The Perpetual Magic of Erik Satie's 3 Gymnopédies

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Today I heard–for the thousandth time– Satie’s famous solo piano tryptic  3 Gymopedies—the title refers to an ancient Spartan dance performed by naked men.  Satie was an eccentric who gave his compositions crazy names, never formal ones like études or sonatas.    He even used a typewriter on his ballet Parade,  first performed in 1917 with sets and costumes by Picasso.

Like many, I first heard him in the 1960s with the Angel recordings of Aldo Ciccolini.  It was one of those crossover classical hits, kind of like Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra from the the Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Later came many great recordings, from Reinbart de Leeuw’s snail-paced version to Tutti Camerata’s chamber version lp The Velvet Gentleman,  so named because Satie loved velvet, once buying eleven velvet suits from a London undertaker;  he also had velvet umbrellas.  Satie had been kicked out from the Paris Conservatoire, that great bastion of French classical music, for his oddness and lack of apparent musical rigor.  His querulous, enigmatic, and primitive style did not suit French musical academia.  He later played piano in fin-de-siecle Parisian bars like Le Chat Noir, immortalized by a Toulouse Lautrec poster.  Debussy thought differently, orchestrating Satie’s famous Gymnopedies.  There are hundreds of other versions.

I have an lp of Satie’s ballets Parade and Relâche and the aforesaid Debussy Gymnopedies.  John Cage called the Gymnopedies “furniture music” probably meaning ambient music. a term which came later with Brian Eno.  John Cage signed my lp copy of Satie’s ballets when he visited Morning Becomes Eclectic for his LA Festival Radio event in 1987.  He would sign his name three or four times, one signature on top of another, like a palimpsest (he also dedicated it to me, which is the top line….click to enlarge).   It was very distinctive, like everything else he did.

As  I listened today, I was once again smitten by the beauty and simplicity of the original piano version.  It is deceptively simple but not easy to play.  It reminds me of the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger:  when she took in new students, famous musicians like Quincy Jones, Leonard Bernstein, and Philip Glass, she would make them play a C-scale–all white keys, very basic–for an entire week.  They were slightly insulted and perplexed, but by the end of the week, they understood that to play a scale evenly and very well isn’t that easy.  Ditto for Satie’s most popular work.  It is music that you never get sick up.  It makes you stop whatever you are doing and provides you with a sense of wonder. Warning:  there’s always a bit of impish mischief in Satie’s works.

If you’re searching for which recording to get, I like Pascal Rogé, the original Ciccolini, as well as Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s.

If you have never heard the Three Gymnopedies, don’t wait any longer.  Satie’s solo piano music casts a spell.   Here is a youtube version.   Listen and be captivated.    Just like me.

Also, John Cage signed my LP copy with a personal dedication of Satie’s ballets (below).  When John Cage signed something, he would sign it 3 times in order to create a unique image.

imgres J Cage