Perhaps no other composer is as closely associated with whimsy, a lively sense of humor, and a remorseless eccentricity as Erik Satie is. Among other activities, he collected identical articles of clothing and accessories: at the time of his death, he owned one hundred umbrellas, twelve gray velvet suits, and eighty-four handkerchiefs. This spirit and comedic sensibility live on in his compositions, and not just within the notes or with titles of the works. Often his manuscripts are peppered with commentary directed at the performer alone. One piece, “Vexations” (1893), states that if the performer wishes “to play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious ‘immobilities.’”
Family Life and the Paris Conservatoire
Erik Satie was born in Honfleur, Normandy on May 17, 1866, but his family moved to Paris in 1870. When his mother died in 1872, he was sent back to the country to live with his grandparents. In 1878, Satie’s grandmother also died and he moved once more when he returned to Paris to live with his father. That same year his father married Eugénie Barnetsche, a composer and pianist.
Satie did not like his stepmother, however, he nonetheless followed in her footsteps and became a musician himself. In 1879, a year after Satie moved in with his father and his stepmother, he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study piano. He was an extremely gifted pianist, but Satie was bored by his musical studies at the conservatory and it was said that he only continued attending classes in order to avoid mandatory military service. Ultimately he was dismissed from the school in 1882 for lack of improvement, largely due to his frequent absences. In spite of Satie’s apparent laziness, he continued to study harmony and piano after his dismissal, but he was unable to delay his military service any longer and joined the French infantry in 1886. A case of bronchitis in 1887, however, effectively ended his military career.
Satie’s father had been a shipbroker, but during his son’s years at the conservatory, the elder Satie began a music-publishing firm. This development provided Erik Satie with a ready publisher and a few of his pieces were published immediately upon completion. These include the three Gymnopédies (1888) for piano, which eventually made a significant contribution to his fame as a composer.
After Satie left school and the military, he lived a truly bohemian life, spending money and time around the Montmartre district of Paris and its cabarets, particularly the Chat Noir. At the Chat Noir, artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, poets like Contamine de Latour, and musicians such as Claude Debussy discussed new ideas. Satie was introduced to these artists as “Erik Satie, gymnopédiste!,” in homage to his early songs. Satie went on to develop a friendship with Debussy. Their friendship was, however, an unbalanced one: Debussy was the master and Satie was the joking apprentice. In any event, Debussy subsequently orchestrated Satie’s Gymnopédies in 1895.
While living in Montmartre, Satie also became interested in mysticism, and was the official composer for the Rosicrucians (Rose and Cross Movement) during the 1890s. Satie inherited some money at this time, and with it started his own church, the “Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur.” But the inheritance did not go far and as Satie grew poorer, it was necessary for him to move from Montmartre.
Satie moved from Montmartre to Arceuil-Cachan (just outside Paris) in 1898 and there he remained for the rest of his life. During this time, he was a café pianist, and though he was miserable and poor, he did not lose his sense of humor. For instance, when he faced criticism charging that his pieces were without musical form, he wrote the 1903 piano work “Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire” (Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear).
At the age of thirty-nine, Satie went back to school. From 1905-08, he studied counterpoint, fugue, and orchestration with the scholar and composer Vincent d’Indy at Paris’s Schola Cantorum. After he graduated, other composers began to champion his work. Additionally, in 1915, a performance of “Trois Morceaux” caught the attention of the impresario and future filmmaker Jean Cocteau, an important event in the course of Satie’s career.
As his advocate, Cocteau was able to persuade virtuosos to perform the works of Satie. Cocteau also wrote articles, gave lectures, and collaborated with Satie on the ballet Parade in 1917. With choreography by Sergei Diaghilev and design by Pablo Picasso, the performance of Parade resulted in a scandal and in obscenity charges being brought against Satie. The charges subsequently were dropped when a wealthy friend intervened on his behalf, and, although Satie came close to receiving an eight-day prison sentence, the publicity was good for him. Satie’s infamy ultimately attracted a circle of admirers, “Les Nouveaux Jeunes,” later known as “Les Six.” From then on, Satie was recognized as a legitimate composer. The esteemed composer Igor Stravinsky went as far as to say, “French music is Bizet, Chabrier, and Satie.”
In 1920, when the composer was fifty-four, there were two festivals celebrating his music. He composed more than ever during this period, but in 1923, years of heavy drinking began to catch up with him. Satie died of cirrhosis on July 1, 1925, at the age of fifty-nine. He left behind no wife or children. As far as anyone knows, Satie only had one love affair, which was with the painter and former trapeze artist Suzanne Valadon and which happened during his years in Montmartre.