A Study on Gymnopédie n°1 by Erik Satie.
Lately, I’ve been playing on repeat Gymnopédie n°1 by Erik Satie. I think my neighbour had had enough when she finally decided to ask me the name of the piece and how I was holding up. “It sounds like you are drowning in a pond of your misery”, she said. I don’t think that was necessarily true, although I did fall into a hole in the floor of my mind.
In 1888, the eccentric French composer Erik Satie published a suite of three piano solos called Les Gymnopédies, with its first piece becoming the most well-known. We can’t be sure why Satie named them Gymnopédies - breaking up the word, gymnos means naked, and paedia denotes youth. This term deriving from ancient Greek refers to an annual festival where young men danced naked, or simply unarmed - like in the Olympics. But because the music does not evoke any feelings associated with the festival, many interpret that Satie was inspired by Gustav Flaubert’s novel Salammbô. Another interpreted source of inspiration is J.P. Contamine de Latour’s poem Les Antiques, published alongside Gymnopédie n°1 in a magazine in summer 1888:
Oblique et coupant l’ombre un torrent éclatant
Ruisselait en flots d’or sur la dalle polie
Où le atomes d’ambre au feu se miroitant
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie.
Slanting and shadow-cutting a bursting stream
Trickled in gusts of gold on the shiny flagstone
Where the amber atoms in the fire gleaming
Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia.
If we take a look at the music script, we see a large amount of blankness and very few notes. Perhaps it is a visual representation of the message this piece is trying to convey - that only the music exists in this utter void. Noticing the annotation beneath the title, ‘lent et douloureux’ - slowly and painfully.
Gymnopédie n°1 begins with a brief 4-bar introduction of sustained, lasting chords oscillating between G major 7th and D major 7th. Because these two chords are constantly alternating by bars, we are uncertain which one is the tonic. Both feel like the home key, therefore neither can be. This particular ambiguity fabricates a sense of lingering, floating, absent of earthly gravity.
Then the melody settles in, a single line drifting in midair. The same tune repeats throughout the piece, meandering over the two chords like waves above the sea. It’s almost haunting - the same few notes lingering in your head.
The music repeats without much buildup and ends on a D minor chord (D-F-A-D), one that is used frequently in requiems and laments because of the sadness it provokes. The romantic period composer Schubert once wrote, “D minor is a key of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul.” - it pretty much summarises the overall atmosphere Gymnopédie n°1 produces. By concluding it on a D minor chord, the audience is left with an unresolved, abandoned feeling - nothing is quite finished, yet everything seems to have ended just like that.
This all makes sense when we get to know Satie’s life. Despite his association with Debussy, Satie was a loner. He lived alone, had very few visitors and drank too much. It has been said that Satie had only one romantic relationship in his lifetime, a calamitous unrequited love that brought him a lifelong broken heart.
If Gymnopédie n°1 were a painting, I would think it to be this one by Monet. The landscape on a winter day - bleak, blear, forlorn, with a stroke of despairing sunlight just enough to see the earth but too exhausted to penetrate the thick pile of snow.
The beauty of Gymnopédie n°1 comes with its intentional simplicity and abstraction. Many believe it to be a modern piece when first hearing it. Some find the melody relaxing, one that would be played in the background of a salon. But that sentiment never occurs to me. I always think it rather evokes a sensation of ‘lingering here and there without a destination’, a pensive - mournful even - feeling.
As if Gymnopédie n°1 is Satie’s stream of consciousness, words are gushing out from the music, yet nothing is spoken except a long, resigned sigh in the end.
“When I was young, people used to say to me: Wait until you are fifty, and you’ll see. I am fifty. I haven’t seen anything.” - Erik Satie
Perhaps great art does come from misery.