Erik Satie's Crystal Ball

Neoclassical aspects of form in the music of Erik Satie

Paper delivered by the author at the Musicological Society of Australia’s Postgraduate Student Symposium, University of Sydney, 1995

My paper today is entitled ‘Neoclassical Aspects of Form in the Music of Erik Satie’. This is a topic which deals with what has to be one of the vaguest terms in the whole field of twentieth-century music: neoclassicism, so I intend to open with a brief examination of the meaning of this term, and the sense in which I have used it in this paper.

The twentieth-century movement of neoclassicism is generally held to be one which was inspired by, and which appropriated characteristics of, the music of the eighteenth century. This is true to a certain extent and in the period between the two world wars there were many whose compositions can be defined thus. In the words of Rollo Myers, ‘there was a plethora of “pastiches” of Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart which lacked all the qualities which distinguish those composers from the rabble of their contemporaries, and only served to show the poverty of invention of those who perpertrated them.’ A single glance, however, at the work of Igor Stravinsky, the major composer in the style, will show that the boundaries of the movement extended much further than mere pastiche, or even the eighteenth century. The music of Stravinsky’s ‘neoclassical’ period, which lasted from about 1920 to about 1951, takes its inspiration from a variety of sources, both musical and literary. Mozart masses, jazz, ancient Greek legends, Tchaikovsky, Pergolesi and Pushkin all left their mark on Stravinsky’s neoclassical music. This shows that neoclassicism is well and truly about more than simply putting the music of the eighteenth century to work again in the twentieth. The spirit of the movement lies more in an ‘historical awareness’; in a reinterpretation of musically historical ideas, and it is this wider sense of the term neoclassicism that I have used in examining the form of Erik Satie’s music.

Satie is an enigmatic figure in the history of twentieth-century music. He was a contemporary and friend of Claude Debussy, yet his art is clearly rooted in the twentieth, rather than the nineteenth century. He was an ardent anti-Wagnerian at a time when Wagner’s music was all the rage in Paris; and he spent his whole life being alternately praised and vilified by audiences who, having just discovered the beauties of music he had written some ten or fifteen years beforehand, would be outraged by his latest compositions.

Erik Satie grew up in close contact with the music of the salon and the music-hall, which his father published, and with mediaeval church chant, which was still performed in the church of his native town of Honfleur. The influence of these two styles of music, the popular and the sacred, combined in Satie’s own music and led to a much simpler, more linear style of composition than was in vogue at the time. Satie wrote the Trois Gymnopédies in 1888 at the age of twenty-two. This was the year in which Rimsky-Korsakov wrote Scheherezade, and Tchaikovsky his Fifth Symphony; it was the year in which Debussy made his first pilgrimage to the shrine of Wagner at Bayreuth and his music reflected the reverence he felt for the German composer. Satie, however, was busy flaunting his historical awareness.

There are obvious elements of the Gymnopédies which recall the music of earlier eras: the use of church modes, the extreme simplicity of both melody and accompaniment, with all emphasis on the melody, and the return to a generally much simpler harmony than was being used by his contemporaries. However, it is the form of these three short piano pieces which reveals them as being truly neoclassical.

Trois Gymnopédies is an example of what has often been called Satie’s ‘cubist’ style of composition. In these cubist works, Satie treats his musical material as if it were a piece of sculpture, viewing it from a number of different angles by essentially composing the same piece several times over. Satie called this an ‘entirely new form which [he had] invented’, but the links with the much older theme-and-variations form can be clearly discerned, once it has been grasped that there is no clear ‘original theme’, as in a set of variations by, say, Mozart. Any one of the three pieces can be seen as the original, and each of the three as a variation on the other two.

[MUSICAL EXAMPLES SHOWN AND RECORDINGS PLAYED: Gymnopédies I (bars 1-12); Gymnopédies II (bars 1-8); Gymnopédies III (bars 1-13]

The textural similarity of these three pieces is immediately apparent, marking a considerable difference from the historical model. However, as I explained before, the neoclassical movement was not, in the main, aiming to recreate older music, but to use it to create new works, which had obviously been written in the twentieth century. In the Gymnopédies, Satie turns the traditional variation idea on its head, retaining those parts of the work which are usually altered, and changing the bits which would normally stay the same. Thus in each movement we find changes of harmony, of phrase-lengths (from 8 to 4 to 9 bars) and of melody, although the overall melodic contours are pretty much the same. The music itself is quite different to that of a traditional set of variations because of these differences, but the idea behind Satie’s work is essentially the same as that behind a classical or romantic composer’s theme and variations.

The cubist works are a very straightforward example of the re-use of an older musical form in a twentieth-century setting but, while Satie did compose a few of these noticably neoclassical works, such as straight pastiche, or the chorales and fugues written between 1908 and 1919, in general he avoided using ‘ready-made’ forms for his own music. He preferred, instead, to invent his own forms. These were often based on number symbolism, which was also very important in the belief system of the esoteric Rosicrucian sect with which Satie was closely connected in the 1890s.

The idea of using mathematics to organise a work of art goes right back to ancient Greece and Rome, with their use of of the ‘golden section’. This is a theory of proportion which states that when a given length is divided in two at a certain point – the golden section – then the ratio of the shorter section’s length to that of the longer section will be equal to the ratio of the length of the longer section to the length of the whole.


This has most frequently been used in architecture and the visual arts, but can also be applied to music. It was used by Machaut and his contemporaries, but in the late nineteenth century it had been neglected for quite some time. With their revival of it, Satie and Debussy not only provided hours of amusement for musicologists, but also took a large step in the direction of neoclassicism.

Satie used golden section proportions in a number of works, especially during his Rosicrucian period, but the most complex, and so interesting, is his organisation of the first three piano Nocturnes of 1919. Although Satie wrote only five Nocturnes, his notebooks show that he originally intended to write seven of them: two sets of three pieces, separated by another single piece. Within the one complete group of three (Nocturnes I, II, and III), not only does each piece contain the golden section, as explained a moment ago, but also the inversion of that golden section, with the shorter section at the beginning of the piece.Both of these golden sections for the entire group of three can also be found at significant points in the music.

[DIAGRAM SHOWN of use of the golden section in the Nocturnes]

Most of the appearances of the golden section in Satie’s music are not as involved as this, and most of them are not numerically exact either, which has led to speculation that they were simply accidents. However, given the complexity of the Nocturnes’ structure, and the evidence of bar-counting to be found in Satie’s composition notebooks, it seems more likely that the appearance of golden section proportions in his music is another manifestation of that historical awareness that was to become so important in the later movement of neoclassicism.

[EXAMPLE SHOWN of proportion diagram of Relâche in one of Satie’s notebooks: see p. 183 of Robert Orledge’s Satie the Composer (diagram 8.15)]

This example is one of a number of diagrams which were drawn by Satie after the composition of his final ballet, Relâche. It shows him trying to find evidence of numerical proportions in that work, after the composition was complete. In this instance he failed to find any, but the evidence of his attempt may be seen as support for the argument in favour of the golden sections being intentional.

Another numerological aspect of Erik Satie’s work which has an historical connection is the importance of the number three in his music. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was believed that the number three represented the Christian Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost – and so was seen to be a symbol of perfection, of completeness. This was a view to which Satie, apparently, subscribed, and the form of his music is dominated by threes. Most of his piano works were written in groups of three – three Sarabandes, three Gymnopédies, three Sonneries de la Rose + Croix, two groups of three Nocturnes – and the so-called ‘humoristic’ piano works of 1912 to 1915 were arranged in nine (three times three) groups of three pieces each. He also frequently used ternary form, a form which recalls another mediaeval symbol of perfection – the circle – as a piece in ternary form ends where it begins.

The number three also plays a vital role in the construction of musical mirror-forms, which adds a neoclassical dimension to works such as the ballet Parade, and the piano piece Vexations.

Parade, Satie’s only ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was written between 1916 and 1917. Its sets and costumes were designed by Pablo Picasso and its scenario was written by Jean Cocteau in response to Diaghilev’s famous command: ‘Astonish me!’ The title is the story of the ballet: the Petit Larousse Illustré of 1911 defines a parade as being ‘a burlesque scene, played at the door of a theatre to attract an audience.’ In this case the theatre is a circus, and there are three separate mini-performances staged by, firstly, a Chinese conjuror, then a Little American Girl, and finally, a couple of acrobats. The performers are organised by the Managers, who have their own music.

[DIAGRAM SHOWN OF MIRROR FORM IN PARADE: Download as Adobe PDF – parade.pdf (30K)]

Each of the three (there it is again!) main sections is self-contained. The music for the illusionist and the acrobats is in simple ternary form, as is the American Girl’s central ragtime number. The rag is surrounded by other music, but the Girl’s whole act can still be seen as an expression of historical principles because the return of the section’s entrance music, as exit music, makes it ‘circular’, ‘perfect’. The mirror concept comes into play with the framework of the ballet as a whole. As a musical mirror must have three main points of reference to be logical – those of beginning, ending, and the midpoint, around which the music folds itself – it can immediately be seen to have a connection with Mediaeval/Renaissance numerology. In Parade these points are represented by the Managers’ music. This appears at the beginning and end of the ballet, as well as in the body of the work. Numerically, the ‘midpoint’ is in the wrong place, but as the Final is the mirror-image of the three main acts (although much condensed and out of performance order), it is clear that the ‘Suprême effort et chûte des Managers’ is the only possible midpoint. It does not, however, play the central role that the midpoints of other mirror-forms, such as that in Vexations, do.

The solo piano piece Vexations demonstrates a different kind of mirror to that shown in Parade. The reflection here is to be found in the right-hand chords of the harmonised version. The chords themselves do not alter, but the right-hand notes are inverted in the second harmonisation. Where Vexations becomes complicated is in its performance directions. Satie directed that this little piece of music be repeated 840 times, a process which takes between twelve and twenty-four hours to complete, and which has been known to cause hallucinations in both performers and audience members. One pianist who attempted to play the entire work on his own had to stop after fifteen hours, claiming that it was wearing his mind away. Vexations is packed with tritones, is atonal and ametrical, and, despite its obvious connections with early minimalist works, can be claimed as a neoclassical work.

[Cantus of Vexations PERFORMED on piano, followed by recording]

Vexations is in a cantus firmus form, which itself has a long musical lineage, being employed especially in the 14th to 17th centuries. The cantus is first played solo in the left hand. It is then harmonised, then repeated solo, and then harmonised again, this time with the right-hand parts inverted. So the pattern goes: solo, harmonisation A, solo, harmonisation B, then back to the beginning. The cycle of repetition in itself has a connection with the symbol of the circle (perfection), but the inclusion of the mirror adds extra depth and complexity to this symbolism. As I explained before, a musical mirror has three main points: beginning, midpoint and ending. In Vexations these points are to be found in the solo lines. However, the circular nature of the piece means that each solo section will simultaneously be all three points, and each harmonisation will be both original and reflection. This could, perhaps, be more easily thought of as a variety of musical revolving door.

The elements which make these particular works early examples of neoclassicism, evidently place them in a category apart from a work such as Stravinsky’s Pulcinella or Satie’s own Sonatine bureaucratique, which is a parody of a Clementi piano sonatina. The obvious did not appeal to Satie in the least, which may explain why some of his most complex neoclassical forms are to be found in blatantly avant-garde music. However, there can be little doubt as to the origins of these forms. In the programme note to Parade, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term l’esprit nouveau – the new spirit – to describe the whole artistic feel of the ballet. Erik Satie’s view was stated very plainly in a lecture he gave in 1921, and can be seen as a summation of one aspect, at least, of the then-new neoclassical movement in music: ‘For me,’ he said, ‘the New Spirit is above all a return to classical form – with modern sensibility.’