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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Erik Satie but Were Afraid to Ask

Erik Satie (the 'k' was his own invention as he had been christened Éric Alfred Leslie Satie), eccentric, rebel, humourist and self-professed phonometrician (measurer of sound) was born in 1866. He is perhaps best known for the first of his three Gymnopédies, a very early work that in its hypnotic repetitions and sense of timelessness, forecasts the style he later developed and honed. He was born in Honfleur, Normandy where his childhood home now houses the Satie Museum paying tribute to the breadth of his imagination, not to mention his quirkiness. When I visited it some years ago, I had trouble following the hand-drawn map a friend had prepared for me and was despairing of ever finding it, until suddenly I saw a series of very large pears with wings sitting in the central reservation of the motorway. I immediately knew that by following the pears, I would find the museum.

The pear, of course, referred to Satie's Trois Morceaux en Formes de Poire of 1903, which contains 7, rather than 3, short pieces for piano duet (never take Satie at face value) and which he wrote in answer to his then best friend, Debussy's suggestion that he might think about improving his sense of musical form. Satie typically eschewed any dalliance with sonata form, rondo or fugue and got his own back with his pear-shaped (!) pieces.

The title of this blog is suitably Satie-esque. It is unlikely that you have been hanging about, feeling shy to find out more about Satie. But just in case you were, here are a few interesting facts with which to delight your friends and provide entertainment at dinner parties:

  • Satie started his own religion. For a while in the early 1890's he created austere and free-flowing music for the Mystical Order of the Rose+Cross of the Temple and Grail founded by writer Joséphin Péladan. But having broken with Péladan, he founded and for two years was the only member of the Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur.

  • Satie couldn't play very well. His teachers called him the laziest pianist at the conservatoire and one of his reports read: 'Worthless. Took three months to learn the piece. Cannot read properly.' The piano music that he wrote tends to be very accessible and easy to learn.

  • Satie once became extremely angry when the audience at a play ran back to their seats to hear the entr'acte music he had composed. He exhorted them to go away and on no account to listen. He coined the term musique d'ameublement, or furniture music, music which was endlessly repetitive and which inspired the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

  • Satie was always impeccably turned out but lived, in one room (in Arcueil, 5 kilometres from Paris) which was filthy and contained 2 grand pianos, one up-ended on the other to house his collection of letters and papers. Here he allowed no visitors but every day he would dress in one of his 7 identical grey corduroy suits and, brandishing his umbrella, would walk to Paris to drink coffee at his favourite cafés.

  • Satie owned a filing cabinet in which he kept a collection of imaginary buildings which he drew on little cards. Sometimes he would publish anonymous announcements in the local paper offering some of them for sale.

  • Satie enjoyed a good riot and when his strange and provocative Dadaist ballet, Parade was performed, he sat in the front row of the balcony and added his whistle to the general commotion. The ballet inspired the poet Guillaume Apollinaire to coin the term Surrealism.

  • Satie died in 1925 of cirrhosis of the liver and pleurisy. His diet was unlikely to have helped him remain fit if, as he professed in his tongue-in-cheek 'Day in the Life of a Musician', he only ate: 'white foods: eggs, sugar, scraped bones, fat from dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, rice, turnips, things like pasta, white cheese, cotton salad and certain fish.' He was lovingly cared for by his friends who paid for him to stay at a hotel for months on end until his illness required hospitalisation.

To find out more about Satie and his musical compatriots, come to Ismena's July concert, 'Breaking the Rules: Words and Music of the Paris Avant Garde'.

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