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The Eccentric Figure of Erik Satie

14 Aug 2017

French composer Erik Satie, the author of Gymnopédies, Gnossienes and Sarabandes, is one the most enigmatic composers of the 19th century. Like many creative people, he had his own weird habits and features that may seem way too strange today. Below are some of the facts that draw the composer’s human portrait. Let’s see how much you know about this outstanding music artist.

Some of the facts you will read below are only what is called ‘as believed’ while others have been documentarily proved. And most of them are definitely somewhat weird.

The Eccentric Figure of Erik Satie

"I have never written a note I didn't mean."
Erik Satie (1866 - 1925), self-portrait

Laziness. Was Satie’s main characteristic as a student. As a boy, he was attracted to music and took his first lessons at the age of 6 from a local organist. But it didn’t work so well later. According to his teacher Ms. Emile Descombes, the young Satie was the laziest student in the entire conservatory (Satie studied in Paris Conservatoire). He was also labelled as forever-bored, untalented, worthless and unpromising. Only to avoid the military service, the teenager continued attending classes once in a while, demonstrating his sheer boredom.

Bronchitis. Was the decease Satie deliberately infected himself with. The thing is he did end up in the military eventually. But that wasn’t where he wanted to be so after a few months there he got himself infected in order to be discharged from the army.

Umbrella. Was Satie’s permanent companion. Composer hated the sun so he would always go for one of those long walks around Paris with one of the numerous umbrellas he had. Once a French composer Georges Auric accidentally broke Satie’s umbrella, and the latter didn’t talk to him for a couple of years because of that.

Hammer. Was another companion for Satie. People saw him wearing it inside the coat as a means of protection against potential attackers. Composer said he also looked behind himself when walking, breathed carefully ‘a little at a time’, and danced rarely. All as a safety measure.

Grey Suit. Was Satie’s only outfit after 1895. He had a dozen of identical grey velvet suits he wore every day one by one. At a certain moment, he was nicknamed ‘the velvet gentleman’.

White. Was the only colour of the food Satie consumed. He could eat 150 oysters in a row and described his nourishing habits in his book “Memoirs of An Amnesiac” (1965) like this: "My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself."

Suzanne. Was the name of Satie’s one and only love. In his 20ies, Satie fell in love with his neighbour from the next door. He would slip passionate notes under her door and propose to her the night they got together. The two painted each other’s portraits, had an exuberant half-a-year affair but never got married. After the breakup, Satie said he was left with "nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness". He never got over Suzanne. A few compositions by Satie were dedicated to his partner, including the poignant and pretty depressive “Vexations” (the longest piece ever written, with 840 repetitions, uff).

Religion. Satie had his own. In 1891, he used to be composing for his friend’s “Mystical Order” sect but after their friendship was over, he decided to found his own church – “Église Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur” – for he never liked any of the official religions. Satie was the only member of his Church.

Light as an Egg. Was one of the eccentric score instructions by Satie. His other unperformable whimsical directions in the sheet music include “open your head”, “work it out yourself”, “be invisible for a moment”, “here comes the lantern”, “with astonishment”, “imbibet” (drunken), “muffle the sound”, and “corpulentus” (corpulent). Satie often wrote his music in red ink and without the bar lines.

Duel. Was Satie’s means of drawing attention to his music in 1892. At the early period, still writing music for the sect, composer was longing for publicity. This is why he called for and actually arranged a duel with Paris Opera’s director Eugene Bertrand. He thought it was the fastest way to getting his ballet “Uspud” noticed and staged.

27 years. Is the time during which Erik Satie didn’t let a single person in his room. After composer’s death, piles of all kinds of trash were discovered there. Amid dozens of umbrellas and newspapers, two pianos were found, one above the other, with pedals interconnected. That weird sculpture served as storage for various parcels and papers. Not so long ago, the tiny room in No.6 at Rue Cortot in Paris was a museum of Erik Satie that was closed in 2009.

Yet more than any personal facts, Erik Satie’s music speaks the most about him. At times misunderstood and not acknowledged, his works were going against the modern conventions dictated by the conformism of the impressionism, romanticism and Wagnerism of that time. Composer’s controversial reputation did not downgrade the role of his heritage, though, his music being avant-gardist and at the same simple and comprehensible.

  • Comments 1
Melissa Graham 15 Aug, 09:21

What an interesting man he was. I also know Satie was the first one to basically invent the notion of 'ambient music' coining the term of 'furniture music' or 'wallpaper music'. He asked the audience to ignore the performers playing in the crowd but just listen to the music and pretend there were no people playing it. Also, he considered himself neither musician nor composer, rather calling his occupation 'phonometrographer' and thus predicting the future of the recorded sound.