Week 67: “Gymnopédie #1” by Erik Satie

Erik Satie was a tragically romantic figure.

For starters, he lived in Paris in the late 1800s. This was a time when poets roamed free in the streets, the smell of croissants filled the air, and the paint was still drying on the Eiffel Tower. But what makes him more interesting than my possibly flawed understanding of turn-of-the-century France is his tortured love life.

Satie had been solitary most of his life, until his late twenties, when he met Suzanne Valadon. She was an accomplished painter, the first woman ever admitted to the prestigious Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She was also quite striking, having modeled for many famous French painters of the day, including Renoir. (And, if you believe some accounts, she may have done more than just pose for Renoir.)

After their first night together, Satie was hopelessly in love with Valadon, and proposed to her. She, however, turned him down, and their initially heated affair lapsed back into friendship. He remained obsessed with her, and for her part, Valadon didn’t do much to cool him down: she moved across the street from him, and even painted his portrait and gave it to him as a gift. (I can almost see it… “Here’s a painting of you that I did. But I think we should just be friends. Okay, well I guess I’ll just go home, right across the street where you can pine over me from afar. See ya!”)

Eventually, she moved away, and Satie drank himself to death, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1925. He never got over Valadon, and was quoted as saying that her departure left him with “nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The pianist’s left hand, which alternates between the tonic and the fourth of the scale. I don’t know what it is about that interval, but it gives an immediate sense of relaxation, as if the piano is letting out a tired sigh.

2. It’s just a bit moody. The way the piece begins makes you think it won’t stray very far, but the occasional tangents into the relative minor give it more substance.

3. It ends on an unexpected and slightly unsatisfying half-cadence. If there is such a thing as a half-cadence. It’s a bit frustrating, but once you know Satie’s romantic history, you can forgive him for it.

Recommended listening activity:

Repeatedly writing your name in cursive.

Buy it here.