Satie: Gymnopédies

performed by Daniel Varsano 

MYCU: Part 7

mvt 2 here
mvt 3 here 

I’m exhausted. Well, I was when I started writing this as a break from the last few pieces of the German(ic) Symphonies series we did for the last few months of 2014.

As perhaps evident from last week’s Bolero article and the one before it, I needed a break after the long string of German(ic) symphonies, and it really hit me with Mahler 3, and then Gurre-Lieder. A piano phase was coming up, and these two French composers made the transition (maybe just in my head) smoother. 

While last week’s piece was a break from structure and focused on instrumentation, this
week’s piece is a break from just about everything. 

I was walking somewhere a while back and didn’t know what to listen to. I only had my phone on me, so didn’t have my entire library. I had a few playlists that have been in rotation, among them the German(ic) symphonies I’d been beating to death. I was thinking of what to do when those were all over, and this is so the opposite of them all. 

The first few seconds seemed…. So plain as to be boring, but within just a few moments, life stopped. If you want to feel like you’re in a French silent film in Paris, where everything suddenly becomes cinematic and the little things in life suddenly become beautiful and significant, have a listen to the Gymnopédies on a walk through your neighborhood. It’s as if the ambient noises all become accompaniment to the music. It is just the kind of music I need to keep my head from spinning. It’s stunningly gorgeous in its simplicity.

While Mahler’s music is captivating and hypnotic, especially with like, the opening of the sixth (or the entire seventh, which I absolutely love), there was something going on at around the same time as Mahler was writing his first few symphonies that was in quiet opposition to the grandness and scope of works like that that had been dominating the musical scene for some time. It was a strange Frenchman with naught but a piano. 

If Mahler’s “symphony as the world” philosophy embodies the idea of cosmology and capturing the entire universe, then Satie’s work is quantum physics. Well, not that it’s that complicated, but it is as small scale as Mahler was large scale. Perhaps Ferneyhough’s “new complexity” would be a much more appropriate candidate for aural quantum theory. Satie’s work is just… peace. It would be the background music on Pluto, distant and quiet and lonely, watching the sun and the rest of the solar system from afar as it orbited slowly and quietly. 

In fact, so much stuff to analyze in typical pieces isn’t even here. There is a lot of dissonance, which gives the pieces a sort of unsettled but very atmospheric feeling. The music is pensive, but definitely has its pained, morose climate, and this is directly referred to in the title of each work in the series. 
Wikipedia uses words like short, atmospheric, eccentric, piquant, melancholy to describe the pieces, and that they all are. The first of the three was published in 1888, with the others following in the same year.
There’s a story on Wikipedia of Satie using the title “gymnopédiste” to describe himself when asked by one Rudolph Salis what his profession was. Somehow that stuck, and composition of the pieces began a few months later. While Satie claimed the inspiration for the pieces came from a Flaubert novel, some people seem to think it is from a poem by J.P. Contamine de Latour containing the line “…Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia…” Interestingly enough, Satie’s piece before this was his Trois Sarabandes. Relation?

Anyway, the three pieces are given the following notations:

  1. Lent et douloreux (slow and painfully)
  2. Lent et triste (slow and sadly)
  3. Lent et grave (slow and gravely)

Do you see any relation? For one, they’re all slow. Secondly, painful, sad and grave should give you a picture of what the general feel of the piece will be. It isn’t crushingly heartbroken, not as solemnly mournful as Chopin’s funeral march, and I wouldn’t even describe the first as that painful; in my opinion, the most thoroughly sad is the third. In any case, they’re all different shades of the same idea, really. They’re all in 3/4 time, with a common structure. The underlying rhythm is the same for all of them, with really just slight variations throughout. The harmonies and dissonances change, the melody of one goes up where the other went down, or has a certain dissonance that another didn’t. They’re all shades of very dark blues and grays, hovering around the same general idea. There is a surprising amount of recordings of this piece, and they’re all… slightly different. I’d love to get my hands of Aldo Ciccolini’s two traversals of Satie’s entire piano works, one recorded on a Steinway, the other on a Bösendorfer, but I haven’t gotten around to it. So there’s him, Entremonte, Queffélec, Thibaudet, and others. Personal choice here. Not too hard to pick something, although I tend to think a few of the interpretations are a bit fast (Ciccolini) or slow (Thibaudet). It’s just me here, but the sadness described here isn’t a full-on, in your face kind of mourning. It’s the sadness that, every once in a while, everyone kind of likes to have. It’s a more abstract, hovery melancholy, an emotional coma that maybe gets you thinking more pensively about things, like one of those days when you don’t want to do anything but you don’t want to do nothing. It feels existential, lonely, lost in a sort of emptiness, but not to the point of depression. It’s what could perhaps be described less poetically as ‘a funk,’ as in “I’m just in a funk today.” In any case, no matter how the music makes you feel, be it sad or lonely or floating or relaxed or uneasy, that feeling is probably quite clear, definite, specific, but in one of those ways that is possibly difficult to describe in words, as if it’s an idea translated from another language that you’re not quite exactly sure how best to say in yours. Maybe that’s why Satie used music. Also, I could play these at one time on the piano, because they’re (clearly) not terribly difficult to get your fingers around. And so begins our month-ish-long series of piano pieces, all the following of which I can NOT play on the piano. Enjoy.


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