We’re dipping our toes back in to the Parisian avant-garde world today with the latest star of our Classical in Conversation blog, Erik Satie.
Cast your minds back to our very first Classical in Conversation blog with Debussy. We learned about a life that was filled with the influence of poets, painters and other composers and musicians, and how they would all come together in the dimly-lit salons of Paris to share in artistic enjoyment.
You can imagine Erik Satie being a part of that world too. In fact, he and Mr Debussy were firm friends. Satie often performed at the Salon De La Rose + Croix alongside other artists.
His first road into music was a bit of a rocky one, but not at all because of his abilities! After learning how to play the piano with his grandmother and stepmother, he earned himself a place at the famous Paris Conservatoire. Unfortunately, he was branded a lazy and unmotivated individual by his peers and teachers, some even calling his technique “insignificant and laborious”. Amazingly, Satie wasn’t deterred by this. He left the school and came back a couple of years later with a renewed passion and energy and began developing his talent in composition. Nice one, Erik!
A fun fact about Erik Satie is that he much preferred to refer to himself as a phonometrician, rather than a musician. This is someone who measures sounds – interesting!
And so, it was around this time in Paris that he began composing and publishing his most famous works to date, the Gymnopédies…
These three compositions for piano were completed in 1888, though the second wasn’t published until 1895. The title derives from an ancient Greek word for an annual festival for young men to dance! They were initially released in a magazine alongside a poem written by J P Contamine de Latour. We don’t know which was written first and therefore, who was influenced by who!
The Test of Time
These works have really stood the test of time and continue to be a key part of piano repertoire and teaching today. Satie’s work is often considered the precursor to movements like minimalism and ambient music, and the Gymnopédies have been used on a tonne of film soundtracks, as well as been covered by any artists for their albums.
The first movement has actually been included in the RSL Classical Piano Grade 5 syllabus! That’s right, we couldn’t leave out this legendary work, and so you can now learn it for your exam (and also to keep in your repertoire forever, of course!).
We’re asked by Satie to play this piece “painfully”, which is quite the opening instruction. Sure enough, when performed right, this piece sounds incredibly melancholic and reflective. The melody is distinctively dissonant against the harmony which creates an amazing atmosphere. It’s a powerfully simple piece with a very sparse texture and a real sense of stillness which the performer should lean into and enjoy.
However, do not be fooled! The piece may sound simple but it is important not to underestimate the technical skill that is required. We’d recommend taking the time to practise the left-hand part on its own until it feels automatic, and so that you can find those notes effortlessly. It’s certainly true that when this piece is done well, and every chord is placed with balance and accuracy, you’re in for a really beautiful time.