First published September 1, 2000
Avant-garde composer Erik Satie created his Première Gnossienne (the first in a series of Gnossiennes) in 1890, when he was 24 years old. Like his Sarabandes and Gymnopédies, it was one of the highly successful works that placed Satie squarely in the Parisian fin-de-siècle scene. Although it first appeared publicly in a musical revue in 1893, it took 20 years to be published by Rouart-Lerolle. The work is typical of his enigmatic style, and like many of his compositions gives us pause for thought.
To begin with, the title offers cause for much speculation. Does it refer to the Cretan island of Knossos, and therefore to Socrates’ introspective motto, “Know thyself”? Or is it simply an imaginary word chosen for its sound and rhythm? Satie’s titles are often linked to the commentaries scattered throughout some of his scores, typically enigmatic, elliptical, rich in inference, and impossible to unravel. Satie’s originality doesn’t stop there. Although bar lines would have been more than helpful in marking something as innocuous as 4/4 time, Satie omitted them entirely. As a result we get a sense of freedom, looking at the piece as a whole. This short piece is seen as a unit, an uninterrupted soliloquy that ends as it began, emerging from silence to fade into the infinite.
There are other effects that give this piece its timeless quality. The repetitive nature of the melody prohibits any development. At most, two rests are replaced by a whole note in the second repetition. The left hand syncopation taken in the tempo indicated (see example 1) is repeated with a kind of nonchalance that borders on monotony, going round and round like the end of a record on an old gramophone. The F minor key, suggested by the insistent F bass note, turns out to be a red herring when the melody establishes itself as distinctly modal (see example 1), akin to the gypsy mode that can be heard in Ravel’s Tsigane. The short appoggiaturae, typical of this gypsy style, punctuate each of the short phrases that are repeated like an echo.
A second musical idea appears at this point (see example 2), although without breaking away from what has gone before. It is more like a mysterious variation. Here the Première Gnossienne, which can easily be sung because of its small range, allows for a brief lyrical passage that is accentuated by an oriental flavour. “Ask questions,” says Satie. “Who am I?” asks Socrates. “Look to yourself,” replies Satie. Is this humour? Irony? Or cynicism?
At first glance, Satie is difficult and for many, not at all understandable. He loved understatement and irony – and used it liberally in his compositions. One could say he was understated about everything except his life of abject poverty. “Dear Valentine, he writes his friend Valentine Hugo, I suffer too much. I seem to be cursed. This beggarly life disgusts me. I’m at the end of my tether and can’t wait.”1
Translation: Jane Brierley
- Margerie Anne de. Valentine Hugo, Éd. J. Damase, Paris, 1983.
To hear the works of Satie and “Les Six:”
- Satie: OEuvres pour piano/Aldo Ciccolini (EMI)
- Satie: Parade:/Orchestre National de France, direction Manuel Rosenthal (Adès)
- L’Album des Six: pièces pour deux pianos et quatre mains/Duo Corre-Exerjean (Vérany)
- Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel/Orchestre National de France, direction Darius Milhaud (Adès)
- Arthur Honegger: Le Roi David/Orchestre de la Suisse romande, direction Ernest Ansermet (Decca)