Jaren Hinckley

Composer / Clarinetist

I’m Listening to Everything Composed by Erik Satie

December 7, 2017




I recently researched the life and works of Erik Satie.  He was a fascinating, confusing, whimsical, serious man.  Satie was fairly famous in his lifetime. He had numbers of devoted fans and followers. Even Claude Debussy, one of the most influential composers at the time, orchestrated Satie’s most famous work, adding to his popularity. After Satie’s death, his fame waned for over twenty years. It was not until the late 1940’s, when a new biography about his life and music revived interest in his works, particularly in the UK and the USA. In the 1950’s and 60’s, his works influenced popular music and film scores. He is best known for the piece I’m focusing on in this blog post.  Even if the title doesn’t ring any bells to you, I’d be willing to be that you have heard this piece before.


TITLE: Gymnopedie #1


DESCRIPTION OF THE PIECE: This is a character piece, or in other words, a relatively short piece for solo piano.  As with other works by Satie, the title of this piece may very well be a made-up word.  Satie did not seem to imply that this work is programmatic at all.  He simply liked the sound of the word “gymnopedie.”

Here it is:




One of the things I love about this work is the unexpected forte.  Here’s the first few lines of the piece:



Note the “f” indication on the 2nd line (it stands for forte which means LOUD).  Here’s how most people perform it:



Quite a subtle difference.


And here’s how it should be performed:

Now that’s a forte!


As mentioned earlier, Debussy orchestrated this work because he was so impressed with Satie’s skill.  In fact, this and one other Gymnopedie are the ONLY works by another composer that Debussy orchestrated.  Here is Debussy’s orchestration of Satie’s simple piano work. I really think it is interesting to hear which instruments Debussy used, particularly his addition of the cymbal within the first few seconds and the use of the horn to provide the fortes.

As a side note, the rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears won the Album of the Year Grammy Award in 1970 for their self-titled album on which was a single that won the Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance Grammy award.  The name of that single?  Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie.  Here it is:



Nice, but I much prefer the original.


HIGHLIGHT: For me, the highlight is the simplicity of this work.  The haunting melody over an extremely simple bass line.  It almost sounds like a ground bass, but it is not.  It changes pitches enough over the course of the piece that it can’t be considered a true ground bass.


WHAT’S LEFT TO LISTEN TO BY SATIE?: Not as much as you would assume.  He actually wrote relatively little.  I may have already listened to his complete oeuvre, but I’ll not consider myself “done” until I’ve created blog posts for each of his works.