“Trois Gymnopédies” or “The Gymnopédies,” is a collection of 3 piano compositions created by French pianist and composer Erik Satie. In 1888, the first and third compositions were published, while the second was published in 1895.
The work was titled after the French word for “gymnopaedia,” - a Greek word used to describe young men displaying their athletic skills through war dancing. It was an annual festival in ancient Sparta. Although there remains further speculation regarding the source of the title. Satie himself maintained his stance that he read it in “Salammbô,” a novel by Gustave Flaubert. However, other theorists claim the source to be J. P. Contamine de Latour’s poem “Les Antiques.” This claim is backed by the fact that the first version of Gymnopédie was published in 1888 in “La Musique des familles,” a magazine where Latour’s poem appeared too.
The third “Gymnopédie” followed the first at the end of 1888. The second “Gymnopédie” was announced seven years later, although the publication was pre-announced in several music journals.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, Erik Satie’s popularity started diminishing as he faced financial difficulties. Claude Debussy came to his rescue, drawing public attention towards the “The Gymnopédies.” However, Debussy didn’t think that the second Gymnopédie was suitable for orchestration, so he orchestrated the first and third versions, albeit, by reversing the numbering. Satie’s third became Debussy’s first, and vice versa. This rearranged score was published in 1898.
In the 20th Century, “The Gymnopédies” were often mistakenly considered to be part of Satie’s furniture music. However, it is still regarded as one of the principal precursors of modern “ambient music.”
These three short and simplistic pieces are written in ¾, each harboring a common structure and theme. Another common feature includes a piano “bass note,” which is held up for a whole bar, accompanied by a “half-note” also in the bass, on the 2nd and 3rd beats of the bar. The main melodic line is held by the upper hand playing the piano, with simple “quarter notes.” All rhythms are based on this motif, with only the player’s top hand experiencing variations. These variations sometimes hold long notes, complementing the tonal structure of the chords. The variations on the “half-note” (minim) also demonstrate the same elongated rhythms, a characteristic highly favored in “Impressionist music.”
The minims are the driving force in all versions, often pursued by 2 crotchets, as they gently push the music forward, in all three pieces of music. This effect brings a sense of continuity to the music and ties the three pieces together, with repetitive harmony.
The very first “Gymnopédie” composition is in “D major.” It has a bass dotted “half-note” rotating between a “G” (4th note) and “D” (tonic note). The “half-note” on the 2nd and 3rd beats alternate between two combinations - one containing the major-seventh notes of G and the other - major-seventh notes of D. Both these triads have a higher octave than the bass note. This arrangement leads to a gentler bass line, complementing the melancholic mood created by the upper hand. The piece finally descends into silence, evoking a delicate air of ambiguity.
The second “Gymnopédie” composition is in “C major,” and has an overlying “half-note” along with the bass dotted one. However, the “minim’ here is played by the upper hand and is evidently higher than the bass. When compared to the 1st “Gymnopédie,” there is a stark contrast between the moods. The 2nd version has a lighter tone and a variable chordal structure. It ends with a “C” in the lower hand and a “C major” triad in the upper hand, offering a more resolved outcome.
The final “Gymnopédie” is also in “C major,” and continues the same pattern on the “half-note.” The bass oscillates between “A” and “D” as the upper hand plays the “half-note.” There is a triad in “C major,” accompanied by a “B,” a “E,” and a “G,” on the alternative bars. The finale finishes with 2 dotted “crotchets,” - a lower hand “C,” “E,” & “A,” and an upper hand “C,” “E,” “A,” & “C.” The last chords truly evoke a certitude, a melancholic sadness prevalent among all 3 versions of “Gymnopédies.”
The melodies of “Trois Gymnopédies” evoke mild, yet deliberate discordances against the harmony. There’s almost a melancholy, piquant effect - matching the composer’s intent. The performance instructions direct the performers to create a grave, sad, and painful tone while playing each piece.
Usage in Popular Culture
“The Gymnopédies” has been used extensively across several television shows and movies. Notable examples would include “Another Woman” (Woody Allen), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (Wes Anderson), “Man on Wire,” and “Diva.”
- In 1968, the first and second version of “The Gymnopédies” was arranged by the band “Blood, Sweat & Tears.” It was titled “Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie.” This recording went on to win a Grammy under the category “Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance.”
- In 1979, the Australian/English instrumental rock band “Sky” used the first version of “The Gymnopedies” in their debut album.
- In 1980, a rendition of Gymnopedie No. 1 was used as a B-side for Gary Numan’s single titled “We Are Glass.” The track was titled “Trois Gymnopedies.”
- In 1984, the first version was also a part of the compilation titled “Masterpieces - The Very Best of Sky.”
- In 1990, Branford Marsalis recorded “Gymnopédies” for piano in his album titled “Romances for Saxophone.”
- In 1999, the band “Sweet Female Attitude” used the chord sequence of the composition in the remix of a song titled “Flowers.”
- In 2006, the electronic duo “Isan” arranged all the pieces with percussion.
- In 2007, the first and third version of the “The Gymnopédies” was arranged by Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann for the ensemble group “The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic.”
- In 2007, “Depapepe,” a Japanese band, created their own acoustic version of the first “Gymnopédies.” It was released in their album titled “Depapepe Plays the Classics.”
- In 2016, Jack DeJohnette tributed “The Gymnopédies” in his album “Return.”
Claude Debussy’s orchestration of “Gymnopédies” took it to a different level, transforming an innovative piece into an established orchestral phenomenon. The orchestrated genius of Debussy was a welcome piece of innovation, offering a rare and additional aesthetic touch.
Satie’s implied modernist aesthetic, his willingness to cater to a bourgeois audience, secured his position in the early modernist traditions. His vision of the piano was abstract and minimalist. The mood in all versions of the “Gymnopédies” is serene and stately, with each movement drifting delicately to the next. The three versions examine a common theme, albeit, from a different viewpoint.
“Gymnopédies” is a musical gem, one that erects its own aura within the avant-garde ballets and suites of its time. The sheer heterodoxy and diversity make Satie's output a daunting prospect to grasp. His extreme transvaluation carves its own niche in the fascinating history of classical piano pieces. Satie had his share of distractors, he was scorned by the music establishment in his native country, but his aesthetic authority stretched the boundaries of music to the extreme. “Gymnopédies'' is his great reward - a maverick, timeless pop classic. There shouldn’t be a question of Satie’s relevance, as he’s made himself indispensable.