Erik Satie - Biography


Erik Satie the whimsical French composer was born in Honfleur France on May 17th 1866 and died on July 1st 1925 in Paris. His given name was Eric Alfred Leslie Satie which he shortened to Erik Satie when he became a composer. His father Alfred did literary work, his mother of Scottish descent died when Satie was seven. His father a widower then eking out a living as a translator in Paris sent the young boy to live with his paternal grandparents in Honfleur in the province of Normandy. His father eventually remarried and returned to live with his father and new wife. His father became involved in music publishing and Erik entered the Paris Conservatoire at thirteen but was dismissed for academic failure he was later to make another attempt that also resulted in failure. His father somehow believed that his frail and sickly son was fit for a military career, his army career didn’t last a month. Satie in 1887 decided to make a go over it alone and he moved to the bohemian section of Paris Montmarte.His first works were to include his most famous pieces Trois Gymnpopedies (Three Ancient Dances) these quiet ambient pieces have been used to sell everything from soap to luxury vacations and a short group pieces entitled Ogives(Curves). Two of the Gymnpopedies were to be orchestrated by his slightly older contemporary Debussy. He often visited a café where the avant –garde frequented, The Black Cat where he became something of a celebrity. These first pieces were published by his father’s publishing company.


He was to become a Rosicrucian (a mystic Christian sect) and became a music director for their Paris temple in 1891. Some of his piano pieces from the period are influenced by Rosicrucian thought including Salut Drapeau, Les Fils des Etoiles among other pieces. He got his avant garde friends like the Miguel Utrillo son of the famed painter to back a mystic Christian movement in the arts exemplified by Satie’s ballet Uspud. During this period he was involved in a an intense but seemingly platonic affair with an artist’s model Suzanne Valadon During her six months with him he became obsessed with her writing reams of poetry and music like Danses Gothiques. After this break up Satie was never to become intimately involved with anyone else. Satie’s sexuality has been speculated about but he was seemingly after this youthful encounter asexual.


In 1893 he was to meet the eighteen year old Maurice Ravel and they were to have a mutual artistic affect on each other. During this time he wrote his infamous piano piece Vexations that whimsically instructs the performer to repeat the piece 840 times which times out to roughly 28 hours. The piece wasn’t discovered until 1949 and his spiritual disciple John Cage had a team of pianists perform it as instructed over a two day period at a legendary 1963 New York concert. He then formed his own mystic society which he was the only member of; Metropolitan Church of Art for the Leading Christ Except for the choral Messe des Pauvres most of his activity with the movement consisted of pamphlets and articles. These strange actions convinced even his friends that he had gone mad. He did get an inheritance from his father that kept him out of dire poverty and he started wearing velvet suits hence his nickname “Velvet Gentleman”.


His inheritance didn’t last for long and in the mid 1890’s he experienced real privation and moved to a tiny room in the outskirts of Paris in the neighborhood of Arcueil. He seems if the evidence of his correspondence to friends and his brother are indication of had given up his extreme religiosity. As the century ended he became a cabaret pianist to have some sort of an income. He was to transcribe many of the piano works for both piano and voice. Many of his light songs that he wrote include Poudre d’or, Tendremont, Le Piccadilly .He was later to disown these songs many were found after his death but a number were probably lost. There are a few considerable pieces from the period like the popular piano piece Jack in the Box the short opera Genevieve De Brabant and the strange piano piece to accompany poetry The Dreamy Fish.


Satie at the age of 39 in 1905 came to the conclusion that he never had a firm academic knowledge of music and decided to take lessons from the foremost teacher in France the celebrated composer Vincent D’Indy with whom he was to study counterpoint and harmony. At first his friends thought this was another one of Satie’s jokes, but he was dead serious and received a diploma after three years of study. One of Satie’s greatest jests was after years of criticism that he had no idea of form he wrote in 1911 a piano duet entitled 3 Pieces in the Form of a Pear. He also wrote serious vocal music during the period like the songs Melodies sans Paroles and the monodrama Piege de Meduse.


From religious mysticism he moved to socialism and stopped cultivating an eccentric appearance and started wearing sober clothing along with a black bowler hat. He started a new series of comical piano pieces Genuine Flabby Preludes for a Dog, Old Sequins and Old Breastplates, Dried Embryos, and a parody of classicism Sonata Bureaucratique.


Satie had a number of young groups of followers first were The Jeunes Ravelites and later the very significant Les Six. Satie’s literary works were to include the Memoirs of an Amnesiac and Cahiers d’un mammifere. He became friends with young Jean Cocteau for whom he was to supply incidental musical for his theatrical ventures. In 1916 he wrote for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, Parade a piece that has non musical instruments such as a typewriter and had sets produced by Picasso. He became spiritual father for a group of young French modernist composers known as Les Six whose members included Milhaud, Honneger and Poulenc. He also must have been the first major composer to write for films; a score for Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and another ballet Relache. Another set of comical piano pieces were Furniture Music, a series of nonsense songs Ludoins and a short opera Mercure. Satie was to die at 59 in 1925.He lived a reclusive life and no one was allowed entrance to his apartment which he had kept for over a quarter of a century. When his friends entered besides no evidence of light entering the rooms there were dozens of umbrellas, many velvet suits along with many previously unknown musical manuscripts.


Satie at the time of his death was considered by the musical establishment to be a clown and a hoaxer. Cocteau and Les Six, especially Poulenc whose music was so obviously inspired by Satie kept his reputation alive. After the Second World War he became an inspiration for the American Avant- Garde particularly John Cage. Satie also was celebrated by the sixties counter culture , particularly an album of orchestrated works produced by the rock group Moody Blues label Deram entitled The Velvet Gentleman. He also had a strong effect on Ambient Music and Minimalism. Especially effective recordings of his piano music have been made by Aldo Ciccolini and Jean-Yves Thiabaudet and an excellent recording of his orchestral music by Maurice Abravanel. 

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