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With the Gymnopédies 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 his three 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 had apparently used the word "gymnopédiste" (gymnopaedist) before writing this work, when he visited the Chat Noir cabaret in December 1887. He was introduced to its director, Rodolphe Salis, who was famous for his sarcasm, and when pressed for his profession, Satie, who had none, said he was a "gymnopaedist". The composition of the three Gymnopédies started two months later, and they were completed in April 1888. In August of that year, the first Gymnopédie was published.
The first work was published with the following verse by Contamine from Les Antiques ("The Ancients").
Oblique et coupant l'ombre un torrent éclatant
Slanting and shadow-cutting a bursting stream
However, it remains uncertain whether the poem was composed before the music, or whether Contamine wrote the verse as a tribute to his friend, after he had completed his set of sarabands and gymnopédies.
Later in 1888, the third Gymnopédie was published. The second Gymnopédie did not appear until 7 years later, and its impending publication was announced in several editions of the Chat Noir and Auberge du Clou magazines.
The word Gymnopédie appears infrequently in 19th-century France, to the point where it might have been considered a neologism. It had, however, already been included in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de Musique (Paris: Duchesne, 1775), where Gymnopédie is described as an "air or chant to which young female Lacedaemonians danced naked." (Air ou Nome sur lequel dansoient à nu les jeunes Lacédémoniennes") (vol 1, p. 376). The exact connotation intended by Satie and Contamine remains uncertain. Among the possibilities are:
- a dance – this is likely, as he mentions it alongside another dance, the saraband(e);
- antiquity – perhaps, 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– probably not. In Ancient Greece, the word indicated a war dance but little war-like intent is apparent in the poem;
- a 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.
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, all of which use Gymnopédie No. 1 in their soundtracks. 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) Archived 2005-10-26 at the Wayback Machine. 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". Grammy Award.
- "Man on Wire Soundtracks". IMDb. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
- "The Royal Tenenbaums Soundtracks". IMDb. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
- Another Woman (1988) - Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1" (aka "Marion's theme"). YouTube. June 17, 2011.
- "Fleur de Paris". Prestoclassical.co.uk. 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