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For the Ancient Greek festival and dance, see Gymnopaedia.

The Gymnopédies are three piano compositions by Erik Satie, which were published in Paris starting in 1888.


[edit] The music

Satie's Gymnopédies are gentle yet somewhat irregular pieces of music which deliberately flouted many common practices in classical and even contemporary music. Its cheekiness in avoiding musical conventions however is barely noticeable since the music is strongly guided by its poignant emotional load, and the listener comes away remembering them for their narrative beauty and elegance, rather than their unconventionality.

The pieces are written in 3/4 time and in a similar structure with a similar theme. The Gymnopédies are ethereal, atmospheric pieces regarded as precursors to modern ambient music; in fact, Brian Eno, the pioneering figure of ambient music, has cited Satie as a prime influence. Satie himself used the term "furniture music" to refer to some of his pieces, implying that they could be used as mood-setting background music. However, Satie himself only started to use the term furniture music for some of his 20th century compositions: Satie would never designate the Gymnopédies as furniture music. From the second half of the 20th century on, the Gymnopédies were often erroneously described as part of Satie's body of furniture music, probably due to John Cage's interpretation of Satie's music[1].

[edit] Debussy orchestrations

By the end of 1896 Satie's popularity and financial situation was at an all time low. Claude Debussy, whose popularity was rising at the time, decided on an effort to draw more public attention to the work of his friend.

According to Debussy, the 2nd gymnopédie did not lend itself to orchestration, so he only orchestrated the 3rd and the 1st, reversing the numbering:

First gymnopédie (original piano setting by Satie) → 3rd gymnopédie (orchestration by Debussy)
Third gymnopédie (original piano setting by Satie) → 1st gymnopédie (orchestration by Debussy)

The première of the two Debussy orchestrations took place in February 1897, followed by a publication of the score in 1898.

Orchestrations of the second gymnopédie were only realised many decades later, by other composers, and without being frequently performed.

[edit] Contamine de Latour poetry

In the late 1880s Patrice Contamine (1867–1926), at that time better known as J.P. Contamine de Latour (one of his many pseudonyms) wrote Les Antiques ("The Ancient"), a poem containing these lines:

French version English translation
Oblique et coupant l'ombre un torrent éclatant
Ruisselait en flots d'or sur la dalle polie
Où les atomes d'ambre au feu se miroitant
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie
Slanting and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy
Trickled in gusts of gold to the shiny flagstone
Where the ambre atoms in the fire mirroring themselves
Mingled their saraband to the gymnopaedia

Which connotations exactly were intended by Contamine in using the word gymnopédie / gymnopaedia remains uncertain:

  • dance - probably, as he mentions it alongside another dance, the saraband(e);
  • antiquity - supposedly, given the title of the poem. This however does not yet give a clear picture of how antiquity was perceived in late 19th-century France (see below);
  • nudity - maybe, although words like "gymnastique" (gymnastics) and "gymnase" (gymnasium) based on the same Greek word for nudity (γυμνός - "gymnos") were common in those days, but had lost any reference to nudity;
  • warfare (as in Ancient Greece the word indicated a war dance) - probably not; little war-like intent is apparent in the poem;
  • religious ceremony/festivity (which was the context of the Ancient gymnopaedia) - probably neither; there seems to be no allusion made to them in the poem.

[edit] Perceptions of Antiquity in the 19th century

Regarding Greek Antiquity Otfried Müller was esteemed as one of the major authorities for many decades continuing after his accidental death in 1840. Otfried Müller wrote most of his works in German, which was in low esteem in late 19th century France, and hardly understood by anyone in Paris. Surely not by Satie, who was a notable Sauerkraut adversary, where Sauerkraut meant anything German. Fortunately there were translations and divulgations of what Müller and other researchers of Ancient Greece had uncovered since late 18th century, when the Enlightenment had triggered an amplified interest in Antiquity.

George Cornewall Lewis was the English translator of Müller's Dorians, one of the most influential introductions into the culture of Ancient Greece. But then, for the English translation, Lewis had been successful in convincing Müller that all references to "pederasty" (as it was still called then) had to be left out, as correspondence from Lewis to Müller shows[2].

The prudishness of the Victorian age more or less barred topics like nudity when the insights about Ancient Greek culture were further divulged outside the context of scholar research: when the William Smith Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London, 1875) - which is still a rather academic publication - describes nudity one gets a weird story of nudity meaning "light dress" for the Romans and "without arms" for the Ancient Greeks. Smith sees no contradiction in printing a small woodcut in the article on dance ("saltatio") showing some Greek dancers wearing "only" armor, without any other dress. But then, that entry, that effectively mentions the gymnopaedia, does not go in the topic of nudity in Ancient Greece, though being very complete in all other sorts of references.

Even if France, in general, was probably less prim in those days[3], F. Fertiault, when publishing a "picturesque and anecdotic" dance history book in Paris in 1854[4], succeeded in describing the history of Ancient Greek dance, including the "gymnopédie", without mentioning or illustrating nudity, leave alone homosexuality, once. Neither the martial aspects, nor the context of religious ceremony of the Ancient Greek gymnopaedia were mentioned, for that matter.

That book[3] gives on page 21 following definition of the Gymnopédie, which the author designates as a tragic (i.e. worthy and elegant) scenic danse from Greek Antiquity:

performed by two groups, one composed of boys, the other of older men, dancing and singing hymns by Thalétès

The historical validity of such books, although giving a separate definition of the gymnopédie/gymnopaedia, and mentioning the saraband as a dance "probably" coming from Spain - remains however questionable. Even the fact that Fertiault gives an early 17th century (Latin and Greek) publication by Johannes Meursius as source for his "simplified" description of Ancient Greek dance, does not make this description more convincingly comprehensive... Another "popularising" publication of the time has been tracked down, this time a music dictionary proclaiming that the gymnopaedia was danced by "girls", and yes, "naked", but then in the "unarmed" meaning[5]. Whatsoever, it might be that Satie nor Contamine reading nor understanding Ancient Greek (Latin, German,...), neither had access to more "revealing" sources.

Gymnopédie also appears as a not so frequently used word in 19th century France, to the point it might have been perceived as a neologism by many. Further, in the Contamine poem gymnopédie is used in singular, while the original Greek word (γυμνοπαιδία - "gumnopaidia") is always plural.

All this might indicate that Satie and Contamine chose the word gymnopédie maybe rather for its intangible exotism, than for connotations they were probably hardly aware of themselves.

[edit] Satie gymnopedist

Contamine's poetry inspired Erik Satie to the first compositions with which he tried to cut himself loose from the conventional 19th century "salon music" environment of his father and stepmother. E.g. in September 1887 Satie composed three "sarabands" (Trois Sarabandes), taking a quote from Contamine's La Perdition by way of introduction. By this time, Satie knew Contamine personally.

Satie, apparently, used the word "gymnopédiste" (gymnopedist), before having written a note of his later so famous gymnopédies.

The anecdote of Satie introducing himself as "gymnopedist" in December 1887 runs as follows: the first time Satie visited the Chat Noir cabaret, he was introduced to its director, Rodolphe Salis, famous for serving sharp comments. Being coerced to mention his profession, Satie, lacking any recognisable professional occupation, presented himself as a "gymnopedist", supposedly in an attempt to outwit the director.

The composition of the three gymnopedies started only two months later, and was completed in April of 1888.

In August of 1888 followed the publication of the first gymnopédie, accompanied by the verse of Contamine quoted above. Note that it remains uncertain whether the poem was composed before the music, or whether Contamine intended the verse as a tribute to his friend, who had now completed both a set of "sarabands" and "gymnopédies".

Later the same year the third gymnopédie was also published. There was however no publication of the second gymnopédie until 7 years later, several announcements of an impending publication of this gymnopédie being made in the Chat Noir and Auberge du Clou periodicals in the mean while.

[edit] Modern versions

The Gymnopédies are often used as background music in film and television. Several pages could be filled with new versions and orchestrations used in such context.

In popular music the Gymnopédies music has been used, for instance, by:

  • the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears (two tracks named "Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie" on Blood, Sweat & Tears, their second album);
  • the brothers John and Steve Hackett, the former guitarist for Genesis (Sketches of Satie)
  • the British New Wave and industrial musician Gary Numan, in a version for synthesizer and piano originally released as the B-side to the 1980 single "We Are Glass"
  • Jazz flutist Hubert Laws on his 1974 album "In the Beginning".
  • sampled by Janet Jackson in "Someone to Call My Lover"
  • Jaques Loussier trio recorded three Jazz interpretations of the "Gymnopédies" in 1998
  • the English electronic duo Isan recorded versions of the three Gymnopédies for a 2006 7-inch single, trois gymnopedies on the Morr Music record label
  • It was used in a Japan-only videogame for the Gameboy Advance called Mother 3, the last game in the mother trilogy. It can be heard in the sound player as #222.
  • Deconstruction, a post Jane's Addiction group formed by bass player Eric Avery and guitarist Dave Navarro, incorporate Gymnopédie #1 during an interlude in the song 'Wait for History' on their self-entitled album.

[edit] Gymnopédies in film and television

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes and references

  1.   See The Letters of Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Karl Otfried Müller, reviewed by Wilfried Nippel
    Nippel, Wilfried (2003). "William M Calder III, R. Scott Smith, John Vaio, Teaching the English Wissenschaft. The Letters of Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Karl Otfried Müller (1828-1839). Spudasmata, 85". Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.05 (2003). Retrieved on 2005-09-10. 
  2.   See for example Succès de scandale — Belle Epoque (Oscar Wilde and his Salomé play)
  3.  a  Fertiault, F (1854). Histoire anecdotique et pittoresque de la danse chez les peuples anciens et modernes. Paris: Auguste Aubry, Pages 15–23. 
  4.   See Olof Höjer, Le gymnopédiste - An on-line article describing Satie's piano compositions up to 1890.
  5.   See for example Cage’s Place In the Reception of Satie by Matthew Shlomowitz (1999) on Niclas Fogwall's Erik Satie website.

[edit] External links

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