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The Enigmatically Beautiful Music of Erik Satie

His set of three Gymnopedies are some of the most requested works (in different versions) here at WRTI, yet his output goes well beyond those. Erik Satie, the eccentric French composer at the intersection of modernism and minimalism in early 20th-century music and art, composed works that are sometimes dreamy, sometimes spare, sometimes quirky or fun or rambunctious, and sometimes all of the above. 

He was the friend of Debussy, an inspiration to “Les Six” and others in the following generations, and his work with Picasso, Diaghilev, and Cocteau placed him in the forefront of the hottest trends.


From the get-go, Erik Satie (1866-1925) broke the mold. Even as a young student at the Paris Conservatoire, he hated the strict curriculum and never bothered to graduate. As an adult, he wasn’t the kind of artist who tried to win the favor of upper-class patrons, so he was never a material success. He supported himself as a cabaret pianist, and much of his life he focused on the kind of music that working-class people enjoyed.

No doubt about it, he was eccentric. For ten years, his wardrobe rotated exclusively between seven identical chestnut-colored corduroy suits. He was obsessed, for a time, with a form of Christian religious mysticism that he invented. He was an extremely sensitive perfectionist; his living conditions were bare bones.

When he was 22 years old, Satie wrote three pieces for piano that he imaginatively named Gymnopédies. He said they depicted a slow, stately dance performed by young Greek athletes in the nude. Each Gymnopédie has a spare, beautiful harmony and poignant melody, and the pieces caught on right away.

Satie’s friend Claude Debussy arranged two of the three Gymnopedies for orchestra. It was the only time Debussy orchestrated another composer’s work. Maurice Ravel also championed the work of Satie. Despite their help, Satie remained poor. He began arranging and writing popular cabaret songs in order to make money. But even these popular songs were forward-thinking—they were some of the first European compositions to use American ragtime rhythms.

By 1910, the compositions that Satie considered his serious work began to lead the way for a younger generation of composers and visual artists, who admired their modern style and the way they defied conventional rules of composition.

In 1916, Satie and Jean Cocteau created the ballet Parade, with costumes and set design by Pablo Picasso, for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Its stark sounds and use of working-class themes and rude noises (such as gunshots and a typewriter, which Satie later claimed was Cocteau’s idea which took away from his music) caused much of the audience to walk out at its 1917 premiere.

Satie influenced a group of younger composers who later became known as Les Six: Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, and Darius Milhaud. His final works, in 1924, were two ballet scores, Mercure and Relâche. Nobody liked them: not the critics, not his admirers. He died in abject poverty eight months later.

Today, Erik Satie is recognized as a founder of modernism, who strongly influenced the direction of 20th-century French music. As for the Gymnopédies? They remain his most beloved compositions, turning up in jazz and rock versions, film scores, and in video-game soundtracks.

His works are sometimes dreamy, sometimes spare, sometimes quirky or fun or rambunctious, and sometimes all of the above.

Radio script:

[Music: Gymnopedie No. 1, Pascal Roge, piano]

Called “lazy” by his teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, Erik Satie was working as a cabaret pianist in 1888 when he wrote three piano pieces he called Gymnopedies—depicting a stately dance performed by young athletes in ancient Greece. His friend Claude Debussy admired and orchestrated the Gymnopedies, and today they remain the pieces for which Satie is best remembered.

But Satie was more than a “gymnopedist.” His cabaret songs, written in 1904, were some of the first European compositions to use elements of American ragtime.

[Music: “La Diva de l’Empire,” Masha Brueggergosman, soprano, William Bolcom, piano]

Later, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso created with Satie the ballet Parade. Its use of working-class themes and rude noises caused the audience to walk out at its premiere in 1917.

[Music: “La petite américaine,” from Parade, L’Orchestre de Satie, Yutaka Sado, conductor]

Satie’s subsequent works never found an audience, and he died in poverty. But they too display his vision of combining an austere sound with popular idioms. His influence on other composers was immense. Now Erik Satie is acknowledged as a founder of 20th-century modernism, who changed the face of music.






Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.