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Erik Satie

Erik Satie Composer

6 Gnossiennes

Performances: 55
Tracks: 158
  • 6 Gnossiennes
    Year: 1889-97
    Genre: Other Keyboard
    Pr. Instrument: Piano
    • 1.Lent
    • 2.Avec étonnement
    • 3.Lent
    • 4.Lent
    • 5.Modere
    • 6.Avec Conviction et avec une Tristesse Rigoureuse
Erik Satie, a quirky, pioneering man, revealed his true nature in his six Gnossiennes for piano. The first three were written when he was in his early twenties and show his lighter, comical side, only slightly alluding to a period of deep mysticism which was to follow. The title of Satie's Gnossiennes has baffled interpreters. Some believe it is a reference to a gnostic doctrine, others see it as an insinuation to the ancient palace of Knossos (home of the Minotaur and of Ariadne) and the stately Cretan figures endlessly circling the dark pottery there. Whatever purpose the title serves, it is without a doubt that the Rumanian music at the Universal Exposition of Paris of 1889 greatly influenced the life of these works. The following year, Satie was influenced even more when he encountered Joséphin Péladan and the sect of the Rose Croix.

The Gnossiennes stand out from Satie's other compositions in three fundamental ways: they are considered to be one of two priceless testimonies from his youth; they are the first compositions in modern musical history written in bar-less notation; and they are the first of his works to contain his famous witty instructions and indications. Neo-Classical in style, they are each made up of a single mutable rhythmic and harmonic idea that passes through a series of subtle changes. The unusual notations that Satie wrote (Debussy later followed this trend) appear at length throughout the entire work. In the first piece he instructs the player to perform "monotonously and whitely," "very shiningly," and "from afar." The pianist is also told to "ask insistently within yourself," "arm yourself with clairvoyance," "advice yourself carefully," and to "dig into the sound," while playing "with great kindness" and moving "step by step." They do contain repetitive modally based melodies, which when paralleled with their chordal accompaniments, foreshadow Satie's interest in religious chant and monody that later developed into an obsession.

In 1968, three new Gnossiennes (4, 5, and 6), were published. They are thought to have been composed after the publication of the first group, which are by far the superior of the six and more popularly chosen for recording. The original Gnossiennes (1, 2, and 3), were orchestrated by Lachberry, the remaining three by Robert Caby. Bearing slight similarities to his Gymnopédies and Sarabandes, Satie's Gnossiennes concisely display his early abilities and his authentic character.

© All Music Guide


Although in character they often maintain a low profile, the piano works of Erik Satie in many ways presage some of the most pervasive musical ideas in the twentieth century, from the syncopations and melodic contours of jazz to the chordal oscillations of pop to the harmonic stasis of minimalism. At the heart of each of his piano miniatures is a streamlined texture and economy of means that induce an acute expressive focus, one that, as those who play his works will attest, contradict the characterizations of emotional detachment and austerity that are often associated with Satie and his French followers. On the contrary, as demonstrated by the first of his series of Gnossiennes for solo piano, Satie's use of reduced means heightens and exaggerates the arc of his melodies and the mood of his textures. Gnossienne No. 1 was composed in 1890, when the composer was still in his mid-twenties. The piece may seem rather unrevolutionary to modern ears, but when considered in the context of high romanticism and early expressionism, the piece's Spartan elegance is remarkable. The contours of the simple melody, which mysteriously meanders within an unusual kind of minor mode, are subtly highlighted with vaguely Eastern-sounding grace note articulations, while the left hand maintains a drowsy tonic chord accompaniment. This rather gray palette sets in greater contrast the two most notable features: the shifts from the tonic to the subdominant chord—which, in traditional tonal practice, would be a rather weak move, but weighs more heavily under these circumstances; and the appearance of a new melodic idea, which ascends through the mode in a more directed fashion, peaking on the strident-sounding sharped-fourth scale degree that sets the mode apart. The piece's interest thus relies not on changes of color, but subtle variations in the intensity of hue.

© All Music Guide

2.Avec étonnement

Actually the fifth in order of composition, Satie's Gnossienne No. 2, like its fellows, was supposedly inspired by the crane dance performed at the labyrinth of Knossos in Greek antiquity. A slowish, dreamy piece, it employs modal melodies of the sort Satie imagined might be played in ancient Greece, and does away with bar lines. In evoking a scene nearly 2,000 years old, Satie actually composed a thoroughly modern miniature.

What makes this piece seem to move faster than the other Gnossiennes is a trilling figure incorporated into the opening melody, marked (in French) "With astonishment"; it's repeated with the typically irrelevant admonition "Don't go out." A second melody arises, more meandering and melancholy and designated "With great kindness." The third melody is little more than a variant of this, higher on the staff, marked "More intimately." Satie then moves backward through the second melody ("With light intimacy; without pride") to a final repeat of the first tune. Throughout, the harmony shifts in unexpected directions toward distant realms, maintaining constant instability and a feeling of restlessness, lethargic though it may be.

© James Reel, All Music Guide


Despite his reputation as an enigmatic musical revolutionary, Erik Satie's small, intimate piano works are among his most familiar and best-loved compositions. This is not to say that they are not revolutionary in their own way; indeed, proceeding further along in the direction of, say, Schubert's distinctive piano miniatures, Satie's keyboard music often uses spare, concentrated musical materials to evoke a single mood or glimpse, but with remarkable precision of emotional nuance. The third of Satie's Gnossiennes, which appeared in 1890, bears out this characterization well. Its restrained pace, triple meter, and slow harmonic motion reflect all attention to the unfolding of the piece's slow, sinuous modal melody, the angularity and chromaticism of which carry the piece into unexpected modulations and conflicted harmonic fields. The initial mood and modal character bear close resemblance to the Gnossienne No. 1 from the same collection, but the more adventurous melodies of No. 3 carry the piece much further from the stable harmonic base that remained constant in the first Gnossienne. There is a distinct air of exoticism and mystery in the piece, one that is enhanced by Satie's characteristically cryptic title. The actual meaning of the word "Gnossienne," however, is under dispute. On the one hand, some believe the term to be related to "gnosis"—a reference of some sort to the Gnostic aspects of the Rosicrucian movement, with which Satie was affiliated to some degree. On the other hand, the term may refer to the maidens of the castle of Knossos, the ancient city in Crete. According to legend, it was the home of the mythical Minotuar, who roamed the halls of the labyrinth, and which, just at the time of Satie's earliest compositions, had been discovered and was being excavated. Certainly, the colorful chromatic twists and harmonic tangents of the piece can be heard, according to one theory, as a musical evocation of the crane dance that was performed outside the labyrinth. Still, despite the dispute over the "real meaning" behind the piece and the vague exoticism of the music it exudes, the piece is unambiguous in its emotional deliberation and focused, lucid expressivity.

© All Music Guide
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