„We should have a music of our own – if possible, without any Sauerkraut.” (Erik Satie)
Actually, this is not his real name. He was born as Éric Alfred Leslie Satie in Honfleur, Normandy. As a child, he visited an organist called Vinot regularly who didn’t find him talented, yet gave him piano lessons patiently. Satie changed his first name to this non-French-version – we don’t know why, most probably his contemporaries also didn’t know. (Later they might have found this the least strange one of his decisions.)
Erik Satie started his studies at the Paris Conservatory in 1879, but if we believe his friend, Spanish poet Contamine de Latour, he just wanted to shorten his obligatory service in the army. This is supported by the fact that he was renowned for being “the laziest student at the conservatoire”. He soon left school and joined military service in the citadel of Arras. This obscure building was simply called “useless beauty”.
How did Satie feel here? Did he see any kind of beauty in the citadel, while his strength and energy was sucked away by the hated army life? How did the feel about use and uselessness in the rough world of physical exercise and male violence? We don’t know. The only thing we know is that after quitting military, he started to take piano lessons again. This time, although with hard work, he even passed music teacher Georges Mathias’ exams, who, despite this, still thought that Satie’s a worthless pianist.
What could have Satie done after all? Of course, he became a professional pianist. Not one of the posh concert halls, though – he played in coffee shops, in intriguing and burning social spaces of the belle époque. Satie was everywhere, sparkled, revolved around important people, became an inevitable member of cultural life. Once he visited the Le Chat Noir cabaret where he was introduced to Rodolphe Salis, director of the institution, known for his harsh humor.
“What’s your profession?”, Salis asked. Satie stopped for a second, as he didn’t have one in the literal sense of the world… but then he found the answer. “I’m a gymnopedist!”, he said confidently. Too bad there wasn’t any smartphones back then and nobody could create a meme based on Salis’s facial reaction… And Satie wrote, a year later, his famous piano series Gymnopédies.
(Otherwise, gymnopedists were naked dancing men of ancient Sparta who were not only artists but also athletes and martial artists. A trivia for today. It’s a good question whether Salis knew this word… and should we hope he did or he didn’t.)
We can all imagine how the 1890s could have been: the old world order was about to collapse, no one could have an idea of a new one, and decadency walked hand in hand with spiritual journeys. Satie was, in this sense, a perfect child of his age. In this decade, his interest for mysterious sects and doctrines launched – even if we don’t have too much information, we know that he was truly attached to Joseph Péladan, a charismatic writer, and the Rosicrucian Order founded by him. He also composed pieces of music under their influence (Sonneries de la Rose+Croix, Messe des pauvres). Actually, it was in this Rosicrucian salon where he was acknowledged as a composer for the first time. But soon he quarrelled with the order, he couldn’t bear Péladan (or anyone) being superior to himself. He left them and created his own church, which got the name Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur. There, he remained the only member.
In the same year he had his only known (so maybe only) romance. In the Le Chat Noir times through Miguel Utrillo, he got to know Suzanne Valadon, a visual artist, previously circus acrobat and model. Their relationship was wild and passionate, so no surprise it only lasted for six days. He proposed her after their very first night together, and we know from the way he talked and wrote about her that he was madly in love. However, this was also the time when he composed the piece Vexations (which says a lot about how their love was), they painted portraits of each other, and Valadon moved into the neighbouring flat. After half a year, when she moved out from the flat and from the man’s life, Satie was completely broken and never really healed from this breakup.
It is a good question whether his (to form it politely) eccentric nature worsened after this emotional trauma. According to sources, Satie was only willing to eat white food and he always carried a hammer with him in the street, in case he gets attacked. In 1898, he moved to a new flat where nobody else was allowed to go.
Sometimes he used female pseudonyms on his works, and he gave titles like Trois morceaux en forme the poire (Three pear-shaped pieces), or Embyrons Desséchés (Dried embryos). As tempo, he used expressions like “in a tooth aching nightingale way”.
In 1911, a paper wrote about his clumsy yet refined technique. Satie’s reaction was that it was a mistake to list him among contemporary composers, as he’s in fact a phonometrician. In his later life, he got close to the Dadaist movement.
Many of his works are considered as Debussy-parodies, and he was one of the main organizers of the anti-romantic and anti-impressionist movement Les Six who saw him as kind of a patron saint. It is very strange (or would be if we, regarding Satie, still found anything surpising about him) that he was one of Debussy’s closest friends and biggest admirers. But neither of his friends could help him from consuming absinth excessively, which was also characteristic to this era.
He died in 1925 due to liver failure. After his death, his friends stepped in his hidden flat for the very first time. They found miserable circumstances: lots of garbage, unorganized papers, umbrellas enough for a whole box – these all almost hid two pianos put on each other. On the wall, the two paintings hang that he and Valadon painted of each other long ago. Satie’s friend were horrified at first, but then they started to organize his obscure legacy. That was a good decision, as they found a bunch of unpublished musical pieces behind the pianos, in the pockets of coats and other odd places. These are now played all around the world.
„When I was young, people used to say to me: Wait until you’re fifty, you’ll see. I am fifty. I haven’t seen anything.” (Erik Satie)