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The French Minimalist Composer, Erik Satie's Works and Life

Erik Satie: Overview

  • Born: 1866 - Honfleur, France
  • Died: 1925 - Paris, France
  • Historical Period: Modern, Minimalism 
  • Musical Media: Orchestra, Keyboards, Theatrical, Songs, Choral, Ballet

Composer, Erik Satie

Eric Alfred Leslie Satie was born in 1866 In France. He was one of the foremost influencers of the 20th-century musical style and was typically unconventional in his compositional approach. After producing a series of works, some of which were understated at the time, he passed away in 1925 from cirrhosis of the liver. 

Erik Satie: A Lifelong Struggle for Musical Aesthetics

Satie was extremely eccentric for his time, though he was both versatile and considered a genius. As a composer, he had a major anti-establishment vibe about him. This gets reflected in his drastically different style of work when compared to his contemporaries. From theatre to ballet, or the cabaret, he composed for a wide range of platforms. At that time, critics judged his music to be uninteresting and meaningless. But Satie was much ahead of his time. His works were termed “Furniture Music” since they projected ordinary day-to-day life.

When Satie was only four years old, the family moved to Paris when his father got a job as a translator there. In the year 1872, at the tender age of six, Satie lost his mother. The result of which was another shift; he and his sibling Conrad were sent to live with their grandparents.  

In 1879, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory but was immediately branded as hopeless by his teachers. This impression of worthlessness against him arose from the fact that Georges Mathias, a piano professor at the Conservatory, said that Satie’s style was ‘insignificant’. Additionally, Emile Descombes, another piano instructor, harbored similar sentiments for Satie’s work. 

Despite dropping out at first, he was readmitted to the Paris Conservatory in 1885 but once again, failed to make a mark there. This prompted him to join the army as the only available option at that time, but even this was short-lived for the uninterested musician. While serving in the army, he contracted bronchitis. Satie was discharged from the army due to his illness, whereupon he shifted to Montmartre, a district in Paris. He started living at the Chat Noir cabaret and in 1888, composed some music works that were published by his father. These became known as the famous Trois Gymnopedies. It was here that he met Claude Debussy. 

In 1890, a religious group called the Rosicrucians caught Satie’s attention. He joined it and composed pieces such as Rose et Croix for the sect. Another example of his work while being associated with the Rosicrucians includes the Messe des Pauvres (1895). In between, in 1893 he was also involved in a romantic affair with Suzanne Valadon, an artist. From 1898 onwards, he took up residence at Arcueil in Paris, living a rather private life. In 1905, Satie studied at the Schola Cantorum de Paris and received instructions in music by Vincent d’Indy and Albert Roussel for about three years. 

Now a mature and serious individual, Satie stuck to his artistic ideals of being against Romanticism in music, receiving a diploma in 1908. The year 1910 saw his work appreciated by young musicians around the composer, Maurice Ravel and this encouraged him to produce even better work. He associated himself with other artists of the time, such as Roland-Manuel and Jean Cocteau, producing work wrought in irony. 

When Satie was introduced to Jean Cocteau in 1915, they worked together on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Then, in 1916, they again collaborated on Parade, a ballet, which had its premiere in 1917. The costumes for this were done by Pablo Picasso himself and through him, Satie was able to come into contact with cubists such as Georges Braque. 

In 1917, Erik Satie, became the overseer of a group of young composers, the Les Six, when they accepted him as their patron saint. To honor him, the group included Darius Milhaud, Henri Sauguet, and Roger Désormiere. Their aim was to bring about a change in European influences which stressed on the conciseness and straightforwardness of modern music. The year 1919 was when Satie gained even more popular associations with the likes of Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, and Andre Derain. As Tristan was the initiator of the Dada Movement, Satie was made an honorary member of the Dadaists in Zurich. His contribution to the movement was through his works, such as The Gift (1921). The actual spiritual legacy of Satie’s work, however, is considered by many as Socrate (1919). 

Erik Satie had an almost indomitable will to write pieces going against the status quo. This meant for him that Romanticism was archaic and with unnecessary grandiose elements. Satie’s work ignores traditions in musical development and usually has witty titles such as Embryons Desséchés (1913), making fun of prevalent Romantic or Impressionist composers such as Debussy himself. Eric Satie was without a doubt different and revolutionary in his conceptual beliefs. His music, though apparently flippant, was the ideal ‘picture’ of avant-garde efforts to fuse art and life. 

Satie’s pursuit of bringing simplicity to music led him to produce many refined works such as Trois Sarabandes (1887), Trois Gnossiennes (1890), his already mentioned masterpiece Socrate (1918), based on Plato’s words, Nocturnes (1919) and Relâche (1924). 

Erik Satie wasn’t the greatest composer of all time. Indeed, some of his contemporaries were known to have been both more popular and prolific during his lifetime. However, his contribution to modern musical aesthetics and unflinchingly stubborn opposition to Romantic sentimentalism in his pieces made him a pioneer in his field. He brought about new ways to write music and many of his works received acclaim posthumously. 


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