Alfred Erik Leslie Satie was born
on May 17th 1866 at Honfleur (Calvados), of a Norman father and
a Scottish mother. He began his musical studies as an organist,
first with Guilmant and then at the Paris Conservatory with Lavignac.
Encouraged by his harmony professor he began studying pianoforte
and composition, but in 1886, after eight fruitless years and
intolerant of academic rules, he decided to leave the conservatory
and enlisted in the 66th Infantry regiment at Arras. A year later
he deliberately caught bronchitis and was declared unfit for military
service. He promptly changed his name to Erik - in honour of his
mother - and published Valse-Ballet, his first work.
Returning to civilian life he became a regular
at Le Chat Noir cabaret, an essential night-spot for humorists,
painters, and symbolists of the era. In 1988 he composed three
GymnopÈdies, inspired by a poetry reading by his friend
J. P. Contamine de Latour. The hypnotic allure of these compositions
had its roots from in dances performed by youths during an ancient
ritual celebration. The next year, seduced by the Romanian popular
music and Indonesian Gamelan he had heard at the Great Exhibition
in Paris, he started working on Gnossiennes. Home was a small
room on the top floor of a building at Butte Montmatre: "high
above my creditors". In 1891 he was engaged as second pianist
at the LíAuburge du Clou, where he met Debussy who became
his friend until 1916 when a misunderstanding led to a break-up
that would never be reconciled.
That same year he met Sar Jospehin Peladin, Grand
Maestro of the Aesthetic Order of the Catholic Rosae Crucis of
the Temple of the Grail. Satie became his follower and was made
Master of the Chapel. His compatriot and friend, the humorist
Alphonse Allais, then gave him the nickname EsotÈrik Satie.
Among the several works he composed under the guidance of Sar
Pedalan were Trois PrÈludes du "Fils des Ètoiles",
le Sonneries de la Rose-Croix. Two years later he argued with
his mentor and broke away amidst declarations of artistic independence.
"If I have to follow someone, I think I can say itís
just going to be myself." Immediately thereafter, in 1893,
he composed the Danses gothiques.
In these first works Satie was already using a
freehand style with no bar lines, arranged chromatically around
complex chord structures, that foreshadowed Debussyís harmonic
and timbre experiments. In the score he would replace conventional
directions such as "allegro", "piano con brio"...
with his own invented terminology - "donít make your
fingers blush", "from the top of your back teeth",
"do your best"... In 1895 he composed Vexations, an
eight-measure motif to be played forty times consecutively for
a total duration of about 18 hours. A year later he took up residence
on the outskirts of Paris in a modest house with huge rooms -
"I have many ideas to accommodate," - where he composed
He gave up all esoteric research and in 1900 began
collaborating with the music-hall diva Paulette Darty. It was
in this period that Satie immersed himself in cafÈ-concert
and popular music, composing Je te veux and La Diva de líEmpire.
In 1905, tired of being considered little more than an amateur,
and at odds with the musical academia, he enrolled for three years
at the Schola Cantorum, where he studied counterpoint with Albert
Roussel. In 1910 his music attracted the attention of Diaghilev,
Picasso, Picabia, Ravel, Stravinsky and finally Cocteau with whom
he became co-founder of the Les Six group. Satieís genius
was reaching an apex and he presented a new challenge to classical
musical form - musique díameublement, so-called "furniture
music" which, he declared, was nothing more than a utilitarian
industrial product, "Art," he said. "Is something
Musique díameublement became a sensation
because "it serves the same purpose as light, heat, and all
forms of comfort." It is pure objective formalism in opposition
to every sentimental attribute of musical language. Such provocation
could also be seen in the ironic score "directions"
of Descriptions automathiques and Sports et divertissements -
examples of the finest musical elegance.
Fame, however, came with two important productions.
In 1917 with Parade by Jean Cocteau and Picasso for the Russian
Ballet. Satieís music introduced the first European rag-time
and, at Cocteauís suggestion, included sounds of typewriters
and factory sirens. The scandal was enormous: Debussy rejected
outright Paradeís antagonism, while Apollinaire was so
enthusiastic he coined the term surrealism. In Zurich, the Dadaists
made Satie an honorary member of their movement. In 1924 the second
ballet, Relache with text and staging by Picabia, and the celebrated
intermission film by RenÈ Clair (Entríacte), opened
in Paris to an uproar. However the piece that best represents
Satieís spiritual legacy is Socrate (1919), a cantata for
four sopranos and chamber orchestra, dominated by a formal aesthetic
rigidity; a work that would have a profound influence on Stravinsky.
Satie died as he had lived, poor but illustrious, surrounded by
admirers, at the Saint-Joseph hospital on July 17th 1925.