Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Making of an Eccentric: Erik Satie

Erik Satie in 1920
Erik Satie (1866-1925) in 1920

We mark the birth, on May 17, 1866 – 155 years ago today – of the French composer and provocateur Erik Alfred-Leslie Satie. He was born in the ancient port town of Honfleur, situated in Normandy at the mouth of the Seine River on the English Channel, roughly 100 miles northwest of Paris. According to a brief biographical snippet found on the internet, Satie was:

“Known for his eccentricities and verbal virtuosity.”

Oh my goodness, that’s not even a hundredth of it!

This post is dedicated to Satie’s life and personality. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will delve more deeply into his music, specifically his masterwork, Socrate, of 1918. 

A preemptive apologia. There will be sections in this post that will drop names faster than a flock of gulls does guano. That’s okay; Satie lived and worked in Paris during a period called the Belle Époque, during which the city was home to a concentration of talent – artistic, literary, and musical – perhaps unparalleled in human history before or since. 

Satie circa 1873, age 7
Satie circa 1873, age 7

On the Fringe

Satie followed his own drummer from almost the beginning of his life. Her lost his mother to illness in 1872, when he was just six. He moved in with his grandmother, who drowned six years later, in 1878. Doubly bereaved, he moved to Paris to live with his father. His father married a Paris Conservatory-trained pianist and piano teacher named Eugénie Barnetche the following year, in 1879. Alas, young Erik loathed her, but she recognized his talent and enrolled the 13-year-old boy as a preparatory piano student at the Paris Conservatory.

The original Paris Conservatory building (until 1911) in Paris’ 9th arrondissement
The original Paris Conservatory building (until 1911) in Paris’ 9th arrondissement

Satie claimed to have hated virtually every minute of the seven years he attended the Conservatory, which he called “a sort of local penitentiary.” Reports consistently state that despite being a gifted pianist he was entirely unmotivated and couldn’t sight-read to save his life. In 1881, Satie’s piano teacher Emile Descombes referred to him as “the laziest student in the Conservatoire.”

That sort of evaluation from your principal teacher usually spells academic doom, and Satie was indeed booted out of the conservatory without a diploma the following year, in 1882, at the age of 16. (Somehow, he managed to get himself reinstated three years later, in 1885. He was placed in the piano class of Georges Mathias, who had been his stepmother Eugénie’s teacher. Alas, things went no better this time around, and Professor Mathias branded him as being “worthless.” According to Satie’s best friend, the Spanish-born poet Contamine de Latour, the only reason Satie returned to the Conservatory in the first was to get a military deferral, and thus serve just one year of military service instead of the standard five.)

Having failed – miserably – to live up to his father and stepmother’s expectations, the 21-year-old Satie moved out of his father’s house in 1887 and began his career as a café pianist in the Parisian suburb of Montmartre.… continue reading, only on Patreon!

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