Erik Satie - Biography

Erik Satie 
1866, Honfleur
1925, Paris
Eccentric French composer who influenced the Parisian composers of the early 20th century, including Debussy and Stravinsky. His ballet Parade was performed by Diaghilev and displayed a jazz influence. He is known for his comic and bizarre titles, such as 'Three Pear-shaped pieces'.

Erik Satie Biography

Eric Alfred Leslie Satie (born Honfleur, 17 May 1866–1 July 1925 in Paris) was a French composer, performing pianist, and publicist. He also described himself as a 'gymnopedist' (in 1887, shortly before writing his most famous compositions, the Gymnopédies), and later as a 'phonometrograph' or 'phonometrician' (someone who measures and writes down sounds — preferring this definition of his profession to musician, after he had been called 'a clumsy but subtle technician' in a book on contemporary French composers in 1911). Eventually, in the last year of his life, he also became a cameo film actor (1 ('acte).

He is best known as Erik Satie (changing the 'c' at the end of his first name to 'k' as a kind of artist's name, from his first composition in 1884 on). Although in later life he prided himself on always publishing his work under his own name, there appears to have been a brief period from the end of 1888 in which he published articles under the pseudonym ‘Virginie Lebeau’.



Early years

Erik Satie's youth was spent alternating between living in Honfleur, Basse-Normandie, and Paris. When he was four years old, his family moved to Paris, his father, Alfred Satie, having been offered a translator's job in the capital. After his mother (born Jane Leslie Anton) died in 1872, he was sent, together with his younger brother Conrad, back to Honfleur, to live with his paternal grandparents. There he received his first music lessons from a local organist. When his grandmother died in 1878, the two brothers were reunited in Paris with their father, who remarried (a piano teacher) shortly afterwards. From the early 1880s onwards, Alfred Satie started publishing salon compositions (by his new wife and himself, among others).

In 1879 Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was soon labelled untalented by his teachers. After being sent home for two and a half years, he was re-accepted in the Conservatoire at the end of 1885 — but was unable to make a much more favourable impression on his teachers than he had before, so he finally resolved to take up military service a year later. This didn't last very long; within a few weeks he had tried to leave the army through a trick, which eventually succeeded.

In 1887 he left home to take lodgings (a single room) in Montmartre. By this time he had started what was to be a long-lived friendship with the romantic poet Patrice Contamine, and had had his first compositions published by his father. He soon integrated with the artistic clientèle of the Le Chat Noir Café-cabaret, and started publishing his Gymnopédies. Publication of compositions in the same vein (Ogives, Gnossiennes, etc.) followed. In the same period he got to know Claude Debussy. He moved to a smaller room, still in Montmartre (rue Cortot N° 6), in 1890. By 1891 he was the official composer and chapelmaster of the Rosicrucian 'Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal', led by Sâr Joséphin Péladan, which led to compositions such as Salut Drapeau!, Le Fils des étoiles, and the Sonneries de la Rose+Croix.

By mid-1892 he had composed the first pieces in a compositional system of his own making (Fête donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l'Honneur d'une jeune Demoiselle), had provided incidental music to a chivalric esoteric play (two Préludes du Nazaréen), had had his first hoax published (announcing the premiere of Le Bâtard de Tristan, an anti-Wagnerian opera he probably never composed), and had broken with Sâr Péladan, starting that autumn with the Uspud project, a 'Christian Ballet', in collaboration with Contamine de Latour.

Portrait of Satie by Valadon

Satie and Suzanne Valadon, a beautiful artist and long-time friend of Miguel Utrillo, started an affair early in 1893, and Valadon moved to a room next to Satie's at the Rue Cortot. This was apparently the only sexual relationship of his life, and Satie became obsessed with her, calling her his Biqui, and writing impassioned notes about 'her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet'. Valadon painted Satie's portrait and gave it to him, but after six months she moved on, leaving Satie broken-hearted. During their relationship he wrote the Danses Gothiques as a kind of prayer to restore peace of mind.

In the same year he met the young Maurice Ravel for the first time, Satie's style emerging in the first compositions of the youngster. One of Satie's own compositions of that period, the Vexations, was to remain undisclosed until after his death. By the end of the year he had founded the Eglise Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur (the Metropolitan Church of Art of the Leading Christ). As its only member, in the rôle of 'Parcier et Maître de Chapelle', he started to compose a Grande Messe (later to become known as the Messe des Pauvres), and wrote a flood of letters, articles, and pamphlets, which demonstrated his self-assuredness in religious and artistic matters – amongst others applying for membership of the Académie Française – which didn't increase his popularity in the cultural establishment. In 1895 he inherited some money, allowing him to publicise himself further, and to change from wearing a priest-like cloak to being the 'Velvet Gentleman ('.

First years in Arcueil, Cabaret compositions, Schola Cantorum

By mid-1896 all his financial means had vanished, and he had to move to cheaper lodgings, first at the Rue Cortot, to a room not much bigger than a cupboard, and two years later (after he'd composed the two first sets of Pièces froides in 1897), to Arcueil, a suburb some ten kilometers from the centre of Paris (in the Val-de-Marne district of the Île-de-France).

At this period he re-established contact with his brother Conrad (in much the way Vincent Van Gogh had with his brother Theo) for numerous practical and financial matters, disclosing some of his inner feelings in the process. For example, from his letters to his brother it's clear that he had set aside any religious ideas (which were not to return until the last months of his life); Satie used humour as he was often to do: to indicate a change of mind concerning subjects about which hh had had strong views.

From the winter of 1898–1899, Satie could be seen, as a daily routine, leaving his apartment in the Parisian suburb of Arcueil to walk across Paris to either Montmartre or Montparnasse, before walking back again in the evening.

From 1899 on he started making money as a cabaret pianist (mostly accompanying Vincent Hyspa, later also Paulette Darty), adapting over a hundred compositions of popular music for piano (or piano and voice), adding some of his own. The most popular of these were Je te veux (text by Henry Pacory), Tendrement (text by Vincent Hyspa), Poudre d'or (a waltz), La Diva de l''Empire' (text by Dominique Bonnaud/Numa Blès), Le Picadilly (A March), Légende Californienne (text by Contamine de Latour lost, but the music later reappears in La Belle Excentrique), and many more (probably even more have been lost). In his later years Satie would reject all his cabaret music as vile and against his nature, although he revived some of the fun of it in his 1920 Belle excentrique. But for the time being, it was an income.

Only a few compositions that Satie himself took seriously remain from this period: Jack-in-the-Box, music to a pantomime by Jules Dépaquit (called a 'clownerie' by Satie), Geneviève de Brabant, a short comic opera (?shadowy play) on a serious theme, text by Lord Cheminot, The Dreamy Fish, piano music to accompany a lost tale by Lord Cheminot, and a few others (mostly incomplete, hardly any of them staged, and none of them published at the time).

Both Geneviève de Brabant and The Dreamy Fish have been analysed (e.g. by Ornella Volta) as containing elements of competition reminiscent of Claude Debussy, of which Debussy was probably not aware (Satie not making this music public). Meanwhile, Debussy was having one of his first major successes with Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, leading a few years later to ‘who-was-precursor-to-whom’ debates between the two composers (in which Maurice Ravel would also get involved).

In October 1905 Satie enrolled in Vincent d'Indy's Schola Cantorum to study classical counterpoint (while still continuing his cabaret work). Most of his friends were as dumbfounded as the professors at the Schola when they heard about his new plan to return to the classrooms (especially as d'Indy was an admiring pupil of Saint-Saëns, not particularly favoured by Satie). As for Satie's motivation for this step, there were probably two main reasons: first, he was tired of being told that the harmonisation of his compositions was erratic (a criticism he could not very well counter while not having completed any studies in music), and secondly, he was developing the idea that one of the most typical characteristics of French music was clarity (which could better be achieved with a good background knowledge of how traditional harmony was perceived). Satie would follow these courses at the Schola, as a respected pupil, for more than five years, receiving a first (intermediate) diploma in 1908.

Some of his classroom counterpoint-exercises would, after his death, be published (e.g., the Désespoir agréable), but he probably saw the En Habit de Cheval (published in 1911 as the result of 'eight years hard work to come to a new, modern fugue') as the culmination of the Schola episode. Another summary, of the period prior to the Schola, also appeared in 1911: the Trois Morceaux en forme de poire, which was a kind of compilation of the best of what he had written up to 1903.

Selfportrait of Erik Satie. The text reads (translated from French): Project for a bust of mr. Erik Satie (painted by the same), with a thought:
Selfportrait of Erik Satie. The text reads (translated from French): Project for a bust of mr. Erik Satie (painted by the same), with a thought: 'I came into the world very young, in an age that was very old'

In the meanwhile some other changes had also taken place: he had become a member of a radical (socialist) party, had socialised with the Arcueil community (amongst other things, he'd been involved in the 'Patronage Laïque' work for children), and he had changed his appearance to that of the 'bourgeois functionary' (with bowler hat, umbrella, etc.). Also, instead of involving himself again in any kind of medievalist sect, he channelled these interests into a peculiar secret hobby: in a filing cabinet he maintained a collection of imaginary buildings (most of them described as being made out of some kind of metal), which he drew on little cards. Occasionally, extending the game, he would publish anonymous small announcements in local journals, offering some of these buildings (e.g., a 'castle in lead') for sale or rent.

Riding the waves

From this point, things started to move very quickly for Satie. First, there was the success of his new short, humorous piano pieces from 1912; he was to write and publish many of these over the next few years (most of them premiered by the pianist Ricardo Viñes): the Véritables Préludes flasques (pour un chien) ('Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog)'), the Vieux sequins et vieilles cuirasses ('Old Sequins and Old Breastplates'), the Embryons desséchés ('Dried up Embryos'), the Descriptions Automatiques, and the Sonatine Bureaucratique (a Muzio Clementi spoof), etc., all date from this period. His habit of accompanying the scores of his compositions with all kinds of written remarks was now well established (so that a few years later he had to insist that these not be read out during performances). Mostly there were no barlines any more. In some ways these compositions were very reminiscent of Rossini's compositions from the last years of his life, grouped under the name Péchés de Vieillesse (; Rossini also wrote short, humorous piano pieces like Mon prélude hygiénique du matin or Dried figs, etc., and would dedicate such pieces to his dog every year on its birthday. These pieces had been performed in Rossini's exclusive salon in Paris some decades before. In all probability, however, Satie hadn't seen or heard any of this music when he was composing his own piano music in the first decades of the 20th century; the Rossini piano pieces had not yet been published at that time. It is said that Diaghilev discovered the manuscripts of these Rossini pieces around 1918 at Naples, before staging La Boutique Fantasque — this was about the same time that Satie stopped writing humorous comments on his scores.

But the real acceleration in Satie's life didn't come so much from the increasing success of his new piano pieces; in fact it was Ravel who (probably unknowingly) triggered something that was to become a characteristic of Satie's remaining years: being a part of every progressive movement that manifested itself in Paris over the following years. These movements succeeded one another rapidly, while without doubt in these years Paris was the artistic capital of the world (long before London or New York would achieve much significance in this regard), and the beginning of the new century appeared to have set many minds on fire.

In 1910 the 'Jeunes Ravêlites', a group of young musicians around Ravel, proclaimed their preference for Satie's earlier work (from before the Schola period), reinforcing the idea that Satie had been a precursor of Debussy. At first Satie was pleased that at least some of his works were receiving public attention, but when he realised that this meant that his more recent work was overlooked or dismissed, he looked for other young artists who related better to his more recent ideas, so as to have better mutual support in creative activity. Thus young artists such as Roland Manuel, and later Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau, started to receive more of his attention than the 'Jeunes'.

First, as a result of his contact with Roland-Manuel, he started publicising his thoughts (amongst other things, the Mémoires d'un amnésique and Cahiers d'un mammifère)1. Then, with Jean Cocteau, whom he had first met in 1915, he started work on incidental music for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (resulting in the Cinq Grimaces). From 1916 Satie and Cocteau worked on the ballet Parade, which was premiered in 1917 by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso (through whom Satie became acquainted with other cubists, like George Braque, with whom he would work on other, aborted, projects), and a choreography by Léonide Massine.

With Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, and Germaine Tailleferre he formed the Nouveaux Jeunes, shortly after Parade. Later the group was joined by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. In September 1918, Satie – giving little or no explanation – withdrew from the Nouveaux Jeunes. Jean Cocteau gathered the six remaining members, forming the Groupe des Six (to which Satie would later have access, but later again would fall out with most of its members).

From 1919 on he was in contact with Tristan Tzara, the initiator of the Dada movement. He got to know the other dadaists, such as Francis Picabia (later to become a surrealist), André Derain, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, etc. On the day of his first meeting with Man Ray they fabricated the first ever readymade: The Gift. Satie contributed to the Dadaist publication 391. In 1922 he was surprised to find himself entangled in the argument between Tzara and André Breton about the true nature of avant-garde art, epitomised by the Congres de Paris. Satie originally sides with Tzara, but manages to maintain friendly relations with most players in both camps. Meanwhile, an 'Ecole d'Arcueil' had formed around Satie, with young musicians like Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob, Roger Désormière and Henri Cliquet-Pleyel.

Finally he composed an 'instantaneist' ballet (Relâche) in collaboration with Picabia, for the Ballets Suédois of Rolf de Maré. In a simultaneous project, Satie added music to the surrealist film Entr'acte by René Clair, which was given as an intermezzo for Relâche.

Other work and episodes in this last period of Satie's life:

  • Since 1911 he had been on friendly terms with Igor Stravinsky, about whom he would later write articles.
  • Le Piège de Méduse (1913) had a quite unique position in Satie's oeuvre, as it was a stage work conceived and composed seemingly without any collaboration with other artists.
  • Sports et divertissements was a kind of multi-media project, in which Satie provided piano music to drawings made by Charles Martin, composed in 1914 (publication and first public performance in the early 1920s).
  • He got in trouble over an insulting postcard he had written to one of his critics shortly after the premiere of Parade; he was condemned to a week of imprisonment, but was finally released as a result of the (financial) intercession of Winnaretta Singer, Princess Edmond de Polignac.
  • Singer, who had learnt ancient Greek when she was over 50, had commissioned a work on Socrates in October 1916; this would become his Socrate, which he presented early in 1918 to the Princess.
  • From 1917 Satie wrote five pieces of furniture music ('Musique d'ameublement') for different occasions.
  • From 1920, he was on friendly terms with the circles around Gertrude Stein, amongst others, leading to the publication of some of his articles in Vanity Fair (commissioned by Sibyl Harris).
  • Some works would originate under the patronage of the count Etienne de Beaumont, from late 1922:
  • During his final years Satie travelled; for example, in 1924 to Belgium, invited by Paul Collaer, and to Monte Carlo for the premiere of a work on which he had collaborated.


1 - English translations of these pieces were published in A Mammal's Notebook see Sources section below.

Epilogue: the shrine of Arcueil

At the time of Satie's death in 1925, absolutely nobody except himself had ever entered his room in Arcueil since he had moved there twenty-seven years earlier. What his friends would discover there, after Satie's burial at the Cimetière d'Arcueil, had the allure of the opening of the grave of Tutankhamun; apart from the dust and the cobwebs (which among other things made clear that Satie never composed using his piano), they discovered numerous items:

  • enormous quantities of umbrellas, some that had apparently never been used by Satie;
  • the portrait of Satie by Valadon, shown above;
  • love-letters and drawings from the Valadon period;
  • other letters from all periods of his life;
  • his collection of drawings of medieval buildings (only now did his friends start to see the link between Satie and certain previously anonymous journal adverts regarding 'castles in lead' and the like);
  • other drawings and texts of autobiographical value;
  • other memorabilia from all periods of his life, amongst which were the seven velvet suits from the Velvet gentleman period, etc.

But most importantly there were compositions nobody had ever heard of (or which were thought to have been lost) everywhere: behind the piano, in the pockets of the velvet suits, etc. These included the Vexations, Geneviève de Brabant and other unpublished or unfinished stage works, The Dreamy Fish, many Schola Cantorum exercises, an unseen set of 'canine' piano pieces, several other piano works, often without a title (which would be published later as more Gnossiennes, Pièces Froides, Enfantines, Furniture music, etc.).

'Petit dictionnaire d'idées reçues' (short dictionary of preconceived ideas)

'Idée reçu' is a word game; in French it is the normal term for 'prejudice', but Satie used it as the non-material equivalent of found objects (as in readymades) — for example, when he incorporated odd bits of music by Saint-Saëns and Ambroise Thomas in his furniture music. This section treats some popular (mis)conceptions regarding Satie and his music:

Satie and furniture music: not all of Satie's music is furniture music. In the strict sense the term applies only to five of his compositions, which he wrote in 1917, 1920, and 1923. For the first public performance of furniture music see Entr'acte.

Satie as precursor: the only 'precursor' discussion Satie was involved in during his lifetime was whether or not he was a precursor of Claude Debussy, but many would follow. Over the years Satie would be described as a precursor of movements and styles as varied as impressionism, neo-classicism, Dadaism, surrealism, atonalism, minimalism, conceptual art, the Theatre of the Absurd, muzak, ambient music, multimedia art, etc., and as taking the first steps towards techniques such as prepared piano and music-to-film synchronisation. (He was also to performing the first ever cameo appearance in a film). All by himself he appears to have been the avant-garde to half of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century. Many of these 'precursorisms' are possibly based on quite superficial resemblances only, while, on the other hand, that he was an inspiration to and and influence on many later artists (and their ideas) is undeniable.

Satie as humorist: many would be surprised by how many of his seemingly humorous compositions were at heart taken very seriously by Satie. When he forbade commentaries written in his partitions to be read aloud, he probably saw this himself as a means to safeguard the seriousness of his intentions. When, at the first public performance of Socrate, there was laughter, he was hurt. Many other examples of his serious attitude can be found, but there's no dount that Satie was a witty person, certainly not without many humorous eccentricities.

Satie and compositions in three parts: although many of his compositions (e.g., most of the pre-war piano pieces) were indeed in three parts, there is no general rule in this respect. After his death, publishers would force more of them into an artificial three-part structure; Satie had actually already made a joke of such proceedings with his seven-part Trois Morceaux en forme de poire.

Satie and (lack of) money: although Satie certainly knew periods of dire poverty, and was perhaps a little uncontrollable in his spending, in long periods of his life he had few worries in this sense. Although maybe not having much money in his pockets, he was (certainly from the second decade of the new century) often invited to expensive restaurants and to all sort of events, and was given financial help, by all sort of people.

Satie as an opponent of other musical styles. The musical styles Satie opposed were allegedly numerous: Wagnerism, Romanticism (Saint-Saëns, Franck, etc.), Impressionism (Debussy and Ravel), Expressionism (later Ravel), Slavism (Stravinsky), post-Wagnerism (Schoenberg), cabaret music, etc. Apart from some animosities on the personal level (which can be seen as symptomatic of most adherents of avant-garde movements of those days), Satie's ideas on other music of his time generally had more subtlety; for example, about César Franck he could not be brought to write critically, but would avoid the issue with jokes ('Franck's music shows surprisingly much Franckism; Some even say César Frank was lazy, which is not a commendable property in a hard working man'). Perhaps the same can be said as above regarding 'Satie as precursor': ther is much empty discussion (for example, the debate with Debussy appears to have been over whether or not Satie was a precursor of Impressionism, which would not have made much sense if he had been opposed to Impressionism).

Satie and boredom. Lacking any form of development, Satie's compositions tend to be very short; a typical movement of a Satie composition takes less than two minutes to play, and compositions with more than five movements are exceptional. Even his larger-scale works conforming to the genres known in his time would be two to five times shorter than the usual duration of such compositions (Socrate, a secular oratorio lasting about half an hour, is the longest). In general, Satie thought it to be a great fault for a composer to bore his audience in any way. There are only seven of his compositions that use repetition as a compositional technique, significantly increasing the total duration:

  • Vexations: with 840 repetitions of the musical motif (and many more of the melody of the bass), this definitely the longest single-movement work (note that, without the repetitions, the actual music takes less than two minutes to play). No explanation by Satie survives for this exception. Performing the Vexations takes longer than all his other music played in sequence.
  • Five pieces of furniture music, which were intended as 'background' music with no number of repeats specified. The circumstances in which such music was performed by Satie himself indicate, however, that the total playing times would be intended to be the usual 'intermission' time of a stage production (see Entr'acte). While the public was not expected to be silent, these compositions can hardly be seen as an experiment in boredom.
  • His music for the film Entr'acte has ten repeat zones in order to synchronise with the twenty-minute film (which has a very varied plot, so not much boredom is to be found there either).

Satie and sexuality: much has been said about Satie's sexuality, ranging from homosexuality to heterosexuality. Apart from the short-lived Valadon period, Satie's behaviour appeared more or less asexual; he tended to be dismissive when the topic of sexuality came up. See also:

  • Gymnopédie
  • Forum/News Group application of the Satie website by Niclas Fogwall (see link below).

See also

A number of works by Erik Satie are grouped in the Category of Erik Satie compositions.

External links

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Niclas Fogwall's website mentioned above contains a comprehensive list of Satie publications2 (, while more book references are mentioned on several contributors' pages of that site. Apart from sources mentioned in the text itself, the present Wikipedia article drew from, amongst others, the following publications (in English, unless indicated):

Satie's writings
  • Satie, Erik (with introduction and notes by Ornella Volta, translations by Anthony Melville, contains several drawings by Satie) - A Mammal's Notebook: Collected Writings of Erik Satie - Serpent's Tail (Atlas Arkhive , No 5) - 1997 - ISBN 0947757929
  • (Nearly complete edition of Satie's letters, in French:) Satie, Erik - Correspondance presque complète: Réunie, établie et présentée par Ornella Volta - Paris, Fayard/Imes - 2000 - 1265 pg. - ISBN 2213606749
Books on Satie
  • Volta, Ornella and Pleasance, Simon - Erik Satie - Hazan (The Pocket Archives Series) - 1997 - 200 pg. - ISBN 2850255653
  • Gillmor, Alan M. - Erik Satie - Twayne Publ - 1988, reissued 1992 - 387 pg. - ISBN 0393308103
  • Volta, Ornella and Bullock, Michael - Satie Seen Through His Letters - Marion Boyars - 1994 - ISBN 071452980X
  • Orledge, Robert - Satie the Composer - Cambridge University Press (Music in the Twentieth Century - Arnold Whittall ed.) - 1990 - 437 pg. - ISBN 0521350379
  • Templier, Pierre-Daniel, translated by Elena L. French and David S. French - Erik Satie - The MIT Press - 1969, reissued 1971 - ISBN 0262700050 - New York, Da Capo Press - 1980 reissue - ISBN 0-306-76039-8 (note: in a letter to Ornella Volta, 25-05-1983, John Cage mentioned this as a disappointing translation of Satie's formidable first biography, published in French in 1936)


Piano works

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