Born in Honfleur, Basse-Normandie, France, Satie was a music composer, and a performing pianist, though mainly for café and cabaret audiences. Satie wrote theatre and ballet music, as well as piano music. His compositions are original, humorous, often bizarre, and very minimalistic. His music is sometimes called furniture music, supposed to be in the background of everyday life. It is evidently is (anti)-romantic and also anti-impressionistic. Satie eventually became a leading figure of the French avant-garde.
He did not begin to be taken seriously as a composer by his contemporaries until he was in his forties. In 1917 the first performance in Paris of the ballet Parade (the orchestration of which included parts for typewriter, foghorn and rattle) caused a scandal, which established his name as a composer. Satie wrote this ballet together with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso for the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, leader of the Ballets Russes.
His other works include:
- Trois Gymnopédies (1888), piano
- Messe des Pauvres (1895)
- Trois morceaux en forme de poire (1901), piano four hands
- Descriptions Automatiques (1913), piano
- Sonatine Bureaucratique (1917), piano
- Socrate (1918), symphonic drama
- Relâche (1924), ballet
Satie gave his piano pieces names like Unpleasant Glimpses, Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog), or Old Sequins and Old Breastplates. He accompanied the scores of these pieces with all kinds of written remarks, through which he insisted that these should not be read out during performance.
Satie was known as an eccentric, and amongst other things he started his own church (with himself as the only member). Every day of his working life Satie left his apartment in the Parisian suburb of Arcueil to walk across the whole of Paris to either Montmartre or Montparnasse before walking back again in the evening.
Portrait of Satie by Valadon
A penniless bohemian, Satie wore a top hat, a flowing lavaliere, and a pince-nez. His room at 6 rue Cortot was next door to artist Suzanne Valadon. They began an affair in January 1893, and Satie proposed marriage that same night. The only relationship of his life, he became obsessed with the beautiful artist, whom he called his "Biqui", writing impassioned notes about "her whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet." Valadon painted Satie's portrait and gave it to him but after six months, the beautiful Suzanne moved on, leaving Satie brokenhearted. After his death, her portrait of him (shown here) was found in his room at Arcueil.
Satie was the center of Les Six, a group of six French composers (Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc). The group advocated clear musical language, and opposed impressionism (for example Debussy and Ravel), slavism (Stravinsky) and post-Wagnerism (Schoenberg) in music.