Composer of the Month: Erik Satie

SatieMost composers have an air of eccentricity about them (think Schumann’s finger mauling and Beethoven’s hair), but none so much as Satie. For example, he founded his own one-man church, the Metropolitan Art Church of Jesus the Conductor, he bought 7 identical suits, then wore only them for 10 years, only ate food that was white, and permitted not a single visitor at his home for the last 30 years of his life. Eccentric hardly does him justice!

Born in Normandy, in 1866, he spent most of life in Paris, taking up music when he was 12, but then shunning the system after attending the Paris Conservatoire. Instead, after a brief spell in the army, he moved to the famously bohemian Monmartre region of Paris. Here rubbed shoulders with the likes of Picasso, Debussy and Ravel, and began writing piano music. Like the man, himself, though, his music was far from conventional, and he experimented with minimalism, Surrealism and other avant-garde concepts. One of his pieces, called Vexations, which was only discovered after his death, takes around 24 hours to perform in full, yet consists of only half a page of music.

Manuscript of Satie's Vexations

Manuscript of Satie’s Vexations

Easily his most famous work is the first of his Gymnopedie, which he wrote for solo piano. For you budding cellists, though, I’ve arranged it for cello and piano below. The first version is using bass clef for the cello (so the melody is rather low). The second uses the tenor clef, which sounds better, but is a little more advanced.

Gymnopedie no. 1 for cello and piano (bass clef)

Gymnopedie no. 1 for cello and piano (tenor clef)

He described himself as “a medieval musician who had wandered by mistake into the 20th century.” But despite the fact he died in alone and poverty from the prolonged drinking of too much alcohol, housed in one of the less salubrious areas of Paris, Satie was a huge influence on such artists as John Cage (famous for his 4 mins 33 seconds of silence) and Les Six (a group of six composers based in Paris, including Poulenc and Honegger).

He’s one of my favourite composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and I recommend checking out some of his other music.