Review Summary: Erik Satie's Gymnopedies will dazzle and inspire, encompassing the listener in a 4 dimensional world of space-time.
Little yet powerful was composer Erik Satie
. Overshadowed by his French contemporaries such as Ravel and Debussy, Satie was somewhat of an oddball in the late 19th century. During this spell he wrote many little pieces for the pianoforte, including the infamous Gymnopédies
. In these Satie showed an amazingly unique style and contemporary mind, which would later assist in both his success and dismissal.
While dominant figures within the French repertoire such as Murice Ravel
and Claude Debussy
were pinning their contemporary compositional styles against the rest of the world, little Erik Satie resided in his small apartment in Paris composing “Furniture Music” as he preferred to call it, or music that is deliberately not to be
listened to. Despite this, one cannot help but listen to what this little figure had to say to the larger world.
His Gymnopédies are probably his most recognisable works, particularly the first. The three were composed during 1888 and were clouded by other important late romantic pillars such as Tchaikovsky’s
5th symphony. The Gymnopédies appear to be like a second chapter after his earlier Sarabandes (1887)
, which are immersive but certainly not as pure as later compositions. Commencing in as slow (marked as “Lent”) ¾ time, the three pieces are more reminiscent of vanished soundscapes; a portrait of Satie’s busy impressionistic mind. Each shares a common melodic and rhythmic structure, pulling the listener into a gentle daze as he or she is moulded around Satie’s psyche of tonality.
The first instalment begins with a fuzzy percussive like G bass note followed attentively by a B minor chord, thus completing a G major 7th. The second bar follows the same principle on the tonic note (D). For anyone wishing to explore the world of 7ths on the piano, these pieces are well suited, and are not technically enduring. The right hand follows after the small introduction in the left hand with the most renowned of his melodic lines, in the golden key of D major. This melodic theme is so simple yet so beautiful and unique that it complements the spirit of all of Satie’s later works. It is within this first theme that Brian Eno
was to find grand inspiration for his idea of “ambient music,” later to be mastered by acts such as Aphex Twin
, and to be subtly exploited by the New Age genre.
Both second and third installments aren’t as celebrated as the first, but they are in themselves necessary for completing the idea that Satie strived to propose. The second explores a darker theme, where as the third goes in and out of a relaxing sublimated theme, similar to the first. However during the first listen, the listener may be somewhat dazzled by the last two as they are very, very similar. But this is what makes Satie sound like Satie. It feels as if he doesn’t want us to listen to it, but when we do, we are sucked into a 4-dimensional world of time and space. Both are also designed with a melodic like line in the right hand, and accompaniment bass in the left, again using the delightful sub-dissonance of 7th chords. The pianist must and has to remember that while playing these pieces, a strict pianissimo dynamic is to be maintained to allow placement for the melodic line, which is to be played a little louder.
The three together as a whole explore a similar theme, possibly that of the nudist ancient Greek dance called “Gymnopaedia.” Satie himself was after all, well taught in the boundaries of Greek culture. Their expressions appear to be represented within different moments of time, so much so, that while viewing the art forms of Cubist expressionists such as Picasso
, one may be reminded of Satie’s works, which are by definition the same if not similar to Cubism. To explore a similar theme in different stages or time frames is to be Cubist, and Satie shows this off captivatingly well. Sometimes even Modernistic themes any give rise to other trains of thought while listening. It appears that a small niche of people, Satie included, were paving the way through this pre-Cubist/pre-Modernism medium during the late 19th century. Amazingly this would influence the imaginative minds of not just artists, but significant theoretical physicists like Einstein
Later on, Debussy
was to appraise these pieces in a set of orchestrations, showing his public appreciation for the composer and his works. But his appraisal wouldn’t stop within the classical orchestra. Nowadays there are so many variations and themes based upon these “Furniture Works” that aren’t meant to be directly listened to, one cannot help but think that if Satie were alive today he would have been bemused by the amount of attribution, maybe even disgusted.
Even so, these pieces are extremely important by anyone’s standard. While they are short and relatively innocent, they are in themselves fundamentally significant to all later modern experimental music. Satie in a way seemed to recognise the importance of pushing not only his mind, but the minds of his followers and listeners. The Gymnopédies will be a refreshing and enlightening listen, even to someone just introducing themselves to piano music.