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Satie Piano Works (1987, 2003, 2012) performed by Aldo Ciccolini

Erik Satie’s piano music changed the way many people thought about music. It’s hard to imagine John Cage, cool jazz, ambient, post rock and a bunch of other things without this.

It’s also really cool to hear the ragtime stuff.

Allegro (8/10)

Publishing a 20 second long “allegro” in 1884 takes all kinds of guts. I’d rank it higher, only it is way too damn short.

Valse-Ballet (8/10)

Much longer than his Allegro but still daring in its brevity; this piece is quite nice though it is very much what you would expect: a brief waltz.

Fantasy-Valse (7/10)

Not that I know much about the waltz genre, but this strikes me as pretty conventional and, though it is certainly nice to listen to, nothing particularly daring, despite its brevity.

Sarabandes (10/10)

I lack the musical knowledge to properly put these in their place. Read what someone else (Mary E. Davis) has to say:

the Sarabandes introduce compositional approaches that would prove important not only in Satie’s later work but also in the broader history of French music…they presented a new conception of large-scale form, in which groups of three very similar pieces, deliberately interlinked by means of motivic cells, harmonic events and recurring interval patterns, combine to constitute a unified work.

What she said. But, basically, revolutionary. And nice to listen to, to boot.


These are more famous than the Sarabandes in part, I believe, because they appear even more radical, given their brevity and their dissonance. This is music that I appreciate the radicalness of only in juxtaposition to what literally everyone else was writing at the time. To me, a child of the late 20th century, they sound pleasant and the furthest thing from revolutionary. But my ear was raised in w world where these ideas were already long incorporated into music.

Also, they’re so famous now. It’s hard to hear them for the first time, you know?

Fête donnée par des chevaliers normands en l’honneur d’une jeune demoiselle (XIe siècle) (8/10)

An uncharacteristically strident piece for Satie, this is something I quite like but I feel like it’s probably hard to justify it as any kind of classic given how simple the theme is (played at different volumes).

Nocturnes (9?/10)

Satie’s second last piano work has a weird reputation because of how serious he took them. I find them very pleasant to listen to but, as someone who has not listened to enough nocturnes, I’m not sure how far they deviate from the form. (Okay, I am sure they deviate from the form, I’m just not sure how far.) I like this music, but I’m not sure how radical it was by the time it was published.

Premier Menuet (7/10)

Time has given this perhaps too much import; viewed by some as Satie’s “farewell” to writing for the piano. I don’t hear it. What I hear is a relatively conventional piano piece (for Satie). By the way: not his first minuet by any means.

Avant-dernières pensées (8/10)

Pretty stuff, but relatively conventional for Satie and lacking some of the satirical wit of some of the other pieces from this era. I do like the idea that World War I was idiotic; that’s pretty damn accurate.

Ogives (7/10)

Quite simple music supposedly reminiscent of plainchant. (There he goes again, thinking outside the box.) I find them less impressive than his earlier work from this period in part because of how simple they are. I do like the idea that the tempo is totally up for grabs to the performer; that is cool.

Première pensée Rose+Croix (7/10)

Unpublished during his lifetime, we have to assume he didn’t love these. But I quite like them. Though not quite as out there as his later music, they really do a good job of setting a brief mood and not deviating from it.

Le Fils des étoiles (10/10)

Excerpted from an elaborate 75+ minute score he wrote for a stage play, these pieces are apparently the only part that were ever performed, even at the time. (They were originally written for flutes and harps, apparently.)

These are radical compositions specifically intended to be separate from the performance. Though not officially part of his “furniture music” stage, to my knowledge, they are spiritual predecessor to that type of music, and ambient, of course.

Prelude #3 for Le Nazaréen (8/10)

Another one of these pieces that, I believe, were composed specifically not to fit in with whatever was on the stage. There are a lot of similarities between these and the earlier, more famous ones, in composition it not in melody (to my ears anyway).

Prélude d’Eginhard (7/10)

Really, really brief – for a prelude by anyone other than Satie but even compared to Satie’s own preludes – but some people view this as perhaps his perfect short piece. It reminds me of a number of other pieces by him, where he repeats the same phrase with more or less volume.

Danses Gothiques (9/10)

One could view the separation of this piece into individual pieces as a sort of attack on the idea of a set of dances – the breaks between dances sometimes occur in the middle of the chord progression. Like much of Satie’s work at the time it is, conceptually, unlike anyone else before him. Despite its boldness it remained unpublished for a long time; I guess it was just too weird.

Prélude de la porte héroïque du ciel (8/10)

There version of this I’ve heard is apparently quite fast, which is hard to believe given that it doesn’t sound that fast. Very much in line with his earlier preludes, if a bit more ambitious perhaps.

Prière (5/10)

My understanding is that this is a fragment; hard to know what to do with fragments. It’s pretty, for sure, but so is everything he wrote.

Vexations (7/10)

The controversy around this piece is whether it should be played 840 times. (Seriously.) The version I heard is not played that many times. I feel like the title strongly suggests that’s right. It’s more of an exercise than a thing to listen to, me thinks, but it’s still a fascinating thing that exists.

Reverie du Pauvre (8/10)

“Reverie” is right – slow and indefinable like a dream-state. It’s hard to put your finger on this one, for sure.

Verset laïque & somptueux (7/10)

Another really dreamy piece, where Satie seems to be approaching modern ambient and creating music that is barely there.

Caresse (8/10)

This feels like an early, practice-run for some of his dreamier pieces around a few years later. But that middle part really disrupts everything (intentionally I’m sure) so you don’t get lulled in like in the later pieces.

Danse De Travers # 2 (7/10)

An early stab at a piece he would rewrite. Not sure why it’s here.

Petite Musique de Clown Triste (7/10)

His first stab at something approaching ragtime. I can’t find a date for it, but it’s interesting.

Le poisson rêveur (7/10)

Well, this is a jaunty thing compared to a lot of what he was writing around this time. Almost conservative for him except in those trills that almost sound like mistakes. Not his best work, for sure, but still interesting.

Carnet d’Esquisses et de Croquis (6/10)

When every note is published you eventually get stuff like this, a bunch of sketches that I guess are related, where it’s more of interest in terms of the composer’s process than as any kind of great musical statement. These were last written in 1914, which is why I’m including them in that year.

Most of these are so brief they’re barely there, but that is what Satie was like a lot of the time, so it’s no surprise that when he wrote down an idea, that idea sometimes was 15 seconds of music. This approach is completely contrary to basically every other professional composer before him. (Or, if it wasn’t, nobody was aware of it.)

Certainly only for fans, but interesting nonetheless.

Six Pièces de la période (6/10)

This is a collection of six pieces, possibly unrelated in Satie’s mind, but assembled together after his death with the publication dates being guesstimated. The last piece was supposedly written in 1913, so here they are. The pieces are:

  1. Désespoir agréable: Almost funereal but light enough to not be. Very brief.
  2. Deux choses:
    1. ‘Effrontiere’: Like a period romantic drama in miniature; conveys powerful emotions though it is so short.
    2. ‘Poesie’: A much more subdued, briefer piece. Sort of like the epilogue. Not altogether unhappy.
  3. Prélude canin from 2 préludes pour un chien: I don’t know where the other one went. Maybe it’s lost to history. This dog’s life appears to be happy.
  4. Minuet exercises:
    1. Profondeur: Not super familiar with the form; I think the idea is that the title is a joke. Whether or not it is, it’s pretty great high romantic stuff (written, likely, in parody of it).
    2. Songe-creux: Sounds very similar to the other one, to my ears. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a very similar set of chords, just played slightly differently. Not dreamy, despite its title.

Passacaille (7/10)

Not familiar with the form, I can’t tell if this is a parody or an attempt at the real thing. Satie’s music is rarely showy and this is, well, slightly showy… showy enough for Satie that you wonder about his motivations. It’s engaging stuff and almost utterly unlike anything else of his I’ve heard.

Prélude en tapisserie (6/10)

Compared to the earlier preludes, this feels a little more ostentatious. I don’t know whether or not it has anything to do with the subject matter, as the early ones did not. This definitely feels more tied to something. (You know, an emotion or something.)

Musiques intimes et secrètes (6/10)

Another one of these posthumous collections putting together three likely unrelated pieces from 1906-1913:

  1. Nostalgie: Though I don’t know what he’s nostalgic for, I feel it.
  2. Froide songerie: Though my initial thought was these weren’t related, I can hear similarities between the first two which make me think that at least some thought, pardon the pun, when into pairing them. Doesn’t feel cold to me though.
  3. Fâcheux exemple: Feels like it could be scored for a Tati film.

12 Petits Chorals (7/10)

These are the briefest of pieces, titled inexplicably like so much of his music, that basically lay out their theme and then end. This is his process taken to new extremes.

2 Rêveries nocturnes (7/10)

Two earlier nocturnes, less famous than the nocturnes:

  1. Pas Vite: I mean, it’s not slow either, exactly. So I guess that’s the joke. A brief little piece that’s twistier (and, I presume, harder) than usual. Playing it fast would be hard.
  2. Très Modérément: Another one where you would be hard pressed to play it anything more than “very moderately” (if that’s how it’s played). I like Satie’s sense of humour here.

I don’t quite feel that they are reveries, but maybe that’s part of the fun.

Aperçus désagréables (7/10)

The rare Satie piece for two pianists. I like it; it sounds very difficult because of the two (four) parts. There’s a fugue!

En habit de cheval (7/10)

This is, I think it’s safe to say, the more mature, more developed piece for four hands. Like the earlier one, it shows him taking from the past in a more direct way, I believe because he was (weirdly) attending music school at this point. I like both pieces but they are oddly unlike most of the rest of his work.

Nouvelles pièces froides (6/10)

Sequels to a work sequenced further on in the Complete Piano Works, these are another product of Satie attending some music school and having foreign ideas inserted into his work. (Not foreign as in not-French, but foreign to Satie.) Apparently some of his friends did not like these and that’s why they weren’t published. There is some suggestion that Satie was having a little fun, both trying to fit in and also trying to mock what he was being asked to do. (Very Debussy.)

Préludes flasques (pour un chien) (9/10)

For some reason – I guess because he was relatively unknown – this work of Satie’s was initially rejected, resulting in the second set. Very much classic Satie.

Véritables préludes flasques (pour un chien) (10/10)

The second set are notably more commanding and declarative than the first which is why they launched his career nearly two decades late.

Descriptions automatiques (10/10)

There’s not really anything in his early work to prepare you for this stuff. Yes, there had been humour in his titles and little in his music, but here he really starts to take on the past in a way that he never had before…and few other composers had, to my knowledge. A crazy clash of what was supposed to be high- and what was supposed to be low-brow.

Embryons desséchés (10/10)

More sheer zaniness, attacking the old French musical establishment (and the popular music of the country) with humour and attitude.

Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois (8/10)

Another bold comedy piece, just not up to the standard of the two most famous pieces.

Chapitres tournés en tous sens (8/10)

Satie just produced an onslaught of these pieces in 1913 and at some point it becomes hard to separate them all without paying an absolute ton of attention. I like these a lot, I think.

Vieux sequins et vieilles cuirasses (8/10)

Another of his parodic assaults on the music establishment and their airs.

Sonatine bureaucratique (7/10)

This is an attack no a very specific piece of music, one I haven’t heard. So it’s hard to know what to do with it.

Enfantines (7/10)

This is a series of pieces truly intended by kids. Sometimes the music written for children is intended to education or challenge kids, but this music is meant specifically to be played by children. Though it’s not my favourite of Satie’s, it does presage the whole obsessions with naivete that later dominated the art and music worlds a few decades down the line.

[Note: the final series was not discovered until well after my Complete Piano Works was recorded so it is not included here.]

Sports et divertissements (??/10)

This is considered the crowning glory of Satie’s humourous period, though for us listeners it’s not as easy to see why: the pianist gets to read funny jokes while playing, but it’s not something that’s easy to be performed (so it isn’t). But the music itself is classic Satie, combining his humour with his rejection fo much of the classical tradition. Most of his humourous music is more ambitious than his early music, in part because it’s parodying more ambitious music, but these pieces are much more in line with what we think of when we think of the man who invented ambient.

Heures séculaires et instantanées (7/10)

I can’t tell you why I know the first of these, but I do. It’s possible I am recognizing the parody without realizing it is one. That happens, since he incorporated so much of other people’s music into his stuff around this time.

These are briefer than the other parodies.

Les trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté (8/10)

Not waltzes, as far as I can tell, which is the whole point, isn’t it? Brief, sometimes violent, sometimes serene pieces that are anything but waltzes.

Gnossienne No. 5 (7/10)

The most conservative of these pieces, sequenced first here because it was actually written first. Pretty but not up to the level of the later stuff.

Trois Gnossiennes (9/10)

Two of these at least were written earlier, but they were published together. Anyway… Another set of radical-for-their-time “dances” which violate various conventions, often subtlety but still clearly enough that they do not sound like another composer’s work of the era.

Gnossienne No. 4 (8/10)

This is a more virtuoso one compared to the earlier pieces, but I guess that’s relative. Good stuff.

Gnossienne No. 6 (7/10)

Much later than the rest of the series but more like #4 to my ears than the others. A little less unique, to my ears, as well.

Pièces froides (9/10)

6 somewhat related pieces, as far as I can tell.

  • Airs à faire fuir
    1. D’une manière très particulière: I like this one, combines a little more virtuosity than usual with the vibe you often get from his work of this period.
    2. Modestemente : A very different approach than the first, much more calm but I detect changes in tempo just like the first one.
    3. S’inviter : This feels like just slight change in melody from the second piece initially but then with a wide divergence 15 second or so in. Perhaps to show the different options you had when playing? Not sure but interesting conceptually if that’s what he was up to.
  • Danses de travers
    1. En y regardant à deux fois : Played faster than the others (mostly), this feels a little different given how much of the chords are used.
    2. Passer :  I guess the theme of the second set is a different approach, actually. These pieces have commonalities between them and the other set do. Took me a while to notice. The briefest of the six pieces, at least in the performance I’ve heard.
    3. Encore : A neat combination of the above two.

Jack in the Box (7/10)

Only Satie would write a 7 minute “ballet.”  Jauntier than most of his music from this time. Not his best work in my mind, though you can see why he was attracted to ragtime.

Petite ouverture à danser (7/10)

As you might expect, this is a short one. Like so much of Satie’s dance-related pieces, it’s sort of hard to imagine dancing to it (which, I think, is the idea). Pretty but slight.

Je te veux (8/10)

I am commenting on the version without a singer, FYI, and apparently it’s longer than the most famous version with a voice part.

It’s really pretty; I don’t know what it would sound like with a singer but I can imagine it would be stirring. It feels perhaps a little too conventional for him at times, but it is pretty enough you don’t care.

Poudre d’or (7/10)

A pretty piece that suggests perhaps a bit more of a conservative approach despite its simplicity.

Le Piccadilly (La transatlantique) (8/10)

A ragtime piece, basically. So neat for a French composer to be getting into this. with his usual inventiveness.

Le piège de Méduse (7/10)

A series of short straight-faced parodies of various dances. Apparently in performance this may have been the first use of a prepared piano in music history. However, the version I have does not include this aspect.

Les pantins dansent (7/10)

FYI, this version is without orchestra.

This has a rather unique melody for Satie, to my ears.  It’s a neat, rather unique piece, though it is brief, as usual.

Trois morceaux en forme de poire (10/10)

One of Satie’s early joke names (there are seven pieces), these are unrelated to each other which shows Satie breaking away from suite conventions. The music is all over the place, in terms of his early career, but that’s part of what makes it so original. Though these are still highly listenable he is breaking away from conventional basically completely.

Trois petites pièces montées (7/10)

Originally for orchestra but performed more often for piano now because the general consensus is Satie couldn’t write for orchestra.

The first piece starts off as if it is almost presaging minimalism before it gets more into his usual thing.

These are pretty like all Satie’s pieces, but I’m not sure they’re essential.

La belle excentrique (7/10)

Another orchestra piece changed to piano. It’s a satire of the Parisian cabaret scene and, for someone like me, who doesn’t know that scene all that well, it doesn’t work as well as a satire. But it’s full of typical Satie touches (more from 20 years earlier than near his death) and it’s certainly very enjoyable to listen to.

I mean, I think it’s safe to say Satie was the most important piano composer at the turn of the 20th century. Great stuff even if the size of the collection is daunting.

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