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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Gymnopédies (from gymnopaedia), published in Paris starting in 1888, are three piano compositions written by French composer and pianist Erik Satie.

These short, atmospheric pieces are written in 3/4 time, with each sharing a common theme and structure. Collectively, the Gymnopédies are regarded as an important precursor to modern ambient music — gentle yet somewhat eccentric pieces which, when composed, defied the classical tradition. For instance, the first few bars of Gymnopédie No. 1 consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chords, the first on the subdominant, G, and the second on the tonic, D.

The melodies of the pieces use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece "painfully", "sadly" or "gravely".

From the second half of the 20th century on, the Gymnopédies were often erroneously described as part of Satie's body of furniture music, perhaps because of John Cage's interpretation of them.

"Gymnopedie No. 1" was sampled on "This Is Stranger Than Love" by Mark Stewart And The Maffia.


Contamine de Latour poetry

The work was possibly based upon the poetry of J.P. Contamine de Latour (1867–1926), who wrote Les Antiques ("The Ancients"), 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 on the shiny flagstone
Where the atoms of amber in the fire mirroring themselves
Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia

Satie claimed they were inspired by reading Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammbô. (Orledge, P.207)

The exact connotation intended by Contamine in using the Greek word gymnopédie remains uncertain. Among the possibilities are:

  • 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; in Sparta, when much of schoolwork was physical training, the youths were typically nude. It seems clear that -ped refers to children (paed). As suggested below, a dance or parade by children from the gymnasium seems a reasonable interpretation.
  • 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.

Gymnopédie also appears as an infrequently used word in 19th century France, to the point it might have been perceived as a neologism by many. It was, however, already mentioned in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de Musique (Paris: Duchesne, 1775), where Gymnopédie is described as “Air ou Nome sur lequel dansoient à nu les jeunes Lacédémoniennes” (vol 1, p. 376).

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

Satie gymnopaedist

The Gymnopédies are the first compositions with which Erik Satie tried to cut himself loose from the conventional 19th century "salon music" environment of his father and stepmother. 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" (gymnopaedist), before having written a note of his later so famous gymnopédies.

The anecdote of Satie introducing himself as a "gymnopaedist" 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 "gymnopaedist", supposedly in an attempt to outwit the director.

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

In August 1888, the "First Gymnopédie" was published, accompanied by the verse of Contamine quoted above. However, 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 published. There was, however, no publication of the "Second Gymnopédie" until 7 years later, with several announcements of an impending publication of this gymnopédie being made in the Chat Noir and Auberge du Clou periodicals.

Orchestrations by Claude Debussy

By the end of 1896, Satie's popularity and financial situation were ebbing. Claude Debussy, whose popularity was rising at the time, helped draw public attention to the work of his friend.

Debussy expressed his belief that the "Second Gymnopédie" did not lend itself to orchestration. (Orchestrations of this gymnopédie were only realised many decades later, by other composers, and without being frequently performed). Thus, in February 1897, Debussy orchestrated the Third and First only, reversing the numbering:

"First Gymnopédie" (original piano setting by Satie) → "Third Gymnopédie" (orchestration by Debussy)
"Third Gymnopédie" (original piano setting by Satie) → "First Gymnopédie" (orchestration by Debussy)

The score was then published in 1898.

Twentieth century arrangements

The first and second Gymnopédies were arranged by Dick Halligan for the Jazz Fusion group Blood, Sweat & Tears under the title "Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie" on the group's eponymous album, released in 1968. The recording received a Grammy Award the following year for "Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance."

In 2007 Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann arranged the first and the third Gymnopédie for the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. No. 1 was produced by EMI Classics 6085012 "Fleur de Paris".

Influences and cover versions

  • In the 1970 Canadian film Goin' Down the Road, Peter follows a woman into the Classical Music section of Sam the Record Man, where an orchestral arrangement of Gymnopédie No. 1 is playing. Despite having no knowledge of classical music, Peter orders a copy of the record.
  • Gary Numan covered the first Gymnopedie on the b-side of 1980 single, "We Are Glass", with an arrangement incorporating guitar, bass and synthesizers.
  • Chris Freeman and John Shaw covered Gymnopedie on their album, Chris Freeman and John Shaw (May 1981).
  • New Romantic band Japan based several songs on these pieces: "The Tenant", (from the 1978 album Obscure Alternatives) "Despair" and "The Other Side Of Life" (from the 1979 album Quiet Life) and "Nightporter" (from the 1980 album Gentlemen Take Polaroids).
  • The japanese guitar duo Depapepe made their own cover version of Gymnopedie No. 1.
  • A pastiche of Erik Satie's style in Trois Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes, composed by Vladimir Cosma, was used in Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 film Diva. A similar pastiche was composed by Charles Fox for the soundtrack of the 1988 film, Short Circuit 2 for the scene following the attack on the robot, Johnny 5.
  • Gymnopedie No. 1 also features prominently in a scene of The Royal Tenenbaums by Wes Anderson. The scene features two large paintings by Miguel Calderon and a non-exchange between Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) and Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), with Gymnopedie No. 1 playing instead of having dialogue.
  • Gymnopedie No. 1 is also part of the soundtrack for the documentary film Man on Wire.
  • Gymnopedie No. 1 is also used in an important scene in the Japanese video game Mother 3, where the character Leder reveals important plot points about the background of the game.
  • Gymnopedie No. 1 is also used in the Japanese video game Persona 2.
  • Gymnopedie No.1 is also sampled in the song Gymnopedie 1. by Lushlife featuring Shad
  • Gymnopedie No.2 is played as a part of the soundtrack in Jaco Van Dormael's 2009 film Mr. Nobody.
  • Gymnopedie No. 3 is used as menu screen music in the video game Symphony.
  • A remixed version of Gymnopedie No. 1 is also part of the soundtrack for the visual novel G Senjō no Maō under the title "Sora no Seki" (Evening Sky).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Gymnopédies" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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