10 (little) things you might not know about Erik Satie

Today, Tuesday May 17th, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth in Honfleur of Erik Satie, the mentor of "The Six". The following 10 anec-dotes provide a glimpse into the personality of Erik Satie, a troubled artist relatively unknown to the general public.

10 (little) things you might not know about Erik Satie
Erik Satie, by Picabia © Photo 12 / Contributeur

Erik Satie was a communist (though not a very militant one) and an alcoholic (though not really, by the standards of the time), but the man behind the work remains relatively unknown to the general public. Yet during his lifetime he rubbed shoulders with a great many artists, including Picabia, Picasso, Ravel, Stravinsky, Stein and Cocteau, who held him in great admiration.

The man, like his music, remains something of a mystery. "Mr Precursor", as Debussy liked to call him, led the way with his surrealistic scores and repetitive music.

Enrolled by force at the conservatory by his stepmother

Satie lost his mother when his six and his paternal grandmother when he was 12. His father remarried: his second wife, Eugénie Barnetche, was a pianist and mediocre composer. Eugénie took her stepson's education to heart and enrolled him in the National Conservatory. He remained there for seven years without particularly distinguishing himself, thanks to his talents as a pianist. This reputation as an anti-academic composer would dog him throughout his career.

He asked permission to do his military service

At the age of 20, sensing another failure ahead at the conservatory, he asked permission to do his military service. This new vocation was short-lived because he exposed himself, bare-chested, to the winter cold in order to catch pulmonary congestion. After deliberately falling ill, he managed to get himself declared unfit for service in April 1887.

Pianist at the Chat Noir cabaret in Montmartre

Chat Noir
Chat Noir

From 1899 to 1911, Satie lived on his earnings as a cabaret pianist at the Chat Noir, but hated the job. However, it brought him into contact with the leading figures of the Belle Epoque period: Stéphane Mallarmé,Paul Verlaine, Patrice Contamine and Guy de Maupassant This music also left a lasting mark on Satie's musical personality.

After that, he took up the opportunity to compose for the music hall. During this period, he composed for the singer Paulette Darty, among others, which helped bring his music to a broader public. He also wrote Je te veux, Tendrement and La Diva de l’empire, among many others. However, Satie found it hard to accept these years of music hall work and said all he wrote was "crude rubbish".

Claude Debussy, his greatest friend

Debussy, Satie, Stravinsky
Debussy, Satie, Stravinsky

They met at the Auberge du Clou, where Erik Satie was being "paid to thump out tunes" after having left the Chat Noir. Debussy remained the main person with whom he could discuss anything to do with music. Though they got on very well in the beginning, their friendship soured over time, mainly because of a certain form of rivalry and Satie's marked inclination towards self-destruction and misanthropy."If I didn't have Debussy to discuss things a bit more elevated than what vulgar people talk about, I don't know how I'd manage to express my humble thoughts - if I still express them".

An ambivalent relationship with religion

Satie entered the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross along with Claude Debussy. This order had been founded by Joséphin Péladan, known as Sâr Péladan, a self-proclaimed authority and founder of the aesthetic order of the Catholic Rose-Cross. Satie met quite a few artists there and saw this new organisation as an opportunity to introduce people to his music. In March 1892, over 20,000 visitors thronged to the Durand-Ruel gallery to visit the first Rose-Cross painting exhibition he organised, and during which he held a performance of the Sonneries de la Rose+Croix for harps and trumpets (of which only the piano versions have come down to us).

He later left the Rose-Cross order to set up his own chapel, the Metropolitan Church of Jesus Art, of which he was the "Grand Parcener" (on 15 October 1893). He wanted to turn it into a « refuge where catholicity and the Arts indissolubly linked to it will grow and prosper, shielded from any profanation (...)". »

A single love story...

Suzanne Valadon Painting © Bettmann / Contributeur
Suzanne Valadon Painting © Bettmann / Contributeur

His only acknowledged lover was the painter Suzanne Valadon and he noted the precise duration of their relationship (from 14 January to 20 June 1893).Vexations (1893) was composed as a result of their break-up. It is a short melodic motif that the performer repeats 840 times, after first carrying out various "serious" exercises involving immobilisation, according to Satie's instructions on the score.

A keen sense of humour

In response to Claude Debussy's advice to take great care over the form of his works, and Debussy's recent success with Pelléas et Mélisande, Satie composed a piano duet called Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear in 1903.
However Satie's sense of humour was particularly evident in the years from 1911 to 1914, when he felt very inspired and composed, for example, Préludes flasques (pour un chien) (Flabby Preludes (for a dog)), Véritables préludes flasques (pour un chien) (True Flabby Preludes (for a dog)) and Embryons desséchés (Desiccated embryos) (1913).

He resumed his training at the age of 39

In 1905, Satie enrolled at the Schola Cantorum, a private conservatory in Paris, to rid himself of his reputation as a self-taught musician. His teacher, Albert Roussel, who was three years younger than Satie, saw tremendous virtuosity in his music. During his three years at the school, Satie obediently wrote chorales and fugues.

Keen on drawing

Erik Satie's studio was full of hidden treasures, including small cards on which he liked to draw (around 4,000 of them were found after his death), ranging from property advertisements to little anecdotes. Satie wrote texts and drew images, inventing scores of improbably stories, as a way of forgetting how lonely he was.

He collected umbrellas

Yes. Umbrellas. On Satie's death, his small studio flat in Arcueil was found in an incredible jumble, with piles and piles of handkerchiefs and umbrellas, still in their wrapping. These were two of Satie's favourite collectibles: handkerchiefs and umbrellas. And when it rained, he kept his umbrella dry beneath his jacket!