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The Gymnopédies are the first compositions with which Erik Satie tried to cut himself loose from the conventional 19th century "salon music" environment of his father and stepmother. In September 1887, Satie composed three sarabandes (Trois Sarabandes), taking a quote from J. P. Contamine de Latour's La Perdition by way of introduction. By this time, Satie knew Contamine personally.
Satie apparently used the word "gymnopédiste" (gymnopaedist), before having written a note of his later famous gymnopédies. The anecdote of Satie introducing himself as a "gymnopaedist" in December 1887 runs as follows: the first time Satie visited the Chat Noir cabaret, he was introduced to its director, Rodolphe Salis, famous for serving sharp comments. Being coerced to mention his profession, Satie, lacking any recognisable professional occupation, presented himself as a "gymnopaedist", supposedly in an attempt to outwit the director. The composition of the three Gymnopédies started only two months later, and was completed in April 1888.
The work was possibly based upon the poetry of Contamine, who wrote Les Antiques ("The Ancients"), a poem containing these lines:
Oblique et coupant l'ombre un torrent éclatant
Slanting and shadow-cutting a bursting stream
Gymnopédie appears as an infrequently used word in 19th-century France, to the point it might have been perceived as a neologism by many. It was, however, already mentioned in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de Musique (Paris: Duchesne, 1775), where Gymnopédie is described as "Air ou Nome sur lequel dansoient à nu les jeunes Lacédémoniennes" (an air or chant to which young female Lacedaemonians danced nude) (vol 1, p. 376). The exact connotation intended by Satie and Contamine in using the Greek word gymnopédie remains uncertain. Among the possibilities are:
- dance – probably, as he mentions it alongside another dance, the saraband(e);
- antiquity – supposedly, given the title of the poem. This however does not yet give a clear picture of how antiquity was perceived in late 19th-century France (see below);
- nudity – maybe, although words like "gymnastique" (gymnastics) and "gymnase" (gymnasium) based on the same Greek word for nudity (γυμνός – "gymnos") were common in those days, but had lost any reference to nudity; in Sparta, when much of schoolwork was physical training, the youths were typically nude. It seems clear that -ped refers to children (paed). As suggested below, a dance or parade by children from the gymnasium seems a reasonable interpretation.
- warfare (as in Ancient Greece the word indicated a war dance) – probably not; little war-like intent is apparent in the poem;
- religious ceremony/festivity (which was the context of the Ancient gymnopaedia) – probably neither; there seems to be no allusion made to them in the poem.
Satie claimed his Gymnopédies were inspired by reading Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammbô. Also Puvis de Chavannes' symbolist paintings may have been an inspiration for the atmosphere Satie wanted to evoke with his Gymnopédies.
In August 1888, the first Gymnopédie was published, accompanied by the verse of Contamine quoted above. However, it remains uncertain whether the poem was composed before the music, or whether Contamine intended the verse as a tribute to his friend, who had now completed both a set of sarabands and gymnopédies.
Later the same year the third Gymnopédie was published. There was, however, no publication of the second Gymnopédie until 7 years later, with several announcements of an impending publication of this gymnopédie being made in the Chat Noir and Auberge du Clou periodicals.
These short, atmospheric pieces are written in 3
4 time, with each sharing a common theme and structure.
- Lent et douloureux (D major / D minor)
- Lent et triste (C major)
- Lent et grave (A minor)
The melodies of the pieces use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece "painfully" (douloureux), "sadly" (triste), or "gravely" (grave). The first few bars of Gymnopédie No. 1 consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chords, the first on the subdominant, G, and the second on the tonic, D.
By the end of 1896, Satie's popularity and financial situation were ebbing. Claude Debussy, whose popularity was rising at the time, helped draw public attention to the work of his friend. Debussy expressed his belief that the second Gymnopédie did not lend itself to orchestration. (Orchestrations of this gymnopédie were only realised many decades later, by other composers, and not frequently performed). Thus, in February 1897, Debussy orchestrated the third and first only, reversing the numbering: Satie's first became Debussy's third, and vice versa. The score was then published in 1898.
From the second half of the 20th century on, the Gymnopédies were often erroneously described as part of Satie's body of furniture music, perhaps because of John Cage's interpretation of them. Collectively, the Gymnopédies are regarded as an important precursor to modern ambient music.
The first and second Gymnopédies were arranged by Dick Halligan for the group Blood, Sweat & Tears under the title "Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie" on the group's eponymous album, released in 1968. The recording received a Grammy Award the following year for Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance. In 1980, Gary Numan produced a track called "Trois Gymnopedies (First Movement)", which appeared on the B-side of the single "We Are Glass". Gymnopédies have been heard in numerous movies and television shows. Examples include the documentary Man on Wire, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, and Woody Allen's Another Woman use Gymnopédie No. 1 in their soundtracks.
Jimmy Jam used a version of Gymnopédie No. 1, played in 4
4 time instead of the original 3
4, as a sample on the Janet Jackson single "Someone to Call My Lover" from the 2001 album All for You. An adaptation of Gymnopédie No. 1 to the Game Boy Advance's hardware by Shogo Sakai is used as background music in the 2006 Japanese video game Mother 3 under the title "Leder's Gymnopédie". In 2007 Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann arranged the first and the third Gymnopédie for The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic.
- Erik Satie, Ornella Volta (2000), Correspondance presque complète, Paris: Fayard/Imec, p. 936, ISBN 978-2-213-60674-3
- Robert Orledge, Satie the Composer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 207, ISBN 978-0-52135-037-2
- Steven Moore Whiting. Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall. Clarendon Press, 1999. ISBN 0191584525, p. 129
- Cage's Place in the Reception of Satie by Matthew Shlomowitz (1999) on Niclas Fogwall's Erik Satie website.
- Mark Prendergast, The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby – The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age, London: Bloomsbury, 2000, p. 6 ISBN 0-7475-5732-2
- "12th Annual Grammy Awards".
- "Soundtracks". IMDb.com. IMDB.com. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
- "Soundtracks". IMDb.com. IMDB.com. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
- "starmen.net – Trivia Archive 27". Retrieved 7 January 2015.
- Mandelin, Clyde (March 16, 2012). "Mini-Update Megathon #3". earthboundcentral.com. Retrieved 7 January 2015.
The song, "Leder's Gymnopédies" is taken from Erik Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1.
- Fleur de Paris, EMI Classics
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gymnopédies.|
- Gymnopédies: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- Free sheet music of 3 Gymnopédies from Cantorion.org
- Public Domain Sheet Music of the Gymnopédies at the Mutopia Project