Happy 150th Birthday, Erik Satie

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Erik Satie (1866-1925), the colorfully eccentric French avant-garde composer whose work anticipated later movements such as Surrealism, Dadaism, and late twentieth-century minimalism. Satie described many of his pieces as “Furniture music.” This music purposely stayed in the background, stripping away any hint of overwrought emotion. In the century between Haydn’s twenty minute-long classical symphonies and Wagner’s eighteen-hour-long Ring Cycle, concert music generally grew bigger, louder, and longer. But by the early years of the twentieth century, this expansion was beginning to hit a brick wall. In this context, Satie’s lean and sometimes comic music must have seemed shocking.

Satie’s En’tracte suggests the witty, pared-down neoclassicism we associate with Stravinsky. For something even crazier, listen to Tapisserie en fer forgé, which was given the humorous marking, “Tapestry in forged iron – for the arrival of the guests (grand reception) – to be played in a vestibule – Movement: Very rich.” You might easily mistake this repetitive music for something by Philip Glass, but it was actually written by Satie in 1917:

Then there’s the 1924 ballet score for Relâchea French word used to notify the public of the cancellation of a show (The title loosely translates as,”The theater is closed”). The cartoonish score occasionally suggests the jazzy sounds of a theater orchestra. Ironically, the first performance of Relâche had to be cancelled due to the illness of its principal dancer and choreographer, Jean Börlin.

Satie’s most famous and enduring works are the three serenely hypnotic Gymnopédies for solo piano. This is perhaps the first ambient music ever written. The mysterious title may be a vague reference to a line in the poem, Les Antiques by J. P. Contamine de Latour, which suggests dance: “Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia.” But in the end, this music isn’t about anything. It just is, and that’s enough.

The opening of Gymnopédies No. 1 found its way into the chorus of Janet Jackson’s 2001 song, Someone to Call My Lover.

Recordings

  • Satie: Three Gymnopédies, Pascal Rogé’s 1984 recording (featured above) iTunes, Amazon
  • Satie: Relache – Vexations, Musique d’ameublement, Ensemble Ars Nova iTunes, Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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