Erik Satie was always a musical innovator. He spent his entire life at the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde, his style of composition continually evolving and confounding audiences who were always at least a step or two behind him. His importance as a composer, however, lies less in the scandals which seem to be the main concern of a number of Satie scholars, than in the music which created those scandals. His oeuvre contains the seeds of characteristics of a number of musical styles which were not in existence at the time he was writing, one of these styles being neoclassicism.
Musical neoclassicism in France did not really develop into a fully fledged movement in music until the 1920s, yet Satie’s music from as far back as 1886 (the year in which he wrote the four Ogives) contains characteristics of the style. His dedication to musical objectivity, simplicity of melodic line, rhythm, and harmony, the Greek inspiration for works such as the Gnossiennes and Socrate are all traits that were taken up by the post-World War I neoclassicists. Even his incorporation of popular music, in the form of quotations and stylistic similarities can be seen to have a tenuous connection with the later style.
His reworking of the musical forms and genres of previous eras, as seen in the Nocturnes, the Sonatine bureaucratique, and the chorales and fugues resulting from his studies in counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum, is also an idea which was used by the later neoclassicists. Even his notational innovations can be viewed as early neoclassicism: the discarding of barlines, time signatures and key signatures in such works as the Pièces froides and the humoristic piano suites of the post-Schola years, recalls the unbarred church chant in which he had so great an interest.
Neoclassicism is a term which covers a wide variety of music by composers whose styles are very different, but the principal aim behind neoclassicism appears to be to achieve a return to historical ideals in music. The melodiousness of the eighteenth century; the intellectual and sensual balance believed to have been attained in ancient Greek music; the reinterpretation of traditional musical forms or genres in a twentieth-century idiom. Even though these elements are sometimes obscured by the humorous aspect of his music, they are all apparent in the work of Erik Satie and reveal him to be a true neoclassicist.
© 2021 Caitlin Rowley