Work: Gymnopédie no 1
About This Work
One imagines that Erik Satie -- a man who wrote an absurd autobiography detailing his day's activities down to the minute, a man whose apartment was filled with dozens and dozens of umbrellas at the time of his death, a man who had the notion to
compose "wallpaper music," music meant to be absolutely ignored by the audience -- might be tickled to death to know that his best-known pieces, the Gymnopédie and the Gnossiennes for solo piano, are now recognized by thousands upon thousands the world over. They are heard in soundtracks, over restaurant speakers (something to which they are admirably suited, considering that their composer worked as a café pianist). Very few people, however, know anything at all of the eccentric subtitles and indications that Satie wrote on his scores. The first of the three Gymnopédie, for instance, is a "Spartan dance of naked youths and men" (rather a tame description by comparison with some of Satie's others).
The three Gymnopédie were composed during 1888; No. 1 is marked Lent et douloureux (slow and mournfully). Its steady 3/4 meter music falls into to nearly identical halves, with an accompaniment that sets up a regular rhythm (short-long, short-long) in the first bars and then veers from that rhythm only at the very end of each half. Atop this gently swaying background is a melody of the most peculiarly expressive kind; its quarter notes are translucent, its longer notes somehow hollow at their center (but not cold). The end of the second half is made to spin around a low E pedal (the dissonance of the F naturals above the pedal is absolutely empty -- there is, amazingly, almost no harmonic tension to it, and the pianist is well advised not to overlay any) before winding down to a glasslike modal cadence. Love it or hate it (and there are countless on both sides), only Satie could have written this piece.
-- Blair Johnston
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