3 Gymnopédies : Work information

Erik (Alfred Leslie) Satie ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Ronan O'Hora (Piano)

This work

Work name
3 Gymnopédies
Work number
1888-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recording date

Track listing

  • No. 1: Lent et douloureux 3:11 min
  • No. 2: Lent et triste 2:39 min
  • No. 3: Lent et grave 2:23 min


The hypnotic Trois Gymnopedies were composed in 1888, Satie having finally completed his classes at the Paris Conservatoire. He was not a model student and the records describe him as gifted but exceptionally lazy. Following a short spell of military service, Satie began a cosmopolitan life, frequenting the cafes of Montmartre.

The title, Gymopedies, is thought to refer to ancient Greece, though Satie's interests at the time were more medieval; he was fascinated by Gothic art and Gregorian chant in particular.

All three pieces share a common sound world and construction: a gentle rocking accompaniment over which is heard a simple modal melody. Indeed the similarites are so striking, it's possible to think of them as three different musical views of the same object. The work has become Satie's most popular, such is the appeal of these deceptively simple pieces.

The Composers

Erik (Alfred Leslie) Satie

If the professors of the Paris Conservatoire had ever had to elect a student as least likely to succeed, it is possible that Erik Satie would have won hands down.  Slow to progress, his skills at the piano were so poor that he was said to take three months to learn even the simplest of pieces.  Satie, however, was not prepared to let an institution stand in his way and set about writing works which, although imbued with originality and a novel use of harmony, were simple enough for him to play in the salons and cafés of bohemian Paris.

Regarded by some as the father of minimalism in music, Satie wrote simple, frequently unobtrusive pieces.  His musical vision perhaps seems sadly prescient - on one occasion he instructed a group of musicians to play a piece, which he had composed as background music, during the interval of a concert.  He was horrified when the audience began to return to their seats and implored them to carry on as if nothing were any different.

Many of the minimalists Satie inspired picked up on his use of "white note" harmony, an aversion to modulation which drives composers to make new uses of old scales by means such as composing in the church modes or using extended chords.  However, Satie also made references to Eastern chromaticism in a similar manner to Debussy.  The two were close friends and influenced each other to a degree.  Even such a technician as Stravinsky acknowledged that "...French music is Bizet, Chabrier and Satie".

Satie collaborated with many of the finest creative minds in Paris, including Picasso, Milhaud and Cocteau, but he was an intensely private man.  He was only known to have had one relationship in his life, and he allowed no one inside his apartment.  Eventually he fell victim to alcoholism, which led to his death from cirrhosis of the liver.

To many, Satie is known chiefly as an eccentric who filled his wardrobe with umbrellas and wrote pieces with titles like "Trois morceaux en forme de poire" (Three pieces in the form of a pear) just to be obstreperous.  Although his bizarre reputation may have contributed his music's popularity, it has perhaps meant that his work is seen as a collection of stunts and tricks.  It would be a shame if the odd titles of his pieces and details of his life were to detract from what is often honest, unique music.

Related Composers: Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud

- MIDI FILE - "Gnossienne" for Piano (7'57'')