Erik Satie (1866 - 1925)

The Best of Erik Satie CD cover In the minds of some observers, Erik Satie was simply an eccentric composer of weird little ditties. True, his early musical education was unsatisfactory, and most of his works were miniatures for the piano which seemed very much to defy any of the expected conventions of music. Yet he should not be dismissed too hastily, because his ideas were to have a profound influence on many musical developments over a broad timespan. Foremost amongst those composers influenced by Satie was his contemporary Debussy, the later French composer Ravel, and Stravinsky.

Erik Satie younger photo In his 40s, Satie made up for his earlier lack of dedication at the Paris Conservatory when he decided to study with d'Indy and Roussel, passing these exams with distinction. Nevertheless he was always well acquainted with the music of composers past and present, and did not like the large scale Romantic trends led by Wagner. For a while he earned a living playing the piano and accordion in bars and cafes in Montmartre, where he also wrote a number of popular songs. The picture we have of Satie the man is as someone who was pointedly independent, rebellious, even ruthless and scathing. He observed life with a wit frequently thick with satire and parody, yet underlying this he appeared to have a philosophical, deeply spiritual side. He became something of a celebrity among other composers, notably Debussy and "Les Six" (including Georges Auric, Poulenc and particularly Darius Milhaud) to whom he was very supportive. He remained the avand-garde father-figure until his death from cirrhosis of the liver (suggesting a lifestyle over-indulging in alcohol).

Erik Satie older photo Satie's music seems to mirror this multifaceted nature. On the one hand it is outwardly simple, straightforward in terms of harmony, using short melodies with little development, even repetitive at times. He used unusual scales such as the old form of modes, and others of uncertain origin suggesting folk tunes from different parts of the world. Yet behind this outwardly simple music, is something different and thought-provoking. It has attitude, a certain sadness, and often an ambivalence making it hard to fathom (or allowing different interpretations by both musician and listener). This ambivalence was enhanced by strange instructions written with the music like "wonder about yourself" or "open your mind". Satie's music shows life from different angles, and is a genuine and new means of expression. Yet Satie demonstrates his non-conformist attitude, mocking his critics and the pretentiousness of other composers by giving some of his works titles such as "True Flabby Preludes", "Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear" and "Desiccated Embryos" (see the article Humour in Music).

Satie's Influence on the Development of Music

Erik Satie - Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes CD cover The music of Erik Satie was instrumental in opening doors in musical expression, so that a number of sub-genres or "schools" could explore new territory. Firstly, Satie provided one of the sparks that set Debussy on a course towards the "Impressionism" movement, and he continued to support Debussy on this course until this style became fashionable and mainstream when the non-conformist in Satie poured scorn on his follower. While several previous composers had looked to folk music for ideas, Satie was one of the first to use elements of Jazz and Ragtime. Then there was the "Experimentalists" such as John Cage who later in the 20th Century admired the father Bohemian's approach of breaking down barriers and carried this ideal towards new extremes. The humorous use of usual sound effects from real objects such as typewriters would later evolve into the ideas of "musique concrète". Then there was also the "Minimalists" such as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman who must surely have been aware of Satie's method of combining short phrases and his trend-setting instruction in "Vexations" to repeat a section 840 times. Another idea originated by Satie was what he called "Furniture Music" intended to be like background wallpaper, and could be considered as the origin of the later concept of "musak" or "muzak". Many musical schools have parallels in the visual art world: the impressionists such as Monet, the Surrealists like Dali and the Cubists like Picasso. Satie himself painted from time to time, and was to work with Picasso on a couple of Ballet projects where the artist was involved in the set and costume design.

Satie's Works - a Selection

Among Satie's best known works are:

    Erik Satie - Complete Piano Works sheet music cover
  • Trois Gymnopedies - two of these (1 and 3) were orchestrated by Debussy
  • Six Gnossiennes - lacking time signatures and bar-lines and, like the Gymnopedies, inspired by images of ancient Greece (Les Six composer Poulenc similarly orchestrated No. 3)
  • Waltzes, Nocturnes, Sarabandes - and other piano works, often written in groups of three
  • Dances Gothiques
  • Embryons Desseches
  • Veritables Preludes Flasques
  • Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire
  • Sonatine Bureaucratique
  • Vexations - this work with the 840 repetitions was first performed in 1963 by several pianists working in relay!
  • La Belle Excentrique - for two pianos
  • Piccadilly - a short piece based on ideas from the world of Ragtime later to influence others such as Debussy
  • Songs
  • Parade - a ballet with Jean Cocteau, Diaghilev and visual input by Picasso, the music sound effects including a typewriter
  • Les Adventures de Mercure - another ballet, also with Cocteau and Picasso
  • Relache - a surreal ballet
  • Socrate - a drama
  • Cinema - early film music premiered shortly before Satie's death

Examples of Satie's music on mfiles include:

Erik Satie - Piano Works CD cover As well as the original Piano versions above, the Gymnopedie No. 1 is also available on mfiles in a number of arrangements for Flute (or Oboe or Recorder) and Piano, for Clarinet (in Bb) and Piano, for Bassoon and Piano, for Violin (or Viola) and Piano and for Cello and Piano. You will also find that Erik Satie's music is used on TV and film from time to time. The movie "About Schmidt" starring Jack Nicholson had a soundtrack by Rolfe Kent and used Satie's Gnossienne No. 4.

Erik Satie - Recommendations:

Satie's piano music is very popular, and there are many Sheet Music volumes to choose from. Here is a small selection:

There are huge number of CDs containing Satie's work in some form, either originals or arrangements of the favourite pieces. For CDs dedicated to Satie's piano music, there is also a wide choice and we present here two low cost options. "The Best of Erik Satie" is on the acclaimed budget label Naxos from or There is also "Erik Satie Piano Works" currently only available from the US site: Both albums contain the Trois Gymnopedies and Six Gnossiennes and a variety of other works.

There was an interesting Erik Satie website hosted on a Swedish Academic site, but this no longer exists. For more information about the composer we recommend the Satie Archives which includes a wealth of information, including photos, music samples and scans of manuscripts as held at the Satie museum in Paris (Archives de la Fondation Erik Satie).