A blend of experimental music, gray velvet, white food, and a fondness for umbrellas…such was the life of French composer Erik Satie.
In this series, we’re discovering the stories of the best composers in Western music history and why their work matters to us today.
This is Erik’s story. And it’s a wild one.
Eric Alfred Leslie Satie. His given name at birth was “Eric” with a C, however, he began to use the K spelling in his late teens and never went back. So he is known to history as “Erik”.
An eccentric Avant-garde composer who was known for breaking the rules.
May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925.
Erik’s life spanned the late Romantic and early Modern periods, and he was a contemporary of Gabriel Faure, Lili Boulanger, Claude Debussy, and Camille Saint-Saens.
France. Erik was born in Honfleur and later attended the Paris Conservatory for a short time. He lived in Paris until his death.
Why It Matters
Satie’s was one of the first avant-garde composers, and he pushed music outside of its traditional limits.
He disliked the works of Claude Debussy and other Impressionist composers, even going so far as to play public practical jokes on them with works like Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear (a seven-piece parody of Impressionism).
His experimental musical endeavors ranged from brilliant to revolutionary to bizarre.
His Vexations is intended to be repeated 840 times, and he was the first composer to use a prepared piano, a technique which would later be made popular by American composer John Cage.
Always a man ahead of his time, Satie was the first composer to promote what he called furniture music, which we know as background music. A very familiar concept to us, it was unprecedented in his day.
It’s interesting to note that Satie did not consider himself to be a musician or a composer, but called himself a “phonometrographer” (literally a “measurer and documentor of sounds”).
He had a keen interest in mathematics as well as music.
Satie’s Gymnopedies have remained popular to this day, and his work paved the way for future experimental composers, especially in the Surrealist and Minimalist styles.
Other Interesting Facts
As a young man, he was kicked out of the Paris Conservatory due to his teachers finding him lazy, unmotivated, and supposedly lacking in musical talent.
He carried umbrellas with him everywhere…but he put them away when it rained.
A rather picky eater, he would only eat food that was white.
He also enjoyed fencing and horseback riding.
He wore a gray velvet suit every day, earning him “The Velvet Gentleman”. as a nickname.
In his late thirties, Erik attended the Schola Cantorum in Paris, and this time he did graduate.
Despite his professional mockery of Debussy’s music, the two were good friends.
No one else was allowed in his Paris apartment…ever. He wasn’t the type to host dinner parties, apparently.
When his friends came to clean out his apartment after his death, they were astonished to discover that he had two grand pianos, with one stacked on top of the other. He stored things in the upper piano and played the lower one.
To this day, no one is sure how he managed to stack the pianos without assistance (that’s a mathematician for you, I guess).
They also found dozens of umbrellas stashed around his living quarters.
And that is they story of Erik Satie. What do you think of him? Leave a comment below!