The three Gymnopédies are likely the most well-known of Satie’s works. The slow-moving melody over the repetitive harmony has captivated pianists and musicians since their publication. The name “Gymnopédie” has been researched extensively in an effort to discover exactly how Satie arrived at such a title. Of Greek origin, the etymology of the word references a Spartan festival, part of which included ritual dances, performed by boys or men. There is debate over whether the word implies that the dancers were naked, or simply unarmed.
These works are quite similar in their character, melody, and harmony, but each can stand independently of the others. When played as a group, one gets the impression that they are three slightly different “views” of the same subject, each one giving the listener a slightly different perspective. Thus, an attempt to force them to be significantly different from each other is really not necessary.
With this “Three Perspectives” idea in mind, it seems better to discuss musical issues for the set as a whole, rather than individually. Each work is given the tempo indication of Lent–slowly–so the tempos should be more or less the same. Each, however, has a different second indication: the first, douloureux (mournfully); the second, triste (sadly); the third, grave (solemnly). The variation in mood seems minimal, but be imaginative and create a slight difference in the sound of each work.
Keep the focus on the melody, letting it float lyrically over the chords. Harmonically, I find the second to be the most interesting; as an example, the new harmonic direction that begins at measure 15, and moves to a temporary tonic at measure 17. At interesting and beautiful moments like this, let the harmony be the guide dynamically. That is not to say that it should be more prominent than the melody, but simply that the right hand in this example should follow the direction of the left.
Be careful not to have unintentional accents in the left hand, particularly when leaping quickly from the single notes on beat one, to the chords on beat two. Don’t move toward the chord until you are completely finished with the first note; there will be plenty of time to travel to the next beat.