Do you like Satie? Well, the acid test – though it’s more like skimmed milk in this case – is Socrate. A 30-minute setting of over 2,000 words from the Platonic dialogues, Erik Satie’s ‘drame symphonique’ is deliberately featureless, neutral in expression, minimally colourful, scarcely symphonic and dramatic only by virtue of harmonic and instrumental abstinence. Having set out to create a work ‘as white and pure as antiquity’, Satie certainly succeeded.

‘How boring!’ you might think, and you would be in distinguished company. Ravel, for instance, who did much to establish Satie’s reputation as an authentic composer, flatly rejected Socrate. According to Darius Milhaud, ‘He didn’t understand it, that’s all. And he told me he could never agree with a work which for him was so poor – in invention, poor in everything.’ Stravinsky, on the other hand, was heard to exclaim after a performance in 1919, ‘There is Bizet, Chabrier and Satie!’ – which is a peculiar view of the recent history of French music but no less of a testimonial for that.

The only problem with Socrate – declared Satie’s masterpiece by biographer Robert Orledge – is that it is perfect, like the Brancusi sculpture inspired by it. There is probably no other piece of music so faultless, so unquestionably natural in its setting of a French text – an achievement which, prosaic though it is, has its own aesthetic value. In the same way, as harmony and instrumental colour are reduced at the end to a near minimum and rhythm to a simple ostinato, the death of Socrates is calmly accepted as an inevitability. Perfection, so patiently and so austerely accomplished, is difficult to live with. At the same time, it is impossible to imagine without a shudder the same text being set in a different way.

Failing the skimmed-milk test is not a disqualification. Socrate – originally scored for four sopranos and small orchestra but no less effective with one voice and piano – was completed in 1918, towards the end of bewilderingly many-sided career. If you don’t like Satie the classicist you could well engage with one or more of the other Saties.

Go back 30 years and there is the Satie who introduced himself at the Chat Noir cabaret in Montmartre as a ‘gymnopédiste’. To the Chat Noir management it meant nothing; to us it means the composer of the Trois Gymnopédies, now one of the most frequently performed works of its time and place. Because of the popularity of the three dances and because they are apparently so artless they are seriously underrated. Even Debussy, who in a situation of mutual admiration had befriended Satie and who orchestrated two of the Gymnopédies in 1898, expressed surprise at their success – to the disgruntlement of their all-too-easily offended composer. They are the work of a consummate harmonist. In their textural nudity – in ancient Sparta the gymnopaedia was danced by naked young men – every dissonant contact of the slow-moving melodic line with the shifting chords below it registers like a touch on the skin.

The similarly hypnotic Gnossiennes, the first set of which was written two years later, are another indication of harmonic sensitivity. Impressed on hearing Romanian folk music at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, Satie was fascinated by the modal harmonies and melodic decorations that were later to be a major preoccupation of Bartók in the following century. Perhaps the most surprising of all these early piano works is the Trois Sarabandes. It may be that Satie’s harmonies here owe something to Chabrier, the other great Parisian nonconformist of his time. But there can be little doubt of the influence of the Sarabandes on both Ravel, to whom the second is dedicated and who gave the first performance of that piece shortly before its belated publication in 1911, and Debussy, who echoes the work not only in his own Sarabande but also in his Préludes.

Another Satie piece performed by Ravel in 1911 was a piano version of the first of the three preludes to Le fils des étoiles, which had no immediate future in French music but which re-emerged a generation later in similarly visionary situations in music by Messiaen, including the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus. And, without wanting to trace all of Satie’s anticipations of later developments, perhaps this is the place to mention Vexations, which consists of 840 repetitions of a short experiment in atonality to be preceded by a period of silent meditation. Written in about 1893, it was apparently first performed by a 13-year-old pupil of Lewes Grammar School in 1958. A more celebrated performance, lasting 18 hours 40 minutes, was given by John Cage and colleagues in New York in 1963.

More congenial perhaps than Erik Satie the precursor and even ‘Esoterik’ Satie, the composer of quasi-religious music, is Erik Satie the tapeur à gages (hired pianist), who not only played the piano for tips in clubs and cabarets but also wrote, or improvised, much of his own material. His career in this area began in the late 1880s with a comparatively superior appointment as conductor of the orchestra at the Chat Noir, where his duties no doubt included providing the music for Rodolphe Salis’s famous shadow theatre. By 1901, however, presumably because of his awkward temperament rather than any musical inadequacy, he had been demoted to second pianist at the Auberge du Clou. He continued to scrape a living this way for another ten years or so, daily undertaking the 10km walk to Montmartre from Arcueil-Cachan, the suburb to which poverty had banished him in 1898. Accompanying popular singers like Vincent Hyspa and Paulette Darty might have been drudgery but it did produce a few masterpieces of their kind: he set ten Hyspa songs, including the irresistibly sentimental ‘Tendrement’, and for Darty ‘the queen of the slow waltz’ he wrote the seductive ‘Je te veux’ as well as the delightfully naughty marche chantée ‘La diva de l’Empire’. The cabaret idiom extended to his piano music too, not only in such directly popular pieces as the Poudre d’or waltz and the Piccadilly march but also in more personal works: for instance the 1903 piano-duet Trois morceaux en forme de poire makes extensive use of his café-concert and cabaret songs.

In a way Satie’s attachment to the cabaret and the café-concert was regrettable – partly because it encouraged the improvisatory pianist’s habit, already evident in the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, of sustaining a steady rhythm in the left hand while developing a melodic idea in the right, an all-too-common feature of the piano music of much of his career. But, in practical terms, he had a living to make and, from a stylistic point of view, what else was a composer in his position to do? He had rejected Romanticism and, having experimented with or parodied Impressionism in Dreamy Fish, he’d rejected that too. ‘Impressionism,’ he said, ‘is the art of imprecision; today we tend towards precision.’ In fact, in turning to the popular idiom he divined an aesthetic undercurrent that would soon rise to the surface. He both anticipated and inspired the new music proclaimed by Jean Cocteau in Le coq et l’arlequin in 1918 and practised in the ’20s by the ‘Six’ young composers gathered round him.

It was surely because of the impasse he found himself in at the age of 40 – after 15 or more years as a cabaret musician and 15 years before he would find himself suddenly flavoursome with the most progressive elements in Parisian culture – that Satie so bravely enrolled at the Schola Cantorum, to subject himself to the musical disciplines that as ‘the laziest student at the Conservatoire’ he had avoided in his teens. He did it against Debussy’s advice and, indeed, his work on counterpoint with Roussel and on composition with d’Indy did lead to too many not very interesting chorales, preludes and fugues. But it would have taken more than that to suppress a personality as strong as his. Besides, he needed the experience to produce the two serious works of his last period, Socrate and the more melodious but similarly cabaret-free Nocturnes for piano.

Perhaps the most inspired synthesis of several different sides of Satie’s creativity is his score for Parade which, with choreography by Leonid Massine and designs by Pablo Picasso, was first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1917. The ballet is not only unique in its position in cultural history, celebrated as the beginning of Surrealism among other things, but also brilliantly entertaining, not least by way of a score that represents Satie the contrapuntist, the parodist, the protagonist of popular music, and the innovator – the last in his use of everyday sound-objects such as whistle, typewriter, roulette wheel, gunshots and siren. At the same time, while dancing on ostinato rhythms and remaining in the same tempo from beginning to end, it retains a neutrality in expression comparable to that of Socrate. Although he was to write two more, similarly amusing ballet scores, Mercure and Relâche, he was not to equal the achievement of Parade.

The answer to ‘Which is the real Satie?’ should probably be ‘None of the above!’: in his music, as in his everyday life, he made every effort to conceal his true self. Unless, that is, he let his guard drop in the first of his Quatre petites mélodies, ‘Elégie’, a desolate setting of lines from Lamartine written after Debussy’s death ‘in remembrance of an admiring and sweet friendship of 30 years’.

Gerald Larner