Great Composers - Eric Satie
Weekend Special

Great Composers - Eric Satie

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

The 1893 piano work, ‘Vexations,’ written by French composer and pianist Erik Satie (1866–1925) had to wait for 70 years, till September 1963, to be given a world premiere in New York. Thispiece with 180 notes, had to be repeated 840 times, as directed by Satie. Five different pianists had to play in relays for over 18 hours to perform the musical marathon from start to finish, playing continuously from 6pm until lunchtime the following day!

Satie’s music marks the first definite break with 19th-century French Romanticism, and whose unconventional, often witty style, bore an influence on 20th-century music.While his early musical education was anything but profound, and most of his works were miniatures for the piano which appeared to defy any of the expected conventions of music, his ideas were to have a profound influence on many musical developments over a broad timespan.

Satie’s compositions were shorn off pretentiousness and sentimentality, revealing an austere essence. This is reflected in piano pieces such as ‘Trois Gnossiennes,’ notated without bar lines or key signatures, when he was 24 years old. In fact, early piano pieces, such as ‘Trois Sarabandes’ at 21 and ‘Trois Gymnopedies’ at 22, use then-novel chords that reveal him as a pioneer in harmony.

Gymnopédie No. 1 -

Satie’s works during his 30s resonated with the Dada and Surrealist movements in art; thus it avoids grandiose sentiment or transcendent significance, abhors traditional forms and tonal structures, and takes the form of parody, with glib titles, such as ‘Trois morceaux enforme de poire’(‘Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear’) and ‘EmbryonsDesseches’ (‘Desiccated Embryos’).

Exploring old form of modes and suggesting folk tunes from different parts of the world,Satie used unusual scales. Deep within there was a certain sadness, and often an ambivalence making it hard to fathom, though outwardly it seemed as simple music. This ambivalence was enhanced by strange instructions written with the music like ‘wonder about yourself’ or ‘open your mind.’No wonder Satie's music revealed life from different angles, and was a genuine and new means of expression.

Some regard Satie’s masterpiece as ‘Socrate’ for four sopranos and chamber orchestra, which was based on the dialogues of Plato. ‘Socrate,’ an inspiring cantata, clearly demonstrated an agility which was not seen previously.

Many others say he is best known for his small melancholic piano pieces and the meditative world of ‘Gymnopedies,’ where, as in a cubist painting, motifs are ‘seen’ from all sides.

Je teveux -

There are others who assert that Satie finally achieved a degree of success with ‘Parade,’ a collaboration with Pablo Picasso, among others. The score was compelling, and the inclusion of guns, car horns, sirens, and typewriters was innovative enough to cause an opening night riot that brought Satie to the public's attention.

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.’

His last, completely serious piano works are the five ‘Nocturnes’. Satie’s ballet ‘Relache’ contains a Surrealistic film sequence by Rene Clair; the film score ‘Entr’acte,’ or ‘Cinema,’ serves as an example of his ideal background, or ‘furniture’ music.

Gnossienne 1-

Undoubtedly, a number of sub-genres or ‘schools’ could explore new territory because the music of Satie was instrumental in opening doors in musical expression. Essentially, Satie was one of the first to use elements of Jazz and Ragtime, while several previous composers had looked to folk music for ideas.

In 1925 at the age of 59, Erik Satie died. His music faded into obscurity until the 1960s when it was rediscovered by the modern minimalist composer John Cage, who found Satie an inspiration and influence on his own music.

On the occasion of Satie’s 150th birth anniversary, The Guardian (25 June 2016) in a piece captioned, ‘Erik Satie: Prepare yourself’ byNick Shave says…’ And even after minimalism outgrew its origins, the composers associated with repetitive means continued to pay tribute – you’ll find Satie echoing in the melancholic atmospheres of Arvo Part’s Fur Alina, in John Adams’s Gymnopedies-inspired piano concerto Century Rolls and the folkish piano miniatures of Ludovico Einaudi, not to mention the electronic music of Aphex Twin. At 150 years old, the French composer is both everywhere and absent.’

Siddharth Kumar holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London, and conducts weekend Classical Piano classes. Siddharth is Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year MNC stint, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music.