar “character indications” came about.

The poet José Patricio Contamine de Latour, a close friend of Erik Satie”s from his youth, tells how the latter, excited by his discovery, decided to exchange the (usual) indications of technique, tempo and character for expressions of his own invention (even more white if possible, with pride, with surprise, it”s raining, don”t turn it on yet…), which instead of referring directly to the performer”s technique, would indicate the mood more in keeping with the composer”s musical intentions.

Although these indications of character were more concise at the beginning, they soon gained certain dimensions, later taking on a poetic entity of their own when they were compiled, among others, in the book Cuadernos de un mammífero (texts by Erik Satie) – Although the book is later, it makes direct reference to the title, always the same (Les cahiers d”un mammifère), although the book is later, it refers directly to the title, always the same (Les cahiers d”un mammifère), which the composer gave in his own handwriting to the various reflections he wrote in distinguished avant-garde magazines at the beginning of the 20th century -, Satie was careful to point out the following from the beginning of this practice:

“To anyone. It is forbidden to read aloud the text during the course of the musical performance. Any failure to comply with this observation will raise my righteous indignation against the petulant. No privileges are granted.”

These texts “not to be read” (sometimes stories, sometimes poetic brushstrokes) did not always maintain a meaning-music relationship. While in some works the author seeks that the meaning of the text evokes the interpreter”s character in a precise way, in others we do find a more direct relationship of meaning; as when in several examples the text refers to hidden musical quotations (melodies from both the popular music of the time and the cultured music, even contemporary). Erik Satie sought to bring his music closer to the people of his time, for this he sometimes took melodies and themes from the musical imaginary of his time and molded, reharmonized and transformed them to make them his own (similar to parody). These are the musical quotations that were mentioned. His idea was that these melodies, recognizable by the majority of the public, would invite the public to listen, that people would be interested in the new direction that the motifs and turns they already knew would take in the composer”s hands.

Ornella Volta reflects: “It is improbable that the listener of our days can appreciate in all its depth of the tasty mixture that Satie makes in these fragments of sophisticated harmonic combinations and popular refrains, due to the impossibility of recognizing the latter, which no longer circulate, as before, “from mouth to mouth”.”

Satie also came into contact with the world of theater. A noteworthy example of this is The Medusa Trap. This one-act play, which anticipates the Dadaist theater that would arrive in the 1920s, was initially conceived at the end of the 19th century and taken up by the composer in 1913 and finally reconstructed (after Satie lost the original in a cab), performed and published in 1921. Erik Satie composed seven “little dances” (“Dances of the monkey”), short pieces that served as interludes between scenes that, according to the composer, were to be danced by a mechanical monkey (Jonah), for the entertainment of Baron Medusa. The peculiar theatrical work has remarkable moments, such as the scene in which a servant demands equality from his master (Polycarp), anticipating the class struggle. Satie implies from the annotations in the manuscript, that although the work does not determine the keyboard instrument to be used, it could well be a harmonium.


Until the year of his death in 1925, absolutely no one but him entered his room in Arcueil since he moved in twenty-seven years ago. What his friends discovered there, after his burial in the Arcueil cemetery, had the charm of Tutankhamun”s tomb; in addition to the dust and cobwebs (which, among other things, made it clear that Satie never composed using his piano), they discovered numerous objects:

But more importantly: there were compositions that no one had heard of (or thought lost) everywhere. Behind the piano, in velvet suit bags, and so on. These included the Vexations, Geneviève de Brabant, and others unpublished or unfinished, such as The Dreaming Fish, many Schola Cantorum exercises, an unknown set of the “canine” pieces, some other piano works, often untitled (which were published as Nouvelles Gnossiennes, Pièces Froides, Enfantines, Musique d”amble, etc.).

According to Milhaud, Satie “prophesied the major movement in classical music that will appear in the next fifty years within his own musical oeuvre”.

Complete work

His best known works are the Gymnopédies, although the catalog of his complete oeuvre is composed of more than a hundred works of almost all genres.


Some of the scores of his works can be downloaded free of charge from the website of the international IMSLP project, from here. Another very important work was Weindenfeller.


  1. Erik Satie
  2. Erik Satie
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.