Satie, The First Modern  

copyright © 2003 by Larry J Solomon

"Although our information is false, we do not vouch for it." Erik Satie

The Parisian "impressionists" were among the first modern composers; they siezed on the artistic, painterly style of the same name that preceded them, and tried to develop a national style of music that imitated the newer, successful work of French national painters, such as Monet and Renoir. All of the important composers were active and living in Paris -- Erik Satie (1866-1925), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Together they invented a new harmonic/tonal vocabulary for music that tried to emulate the "blurred images" of French impressionist art and diverged from the Germanic, Wagnerian style of music they believed had become entrenched and thwarted a unique French identity.

Debussy, who was four years older than Satie, is usually given the credit as "the father of modern music". Clearly, Debussy was the superior craftsman, but did he first develop the innovative techniques that are today associated with modern music? Harmonic innovations of the French impressionists included the consistent and deliberate use of parallel fifths, fourths, sevenths, ninths, unresolved sevenths and ninths (color chords), quartal chords, polychords, polytonality, and planing. Tonal innovations included the use of retrogressions that suspended key and tonic, modes, "exotic" scales, and tritone relations.

A close examination of the early works of these three composers shows that Ravel, being the youngest of them, did not invent any of the techniques associated with the French impressionists; i.e., the chronology of works shows that he was clearly preempted by Debussy and Satie in all of these techniques. However, analysis of Ravel's piano work Jeux d'eau (1901) proves that Ravel preempted Stravinsky with the so-called "Petrushka Chord".

The priority of Debussy over Satie that is usually assumed is not so clear. Instead, a careful comparison of the chronology and content of their early music shows that Satie has priority and preempted Debussy in most or all of the techniques to which the latter is usually attributed. Debussy came from a more conventional academic background than did Satie. It is not at all clear that his music would have developed its new vocabulary without contact with Satie. His early works reveal Romantic roots that are not much different from Wagner, Faure, or Chabrier in harmonic vocabulary, tonality, or technique. In contrast, Satie's early music reveals a dramatic break with that tradition and points the way to Debussy's future, as well as the future of music in general. It is, of course, no accident that the two Parisians were friends, had frequent contact, and shared ideas. Although Satie was younger, he mentored Debussy in the area of novel innovations and a new aesthetic. Both Ravel and Debussy privately acknowledged their debt to Satie.

But Ravel went beyond private acknowledgment. On April 7, 1928 Ravel gave what was apparently his only lecture on music (titled "Contemporary Music") at the Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas. In this lecture he took time to speak about Satie's influence on Debussy and himself.

Another significant influence, somewhat unique, and deriving at least partially from Chabrier, is that of Erik Satie, which has had appreciable effect upon Debussy, myself, and indeed most of the modern French composers. Satie was possessed of an extremely keen intelligence. His was the inventor's mind par excellence. He was a great experimenter . . . these experiments have been of inestimable value. Simply and ingeneously, Satie pointed the way, but as soon as another musician took to the trail he had indicated, Satie would immediately change his own orientation and without hesitation open up still another path to new fields of experimentation. He thus became the inspiration of countless progressive tendencies. . . . Debussy held him in the highest esteem. [1]

As the elder composer, Debussy was writing music before Satie, but these early works reveal very little of the harmonic adventure that was to follow. The well-known Clair de lune from the Suite bergamesque (1905) is a typical example of Debussy's harmonic vocabulary in 1905.

There's nothing new here. This music, which represents Debussy's music at this time and earlier, is in a clear key, is diatonic, and displays a conventional harmonic vocabulary. In his music of the period up until 1903, his most advanced techniques include some parallel fifths and octaves, color chords, retrogressions, chromatic mediants, modal progressions and melodies, and a weakened tonality. In Debussy's much touted Prelude à l'apres-midi d'un faune (1894) as a cornerstone to modernism these devices are simply mixed with Wagnerian chromaticism and Tristan chords. The beautiful early song Beau Soir (1883) is an example of an earlier use of these devices without Wagnerisms. By 1888 Debussy used unresolved seventh and ninths in the song "C'est l'extase" from Ariettes Oubliées, but Satie had already preempted these in his Sarabandes (1887), which use these unresolved chords in much more systematic, concentrated, and complex forms, which make Debussy's uses seem mild and retrospective by comparison.

For more on the Sarabandes see: Robert Orledge: Satie's Sarabandes

Satie's innovations came from his long interest in and study of Medieval French music that included plainchant and parallel organum. He contemplated for long hours in the gloom of Notre Dame and studied chant and Gothic art in the Paris Bibliothecque Nationale. He also took an active interest in various quasi-religious, mystical ideas, such as Rosicrucianism. Satie's musical aesthetic is antithetical to Wagnerian emotional indulgence. Instead we find the other-worldly, unemotional detachment of Gregorian chant and medieval esceticism. In Ogives of 1886, Satie imitated Gregorian monophony and the use of parallel planed chords. Monophony and monody in Satie's music became quite common, even in later works, such as Descriptions Automatiques (1913).

Satie first met Debussy in 1891, and they quickly became friends. Satie began sharing his ideas and discoveries with him. They had both already been writing music with the old Church modes and unresolved sevenths and ninths. But, Debussy himself confided to Jean Cocteau that Satie's ideas "determined the aesthetic of Pelleas and Melisande [1893-95].... There is no need for the orchestra to grimace when a character comes on the stage. Do the trees in the scenery grimace? What we have to do is to create a musical scenery, a musical atmosphere in which the characters move and talk. No 'couplets'—no 'Leitmotiv', but aim at creating a certain atmosphere that suggests Puvis de Chavannes."[2]

Although Debussy clearly understood the significance of Satie's aesthetic, it is seldom mentioned by modern scholars. Satie was the first composer since Medieval times to adopt this chant-like esceticism; he was the first to break with Wagnerian emotional display. Mimetic word painting was out. A cool atmosphere was in. This is a very important difference between Satie and other composers of his time, such as Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss, Ives, and his contemporary Frenchmen. Even Faure and Chabrier submitted to the influence of Wagner. Satie's aesthetic has prevailed in modern times in neoclassicism, impressionism, and especially in the unemotional detachment of "cool jazz" and pop.

According to Vladimir Golschmann, Satie related that Debussy acknowledged his debt to him in a now often quoted conversation that spawned the Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (Morceaux en forme de poire). Around 1902 or 1903, Satie showed Debussy some of his latest work and asked for his opinion. Debussy replied:

Satie, you never had greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had a great influence on our writing. Your Prelude de La porte héroïque du ciel was to us a revelation, so original, so different from that Wagnerian atmosphere which has surrounded us in late years. I liked your Gymnopedies so much that I orchestrated two of them. You have some kind of genius, or you have genius, period. Now, as a true friend may I warn you that from time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form.[3]

This seems an ironic critique from a composer who cared so little for form himself, but undaunted, Satie responded with a new set of pieces for piano, four hands, with the rubric 3 Pieces in the Form of a Pear; this was characteristic of his wit. When he showed them to Debussy, the latter asked why he had titled them this way. Satie replied that he had done this so that Debussy could no longer criticize them for a lack of form. These pieces were written in 1903; so, the conversation must have taken place around that time, but no later.

Why was the Prelude de La porte héroïque du ciel (1894) a "revelation"? A close examination uncovers the answer. In fact, the beginning sequence of chords sounds Debussy-like.

Satie: Prelude Heroique
Satie: Prelude de La porte héroïque du ciel

By 1905, a similar sequence occurs in Debussy's Images, Hommage á Rameau:

The similarities are striking, but the differences are even moreso. Satie's music of ten years earlier has no key; i.e., it is atonal! Its chord sequence cannot be analyzed in any key. It is also ametric and without barlines, further obscuring any tonality. In fact, some chords occur which have no traditional analysis and which would hardly be expected in Debussy's music, e.g.:

Satie Chord

Debussy's music, however demonstrative of Satie's influence, is clearly tonal, in the key of G# minor, and is easily analyzed for its functional harmony. It is metric and barred. A clear half cadence appears at the end of the sequence. So, one hears the "influence" of which Debussy spoke, but it is placed into a much less radical (and less original) context, within a key and meter. Another telling influence is manifested in the way Debussy begins the Hommage with a monophonic line, imitating the chant-like sequences that are more characteristic of Satie's music.

In Satie's letters he wrote that, unlike Ravel, Debussy was reluctant to reveal his influence on him. He lived to see Debussy receive the credit for the innovations that he had taught and shared with the senior composer. In a lecture about Debussy, Satie stated:

Debussy's aesthetic is symbolist in some of his works and impressionist in most. Please forgive me— for am I not a little bit responsible? That's what people say. Here is the explanation. When I first met him .... he was full of Mussorgsky, and very conscientiously was seeking a path which he had difficulty in finding. In that respect I was much better off than he was, for my progress was not slowed down by any Prizes, whether from Rome or any other town since I don't carry that sort of thing on me or on my back, because I'm a type rather like Adam (the "Paradise" Adam) who never won a prize—a lazy type, no doubt. At that time I was writing music for Le Fils des Etoiles on a text by Joseph Peladan, and I explained to Debussy the necessity for a Frenchman to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure which in no way corresponded to our national aspirations. And I told him that I was not anti-Wagner in any way but that we ought to have our own music— if possible without choucroute (sauerkraut). Why shouldn't we make use of the methods employed by Claude Monet, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc ....? Nothing simpler. Aren't they just expressions? That would have been the origin of a new start which would have led to results which would be almost bound to be successful —and profitable too .... Who could have provided him with' examples? Show him new discoveries? Point out to him the ground to be explored? Give him the benefit of one's experience? Who? I don't wish to answer, for I am no longer interested.' [4]

Later, Debussy was perplexed and irritated when Satie's music began to receive recognition, which he apparently believed deflected attention from his own work. Satie wrote, "One person who isn't pleased is the good Claude. It's really his fault; if he had done sooner what Ravel -- who makes no secret of the influence I had on him -- has done, his position would be different. . . . I am not angry with him about it. He's the victim of social climbing. Why won't he allow me a very small place in his shadow? I have no use for the sun."[5] Debussy jealously reacted by making cruel jokes about Satie and his music, which created a breach in their friendship. When Debussy died in 1918, Satie did not attend his funeral.

In Satie's Le Fils des Etoiles (1891), we find radical innovations that surpass anything in Debussy's music.

Here, for the first time in history, is a systematic use of chords made of stacked fourths moving in parallel motion, called planing. This music is atonal, without key, the first in history. It is also unmeasured and without meter. The quartal chords are complex, because the fourths are not all perfect. One of them is augmented. This results in parallel tritones within the stacked quartal harmonies, all unresolved.

In the Prelude to the "2nd Acte" of Le Fils des Etoiles we find more of these parallel quartal chords, but additionally there are melodic motives using unresolved tritones and a lack of any conventional development. As early as 1891 the music maintains a decided immobility and detachment uncharacteristic of the then prevailing aesthetic of Wagnerian Romanticism.

Polychords abound here. Planed parallel quartal chords and tritones continue within an atonal context. Chords are used to synthesize color and are treated monophonically as in a single line. The tritone separates two different tonal planes (proto-polytonality).

Other Satie innovations include minimalism and furniture music. Musique d'ameublement comprises a group of several pieces written about 1920. It is a precursor of Muzak, music that is meant to be ignored, i.e., background music. In a conversation with Fernand Leger, Satie commented:

You know, there's a need to create furniture music; that is to say, music that would be a part of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself. It would spare them the usual banalities. Moreover, it would neutralize the street noises that indiscreetly force themselves into the picture.[6]

During the first performance of musique d'ameublement the audience sat silently, listening intently, but Satie became irritated, got up and admonished the audience with "No, no! Talk, walk around, pay no attention, don't listen."

In Vexations a short passage of unbarred, unmeasured, ametric music is to be repeated 840 times, making it the first minimal music (1883). No one took the piece seriously until the premiere performance arranged by John Cage in 1963 in New York. After about an hour and a half "we all realized that something had been set into motion that went far beyond what any of us had anticipated." [7] The performance lasted eighteen hours, after which Cage went home for a long sleep. When he awoke, he said, the world appeared completely different and fresh.

In the years before 1900, Satie was plagued by critics who called him an amateur, unsophisticated, ignorant, and uneducated. Because of this and against the advice of Debussy, he decided to go to school at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. "I was tired of being reproached for an ignorance that I believed myself in truth to be guilty of, since competent people had pointed to it in my works." [8] There he suffered a beginner's education in musical harmony and counterpoint. He became a good student by the accounts of his teachers. After graduation however, his critics accused him of becoming commonplace, boring, and academic. Sadly, there is some truth to this. Satie's late works show none of the fresh innovations of his early work. Instead, he wrote very conventional chorales, fugues, and similar pieces that reflect his new academic background. These works are now rarely performed. This is not to reduce the greater craft demonstrated in his late works, such as Socrate (1918), regarded as his masterpiece. His early works, however, have become quite popular. The only late innovation of exception was the musique d'ameublement of 1920, hardly a proud distinction for him. He died in Paris, July 1, 1925.

In summary, Satie deserves the credit for being the true "father of modern music". A list of his musical innovations (with examples) that were to have profound consequences for modern music includes:


1. Orenstein, 45
2 . Meyers, 32
3 . Golschmann, 11.
4 . Meyers, 32-33
5. Volta, 148.
6 . Gillmor, 232
7 . Tomkins, 104
8 . Gillmor, 135


Gillmor, Alan M. Erik Satie.Norton, 1988
Golschmann, Vladimir. "Golschmann Remembers Satie", High Fidelity/Musical America, Aug 22, 1972
Myers, Rollo. Erik Satie. Dennis Dobson Ltd, 1948
Orenstein, Abbie. A Ravel Reader, 1990
Tomkins, Calvin. The Bride and the Bachelors, Penguin, 1962
Volta, Ornella. Satie Seen Through His Letters, 1989

Published March 2, 2003