Erik Satie: Trois Gymnopedies

The last piece I remember my Musical Buddha, Kerry Wade, to which introduced me evokes many memories, not just of the piece itself, but the direction my life took after high school.

One day, Kerry asked me if I’d ever heard Ciccolini play Satie. Now “Ciccolini” was the stage name of Chico Marx, so I thought Kerry was referring to him. But he told me that Aldo Ciccolini was a pianist who had recorded the complete piano works of Satie. When I asked who Satie was, Kerry was off on one of his flights describing French music, art, café life and fin de siecle Paris. Eventually, I went on to major in French literature and lived in a bookshop on the Left Bank of Paris, but that’s for another day.

Trois Gymnopedies were the first three tracks of Ciccolini’s Volume I, and when Kerry cued up the disk, I was completely mesmerized by the piece. It has such a simple, yet haunting feeling to it. Sad but light. It turned out that I had actually heard the song before. A popular 60s group named Blood Sweat and Tears had performed it on one of their albums. And later Debussy’s orchestral version of the first two showed up on a 45 rpm disk that someone had left backstage, when I worked as a theatre hand in a high school production of The Miracle Worker, a funny juxtaposition considering the source of the music.

Turn of the century Paris was full of Dadaists and Surrealists who were against logic and formalism and loved the spontaneity of American jazz. Satie was the son of two composers, a French father and Scottish mother. He studied at the French Conservatory for a year and dropped out to play music in bars and cabarets. At the age of 40, he went back and studied for three more years with the composer d’Indy, who’d started his own music school and who championed both older music and the newcomers like Debussy.

Satie’s music suited the intellectual climate of Paris. There is a French expression from the time period, “epater les bourgeois,” which means “to shock the middle class.” He composed an orchestral piece called Parade which is full of sirens, gunshots, and other raucous sounds. As a kind of homage, Man Ray included Satie in one of his films– playing chess.

I think Kerry was drawn to Satie because of the composer’s iconoclasm. Kerry loved to flaunt convention, but there was always something playful about him that seemed very Satie-like. Satie’s playfulness didn’t stop at the non-traditional tunes. He also gave them funny titles like “Before-After Thoughts,” “Automatic Descriptions,” “Dried Embryos,” “Pieces in The Form of a Pear,” and “Sketches and Annoyances of a Big Wooden Simpleton.” Maybe these very visual titles resonated with Kerry.

I know that many of the reasons that I studied French and went to Paris was to soak up whatever remained of the bohemian life of Paris from between the wars. And you know what? It’s still a great place, which I probably would never have cared about had I not heard this music.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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