Gymnopédie No. 3, 1

Erik Satie, arr. Claude Debussy

Date of Composition: 1888/1897
Duration: 3½ minutes

Erik Satie (1866–1925) was an outlier, both musically and socially. As a piano student, he left the Paris Conservatory twice without completion because he could not adapt to the inflexible expectations of his examiners. As a composer, he experimented with new sounds that challenged those of the old French guard. And although he was quite prolific, few of his compositions have found their way into a “standard” repertoire. After leaving school, Satie settled in the Montmartre section of Paris, where he lived a bohemian lifestyle as a cabaret pianist and literary magazine contributor. His personal eccentricities were legendary. For instance, he purchased the same three-piece gray suit by the dozen, rotating them when they wore out, and when it was raining, he refused to use the umbrella he always carried—because it might get wet.

Satie composed his set of three Gymnopédies very early in his career, drawing inspiration from a dance undertaken by unclothed young boys during an ancient Sparta festival. Despite the unconventional nature of the subject matter, these short piano pieces have become his most famous compositions. They demonstrate the composer’s ability to support a very simple melody with a harmonic texture so transparent that the music sounds remarkably easy, even when it is not. Fellow French composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918) heard Satie perform the waltz-like pieces in 1895 and set about orchestrating the first and third, reversing their order in the process. The resulting Gymnopédie No. 3, labelled “Slow and dolorous,” is the best known of Satie’s original movements.

© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023