Erik Satie: Gnossiennes

performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Music You Can Understand: Part 1
Eric Satie died 89 years ago this week, and it wasn’t until I saw his name come up on the history post that I actually remembered this guy. He was on my constant rotation for a. Very. Long. Time.
The first gnossienne was the first piece of music that I brought to my piano teacher years ago and said “I want to learn this” with any degree of hope that it could possibly be done in a reasonable amount of time. I also had some Rachmaninoff concerti, Liszt’s La Campanella, a few Chopin pieces, and the first movement of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata, but I didn’t dare bring those up. Even as much as I did not understand the artistic difficulty of those pieces, I knew they were a long way off (as in…. A decade or more) and that they weren’t even worth talking about.
The first piece I saw/heard that I liked and thought “I could maybe do that,” was this one. I had almost entirely memorized the first two movements (even though I suppose they’re individual pieces, not movements of one work), and had been making progress on the third, and it really made me feel good that I had added something to my “repertoire” aside from Hanon exercises (whose namesake also showed up in this week’s history lesson), scales, and Czerny etudes. It was an actual piece of music, and I was really happy about that.
This piece has no bar lines, so it’s in “free time,” which was slightly frustrating for me at the time and took a bit of getting used to for someone who practiced a bar at a time. Once I got the “feel” of the

piece, it was nice to play freely and put some emotion into it.

The piece is somewhat eerie, but not in an evil way. It is slightly dark, maybe even a bit mysterious. It’s made up of just a few simple sections, the main theme at the beginning, a contrasting thundering lower passage, and an eerie eighth-note passage in a  higher register. That’s it. I quite like the harmonies in this entire piece.
The second gnossienne, although marked avec etonnement, is the sound of ennui… While it has its moments of relative “etonnement”, it’s still cool, almost lethargic, relaxing, smooth, and even comfortingly torpid.
It’s like this: an oldish couple sitting silently in a muggy room in summer with the windows open, probably in Paris, one reading the newspaper, the other, say, knitting. A thought comes to both of them at the exact same time and they make eye contact and silently smirk to one another, and continue what they’re doing. It’s perfect. And then it’s done.
The third is more chromatic-ish. They all have been to some degree or other, the second even slightly bluesy… This one is less torpid than the second. It’s a bit chattier, slightly more restless, but just as hollow and expansive and quiet. It winks every now and then.
I am only mostly familiar with performance of the first three, although the others are also included as Gnossienes. I will also address them here. The fourth feels to be the most developed or… Ornate of the six. It’s interesting and more complex than the rest. There is much more movement in the piece in both the treble and bass lines, with grace notes and ornamentation. It’s really quite gorgeous, almost like a very mysterious nocturne in its flowing nature.
The fifth was apparently written first. It feels to me in form and content like the later three but with simpler harmonies. It’s almost happy. It’s a lighter spot in what can be argued to be a collection of darker, mysterious pieces.
The sixth is the last of this collection of six, and is probably my  least favorite. It neither paints a mysterious landscape, nor does it flow and trickle with beauty. It’s a bit awkward, and then it’s over.
For example then, while I feel Mr. Varsano’s recording of (most of) the Gnossiennes to be quite nice, I personally feel like he takes some things a little too far, that the expression is a bit exaggerated and beyond the scope of the simple beauty (and sometimes even torpid landscape, ennui even) of these pieces. Mr. Thibaudet does a fantastic job of realizing the expressions, of keeping what I interpret to be the general ‘mood’ or essence of the pieces. His recordings are excellent, if not a bit slow, bordering on…. dragging. His first gnossienne feels almost yearning, as the tempo is the exact opposite of aggressive. The same is true of 2 and 3, but not to the same extent, it feelings especially appropriate (or just least obvious) in the third.
I tried to get hold of (or at least hear) Thibaudet’s teacher Aldo Ciccolini’s two recordings, the first cycle on a Bösendorfer, the second on a Steinway. It would be a fantastic opportunity to compare the unique qualities of two fantastic pianos, but that’s another discussion.
Each of these first three short pieces have very clear factors that both unite and distinguish them. There are very similar figures in the bass line, a quarter- note-half note-quarter note rhythm, most noticeable in the first gnossienne. It’s what gives the first movement a sort of strongish heartbeat, and this shows up in the others. The harmonies are also very similar, with lots of sonically interesting chords and accidentals (at least from the perspective of someone who spent most of their piano time doing scales or Hanon exercises).
Again, (as with many of Satie’s works) these are such small, dainty little pieces, but that doesn’t mean the emotions they evoke are small. I feel Satie would have been too “minimalist” to compose a piano concerto, but I bet it would have been a thing of beauty.
In speaking of (read: overanalyzing) these quite simple pieces, I must say I did learn some very interesting things when learning to play them. Obviously, before one can play a piece technically, it’s rather meaningless to begin adding interpretation or style to the piece, but at a certain level of ability, that becomes easier. Once I could actually play these pieces, I started fiddling around with different ways to express certain passages, with certain weight or stress here or there. What I found is…. although something may have sounded like a good idea in my head, and what I played was exactly what I heard in my head, the result was something less than musical, even bordering on distasteful. So an exaggerated expression or
All in all, I learned to some extent or other, about the musical vocabulary of expression, that in the palate a performer has, not everything is always suitable and one can do things that may be ‘interesting’ or cool, but maybe not logical or enjoyable to listen to. It is with pieces as ‘simple’ (not technically challenging) that I was able to begin to think more about expression and interpretation than just putting my fingers in the right places for the right length of time.
In that regard, in my early stages of the piano, it’s almost like they hold a special place for me, a sentimental one. I remember hearing about Catcher in the Rye being a controversial but highly moving and important book in 20th century literature, and so I went and bought a copy and read it within a couple of days. It was my freshman year in high school, and at the time, it felt like it rewired my brain, changed my life, made so much sense. Had I waited another ten years to read it, I may have hated it, but I remember how fascinating it was to read at that moment in my life; I likely read way too much into it, overlaid my own personal experiences and thoughts into the book, literally reading into it, but at the time, I was highly impressionable, and it was a life-changing book.
These pieces (while not to that extent emotionally) are somewhat similar. For whatever reason or other, they occupy a certain nostalgic place for me. There’s something beautiful in their simplicity, their straightforward cleanness, that everyone can grasp. While not everyone may like the emotional landscape painted here, I feel like these six pieces represent a small niche of classical music that remains… non-mainstream, but not in an abstract Russian avant-garde impossible to enjoy or grasp sort of way. It’s extremely approachable classical music in both length and content, and even to this day, manages to sound extremely modern while still not sounding…. new age (shudder).


In our next issue of Music You Can Understand, we’ll address another excellently straightforward, moving, easy-to-understand piece that is almost the exact antithesis of this one. It’s as close to death metal as you could possibly get in the mid-19th century. It was innovative and shocking and even repulsive to some. But I love it. If you love film scores like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or something like that, you should see something quite nice in Thursday’s piece!

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