How Erik Satie liberated music

While late-Romanticism was at its height, a cabaret pianist was turning music on its head. Tom Service celebrates the legacy of the great eccentric, Erik Satie

How Satie liberated music
Published: February 21, 2022 at 3:00 pm

The day I visited Erik Satie’s grave in Arcueil, the southern suburb of Paris where he lived and died in 1925 – as a ‘great musician, person of heart, and exceptional citizen’, as the epitaph says – there was a single ripe pear placed on top of the austere plinth. Which makes surreal sense, because among Satie’s piano works are his Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear.

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Satie’s music, his multi-dimensional creativity and the way he lived his life are still exemplary and visionary. He made some of the earliest music for film, he was a postmodernist avant la lettre, he conjured the genres of ambient music and background musak decades before the rest of the world caught up with him, and he made music that allows listeners to interpret its riddles any way we like.

This includes those pieces by Satie most familiar to us. Consider the case of the Gymnopédies for solo piano: music whose title comes from an ancient Greek dance for unarmed, naked men, which has become as familiar as any sounds any composer has ever conceived. The Gymnopédies are three little pieces whose breathtaking tranquility accompanies adverts and soundtracks, have been remixed by electronica artists and prog rockers, and two of which were orchestrated by Claude Debussy. And their lilting dissonances, their three-time play of limpid melody sighing against the bass line and triads in the middle of the texture is among the most gently radical of the late-19th century.

The Gymnopédies were made in 1888 in Montmartre, when Satie was a pianist for the emerging art-form of cabaret at the club Le chat noir. If you put them in context with what other composers in Europe were up to – Mahler writing his First Symphony, Richard Strauss composing Don Juan, Tchaikovsky, his Fifth Symphony – Satie’s music may as well come from another planet. Instead of those hyper-expressive behemoths, Satie’s music doesn’t tell us how to feel and it doesn’t create a self-conscious drama. Satie dares instead to invite us into a state of being, rather than manipulating our emotions. That’s why they still sound contemporary.

Yet Satie’s music is powerfully expressive: from the ecstasy and despair that any pianist experiences if they play his Vexations how he tells them to, repeating its single page precisely 840 times, lasting anywhere from 10 to 36 hours. There’s the dizzying collage of his ballets and multi-media spectaculars, like Parade and Relâche, which he created with such collaborators as Pablo Picasso and René Clair. And there’s Socrate, composed in 1919 for voice and piano or ensemble, setting the words of Plato on the death of Socrates. In this piece, Satie’s principles of relentless objectivity and austerity result in some of the most strangely and powerfully moving music of the 20th century. But Satie’s entire output is a treasure trove of paradox and prophecy. Explore it with surreal joy and delight – and a pear or two, too

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Top illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan

Authors

BBC Radio 3 Presenter Tom Service
Tom ServiceColumnist, BBC Music Magazine

Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.

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