Erik Satie's Crystal Ball

2. The definite departure from the thematic

After his early efforts, which resulted in the Trois Sarabandes, Satie moved away from lush impressionist harmonies towards a simpler style of music: diatonic or modal harmony, clear-cut melodies and simple rhythms – very different from the sort of music that was being written by his contemporaries. He wrote the Trois Gymnopédies in 1888 at the age of 22. This was the year in which Rimsky-Korsakov composed Scheherezade and Tchaikovsky his Fifth Symphony, so it is apparent that musical romanticism was far from dead; Debussy made his first pilgrimage to the shrine of Wagner at Bayreuth that year1 and his music reflected the reverence he had for the Germna composer. ‘Impressionism is the Art of Imprecision,’ Satie once wrote, ‘Today we tend towards Precision.’2 This attitude is clearly expressed in the Gymnopédies.

In the Gymnopédies, Satie can be seen to have turned away from what Busoni termed the thematic, and to have embraced a melodiousness that was not to be found in any other music of the time. Rather than treat a theme as an ornament to be draped over the harmony of the piece from time to time with appropriate alterations, the Gymnopédies exist primarily in their melodies. Each melody is derived from the opening phrase of the movement and each of these is itself a reworking of that of the other two movements. The generating fragment of the first movement is:

Ex. 1(a): Gymnopédies I: (5-12)
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This is expanded and turned about, its melodic contour replicated and inverted to create the melody line for the entire piece. The second does the same with this fragment:

Ex 1(b): Gymnopédies II: (5-8)
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Even a cursory glance at these two examples will show how similar are their melodic contours, and a closer inspection will show marked similarities: the falling A-G-F/F-sharp figure and the three-crotchet rising figure in both pieces are very similar, and both fall the interval of a perfect fourth (bars 7-8, both examples). The fragment for Gymnopédies II could be said to be a contraction of that for I. Movement III is more adventurous in its size, and consequently in its variation of the base melody, but the similarities between I and II can again be observed in III:

Ex 1(c): Gymnopédies III: (5-13)
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Once again, there is the melodic contour, this time with an additional stepwise descent in bar 8. It starts on the first beat of the bar (bar 5) like II, but has the rising minor third of the opening of I at bars 9-10. Again like II, there is the falling perfect fourth, right at the end of the phrase, but with the long held note of I. III has been constructed as a summary of the previous two movements.

The Gymnopédies are ony one example of Satie’s techniqe of melodic development: his entire œvre could be viewed as a homage to pure melody, divorced from the implications of sentimentality imposed upon it by the romantics. Satie’s gift was for writing beautiful melodies – not merely pretty ones – and his inspiration was for setting them in contexts which allowed them to be heard clearly. In the Gymnopédies, he achieved this by adding an extremely simple accompaniment to all three movements. No one movement could be said to stand out for any rhythmic complexity, and this is an element which contributes to what has been called his ‘cubist’ view of music, a theory which will be examined later in this paper.

The piano Nocturnes of 1919 show a similar style of melodic development. By this stage of his life, Satie’s compositional technique had altered somewhat and the Nocturnes, like most of his works from the 1890s onwards, are made up of juxtaposed fragments of themes.

In the Première Nocturne, the first bar can be seen to be the generating fragment for all successive fragments in the piece:

Ex 2(a): Première Nocturne: (1)
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The fragments in examples (b) and (c) (bars 3 and 4 respectively) are distilled into fragment (d), a repeating figure used as transitional material:

Ex 2(b): Première Nocturne: (3)
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Ex 2(c): Première Nocturne: (4)
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Ex 2(d): Première Nocturne: (6)
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(e) is also transitional; it repeats itself like (d) and takes its accompaniment figure from the same source.

Ex 2(e): Première Nocturne: (7)
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The crotchet-quaver rhythmic figure shown in (e), however, appears to be new: a prefiguration of the use of that rhythm in the central section of the piece:

Ex 2(f): Première Nocturne: (17)
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However, its melodic jump of a tritone has already appeared, albeit harmonically, on the first beat of (a), so that the central ‘contrasting’ section can also be traced back to the opening bar.

Satie’s methods changed during the period of his involvement with Sar Péladan’s Rosicrucian sect. His interest in liturgical chant became more apparent in his melodies, and the harmonies included more chords by fourths, although the interval of the third was still prominent. TheTrois Sonneries de la Rose + Croix is an excellent example of the application of Satie’s interest in chant in his own religious work. Of the set of three pieces, two of them open with a sequence of chords in crotchets, followed by a melody in octaves which corresponds exactly to the number of beats of the chordal section and uses only the notes of the chords which correspond to each beat. The second piece of the set does this in reverse (melody, then chords). The third section of all three pieces is a fusion of melody and harmony and there is another repetition of each of the chordal passages (this comes directly after the melodic statement in No. 1). The effect is somewhat like a variation of a responsorial psalm, and is an effect which Satie had used previously in the Ogives of 1886 (an even more obvious example of this), and one which he altered as his style matured, so that many of his works feature repetition, but with sudden and odd, unrelated key changes: instead of alternating ‘solo’ with ‘chorus’ sections, he alternated separate ‘solo’ passages, each being defined by its transposition. He appears to have first used this altered method in the earliest of the Gnossiennes, No. 5.

The Cinquième Gnossienne has one melody:

Ex 3(a): Cinqième Gnossienne: (1-4)
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and two variants of that melody:

Ex 3(b): Cinqième Gnossienne: (5-7)
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Ex 3(c): Cinqième Gnossienne: (8-9)
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and the entire piece consists of the juxtapositioning of these melodic fragments at different pitch levels. The accompaniment, as in the Gymnopédies, is a simple figure repeated over and over again, the only changes being harmonic, never rhythmic or even registral:

Ex 3(d): Cinqième Gnossienne: (1-2)
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The other six Gnossiennes, completed between 1890 and 1897, follow a similar scheme of melodic development and accompaniment.

Similarities between these melodic techniques and those which are thought to have been used in the musical rendering of great epics in ancient Greece can also be discerned. It appears that these early musicians would have used existing traditional melodies, probably in short phrases which would have been ‘repeated with suitable variations over and over again’3 Given the limited knowledge of ancient Greek music at the turn of the century and the lack of any evidence other than musical similarities, it is impossible to say how much Satie knew about this, if anything, but a desire to evoke an image of musical antiquity is shown at least in some of his titles: the set of three Gymnopédies draws its name from the Greek gymnos (‘to exercise’), and the Gnossiennes‘ title is generally held to refer to the city of Knossos on Crete, which was the capital of King Minós and the site of the legendary Labyrinth.

It has also been discovered that Satie made use of an ancient Greek mode – the chromatic genus of the ‘Standard System’ of Aristoxenus – in the song ‘ Salut Drapeau!‘ and the ballet chrétien Uspud. Again, there is no concrete evidence that Satie did not invent his own scale, but as Patrick Gowers points out,

it would be strange if he [invented] one both so odd and so well known by accident; and even stranger if he stuck to an arbitrary choice for several years in spite of the difficulties which it apparently caused for him.4

The original mode is shown as example 4(a):

Ex 4(a)
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The version which Satie used in the aforementioned works was a transposition of:

Ex 4(b)
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An examination of this mode will show what the difficulties described by Gowers were: the scale yields only one major and one minor triad per transposition. Satie’s harmonic language, as has already been mentioned, had been greatly simplified after the composition of the Sarabandes in 1887, entailing a return to simple diatonic harmony. In other words, Satie had revived the triad and, having done so, was determined to continue to use it, despite the problems presented by the mode. He solved this difficulty by means of continual transposition so as to be able to use the triads from all seven transpositions of the mode.5

The 1917-8 drame symphonique for four sopranos and orchestra, Socrate, has long been acknowledged by scholars to be an early neoclassical work – its classical Greek subject, simplicity of melody and accompaniment and, most of all, its extreme objectivity – all correspond to the ideals of the style. It, too, recalls what we know of the musical performance of ancient Greek epics, in that Satie has set the words (taken from a French translation of the Dialogues of Plato) in a recitative-like manner, recalling also the church chant in which the composer had such an interest. The melody is rhythmically limited, the whole aim of the piece being to let the text convey the tragedy of the tale of Socrates’ death, without any attempt at musical illustration from the accompaniment. However, Satie’s natural gift for melody never deserted him and the result is a painfully beautiful work. Rather than boldly state the sorrow behind the words in the manner of the romantics, Satie makes his music stand apart from the tragedy, leaving only Plato’s words to tell the story.


  1. (Return to text) His second was in 1889.
  2. (Return to text) Written in 1917 on the cover of the notebook in which he was writing Socrate. Quoted in Robert Orledge. 1990, Satie the Composer, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 69.
  3. (Return to text) Peter Crossley-Holland. 1982, ‘Non-Western Music: Ancient Greece’ in The Pelican History of Music Vol. 1, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, p. 93.
  4. (Return to text) Patrick Gowers. 1965-66, ‘Satie’s Rose-Croix music (1891-1895)’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 92, pp. 1-25, p. 13.
  5. (Return to text) Gowers transcribes the relevant parts of Satie’s notebooks: The composer wrote out all seven transpositions of the Greek mode and elsewhere had made a table of the triads available from those transpositions. See Gowers. 1965-66, ‘Satie’s Rose-Croix music (1891-1895)’, p. 12.