Throughout his life, Erik Satie was surrounded with the creative and modern atmosphere that so permeated “La Belle Époque.”1 Dadaism, Impressionism, Symbolism, the Avant-Garde, Picasso, Debussy, Milhaud, the cabarets; all of these played into the life and work of Satie. He was so saturated with the creative spirit of his time, that in some respects, he himself became a symbol of the age.
The pianist Alfred Cortot studied Satie extensively after his death, and came to the conclusion that his compositions fall into three eras:
From 1886–1895, the period of mysticism and medieval influences; from 1897 to 1915, the years of ‘clowning’ and eccentricities; from 1916 to his death in 1925, the period of the ‘musique d’ameublement’ (‘furniture music’).2
Satie fell in love with medieval chant at an early age. He was attracted not only to the melodic contours of the chant, but also to the parallelisms found in Louis Niedermeyer’s harmonic settings of numerous chants.16 The Four Ogives of 1886 and the Three Sarabandes of 1887 most clearly display this focus on melody and parallel chords. The Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes round out the more important works from this “first era.”
The “second era” is accurately described by Cortot. The titles alone are enough to make the case, and examples include “The Dreamy Fish,” Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear, and “Airs that Frighten You Away.” The music, however, is not always as eccentric as the title suggests. Melody is nearly always prominent and carefully constructed. One of the most beautiful of his works from this era is the vocal song “Je te veux,” written in 1900, and arranged for piano in 1901. While not as forward-looking as many works from this era, its melody is quite captivating, and the harmony is rather “traditional.” This is surely reminiscent of the kind of salon works that Satie played during his days at the Chat Noir. On the other hand, works like the above-mentioned “Airs” contain carefully crafted melodies, but they exist over a more chromatic and unexpected harmony. Satie’s own thoughts on melody seem appropriate:
Craftsmanship is often superior to subject matter. Do not forget that the melody is the Idea, the outline; as much as it is the form and the subject matter of a work. The harmony is an illumination, an exhibition of the object, its reflection.3
Highlights of the third era include Parade, Relâche, and Socrate. The first two of these are orchestral, and the final for voice and orchestra (or piano). While proponents of Satie claimed that this was his finest and most uniquely creative era, others would say that it was the beginning of the end of his success. In this music we find many elements that might be called experimental for the time, including strong hints of minimalism, and neoclassicism. It is, without doubt, a most unusual collection of works, yet it also seems to be a loud declaration by Satie that he will never be contained or stereotyped.
The pace of change in his style left critics and audiences alike rather confused at times, and numerous writings can be found discussing Satie’s place in the musical world. As time moves on, he is perhaps seen more as a visionary of things to come, and one who influenced larger figures like Debussy, Milhaud, and Stravinsky. But the sentiment of his own time is reflected best in this comment from an article written in 1923: “Satie, then, seems likely to live as a musical miniaturist. Truly, the man is a problem. Solution will come, but the time is not yet.”4
1 Myers, Rollo H. “The Strange Case of Erik Satie,” The Musical Times, July 1945.
2 Davis, Mary. Erik Satie. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2007.
3 Roberts, Wright W. “The Problem of Satie.” Music & Letters, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Oct., 1923), pp. 313–320.