Composer Éric Alfred Leslie Satie was born on May 17, 1866. He went by Erik Satie later in life, the first of many changes he would make to his identity. His most famous composition is probably Gymnopédie No. 1, a meditative piano piece that is deeply ingrained in my mind. It was the background music to earnest nature spots on Canadian TV when I was a kid. Satie was also a rather quirky character. A “gymnopédie,” for instance, is a made-up word. He didn’t refer to himself as a musician, but as a “phonometrician” who measured sound.
He was born in the lovely port town on Honfleur, one of the avowed birthplaces of Impressionism, where his former home is now a museum. Satie bounced back-and-forth between Paris and Honfleur in his childhood, due to his mother’s death and father’s remarriage. At the Conservatoire de Paris, he was written off as talentless and lazy. He was booted out, re-admitted, but booted again. Army service went no better, and he left under a shadow after just a couple of weeks.
He moved into Montmartre, the bohemian artist quarter of Paris. Satie was employed as official-composer and chapel master to the Rosicrucian order, a mystical sect. Although not a priest, he chose to wear vestments every day. He then founded his own sect called L’Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur (the Metropolitan Church of Art of Conductor Jesus). Hmm. Satie started composing a mass for the church, notwithstanding that he was the only member. He applied for membership to the august Académie Française using the argument that they owed it to him. Surprise, surprise, he was unsuccessful. When he came into a small inheritance, he gave up priestly garb and was now the self-styled “Velvet Gentleman.”
Satie ran through his inheritance tout de suite, ditched religion, and began writing cabaret music instead. He re-enrolled in a
conservatoire in order to study music theory and this time he graduated. He developed a passion for socialism and changed his attire again, adopting the bowler hat and umbrella of the bourgeois. Professionally, his work intersected with Ravel, Debussy, Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, and Cocteau and there are numerous overlapping themes in all of their endeavors. The surrealist artist Man Ray created his first readymade, The Gift, with Satie’s help. The quirky composer died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1925 at the age of 59.
Today’s saying is an Erik Satie quotation. “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’admire les chiens” (ploo juh conneh lays um, ploo jadmeer lay sheenn) means “the more I know men, the more I admire dogs. ” When I read this line, it made me smile, in light of my early memories of Satie and the nature videos, although I don’t remember one about dogs.
- Erik Satie: a Melancholy Taurus! (ancientlibrarian.wordpress.com)
- You Won’t Believe These 3 Amazing Pieces By Erik Satie (theawl.com)
- 20th Century Post – Part Un (lookingforerik.wordpress.com)