Erik Satie (1866-1925) was a French pianist and composer that composed and played throughout the Impressionist period of music. Many of his compositions have clear stereotypical representations of this era, and he is one of the most famous Impressionist artists. When he was 22 years of age, he wrote three piano pieces called “Trois Gymnopédies” or “Three Gymnopédies”. They last for around three minutes each, but the time changes with the different interpretations of the piece, but they are always played slowly. The text at the beginning of each piece clearly indicates the timing and mood in which piece is to be played and are as follows: “Gymnopédie 1” is “Lent et doulourex” which translates to slow and sorrowful, or grievous. “Gymnopédie 2” has “Lent er triste”, which means slow and sad, and “Gymnopédie 3” is to be played “Lent et grave”, slow and serious. Even with the slight tempo changes, most musicians are able to reflect on the piece, and make it sound contemplative and melancholy.
At this point in his life, Satie had attended the Paris Conservatoire twice, once as a musician, and the second time as a composer, but he was told that his work and playing was insignificant and worthless, by his teachers. He joined the army, but was discharged within a few, because he deliberately infected himself with bronchitis. He then moved to his father’s house in Montmartre, Northern Paris and composed “Trois Gymnopédies” at this important cross-road of his life. “Trois Gymnopédies” was his first published piece, after he began mixing with the different kind of artistic crowd that lived in northern Paris, away from the Paris Conservatoire.
The origin and meaning of the name “Gymnopédies” has been discussed frequently and many different ideas have been formed as to the source of the title. One theory is that it is based off a poem, Les Antiques (The Ancients) written by J.P. Contamine de Latour. Within the poem are the lines:
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
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie
Slating and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy
Trickled in gusts of gold to the shiny flagstone
Where the amber atoms in the fire mirroring themselves
Mingled their sarabande to the gymnopaedia
The word ‘gymnopaedia’ (in this context) also has different, and thoroughly debated, meanings. The most accepted definition is in context to ancient Greek times, where ‘gymos-’ (nudity) and ‘paed-’ refers to the youth in ancient times, who didn’t wear clothes consistently whilst studying. Another interpretation on this meaning is that a ‘gymnopaedia’ is a type of dance, particularly as it is alongside the ‘sarabande’ which is a well-known form of dance.
A third version is that Satie used the word ‘gymnpodie’ only for its unusual and ambiguous beginning and use, rather than what the word actually means.
Satie did have an explanation to the title of these three pieces, and that was that the pieces were instigated by him reading a book called Salammbô, by Gustave Flaubert, which is set in Carthage, after the First Punic War (Carthage’s battles with the Ancient Roman Empire, known most for Hannibal, the leader of the Second Punic War). Although how Satie related this record of violent history to a beautiful and gentle piano piece isn’t clear.
All three pieces of music are in ¾ and have simplistic melodies, often consisting of a bass note on the piano held for a whole bar, with a minim, still in bass, on the second and third beats of the bar. The upper hand of the piano has the main melodic line, with simple crotchets. The rhythms are all based on this main rhythmic motif, with variations only changing the top hand, sometimes making it hold longer notes, which appreciates the tonal sound of the overall chords from both hands. The variations on the minim / dotted minim rhythm also demonstrate the long, flowing rhythms which are so popular in Impressionist music.
The first “Gymnopédie” is in D major, and the bass dotted minim note alternates between a G (a fourth) and a D (the tonic note), and the minim on the second and third beats of the bar rotate between a B, a D, and an F sharp (all a major seventh of the root note, G); and an A, a C sharp, and an F sharp (a major seventh of the root note, D). Both minim triads are an octave above the bass note. This arrangement causes a gentle bass line, which then compliments the melancholy mood of the upper hand of the piano. The piece finishes with a D on the lower hand, with a triad made up of an F natural, an A, and a D, all on the lower hand, and an E, which has been maintained for the last three bars. The piece decrescendos into silence, and finishes with a slight air of ambiguity.
The first two bars of the first “Gymnopédie”
The second “Gymnopédie” is in C major and holds the pattern of a bass dotted minim with an overlying minim, but this time the minim is played on the upper hand, and is significantly higher than the bass note. This contrast between this piece and the first is distinguishable in mood, as the second is more changeable in its chordal structure and sounds slightly lighter than the first one does. It finishes on a C on the lower hand, and a C major tonic triad on the upper hand, sounding more resolved than the first piece.
Bar 5 – 8 of the second “Gymnopédie”, which demonstrates the dotted minim / minim pattern and the overlying melody played on the upper hand
The third, and last “Gymnopédie” is also in C major and continues on the minim and dotted minim pattern. The bass note alternates between an A and a D for the majority of the piece, whilst the upper hand plays the minims, with a C major triad, with a fourth instead of a third, and a B, an E and a G on the second of the alternating bars. The finale of the three pieces and ends on two bars of two tied dotted crotchets, a C, E and A for the lower hand, and a C, E, A, and C for the upper hand. This last chord does sound like an ending – it has a tone of finality, but also a tone of sadness, which is found throughout all three “Gymnopédies”
The last two bars of the third and last “Gymnopédie
Between the Three “Gymnopédies” there is a rhythmic and melodic theme present throughout, especially within the bass lines of the piano. The minims, often followed by two crotchets on the final two beats of the bar, are present and act as a driving force, gently pushing the music forward, in all three pieces of music. This effect brings a sense of continuity to the music and ties the three pieces together, with a repetitive harmony.
Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies” have inspired many artists and film-making crews across the world since it was originally played in 1888. A Japanese band, called Depapepe did their own version of the first “Gymnopédies” on acoustic guitar, and that was released in their 2007 album ‘Depapepe Plays the Classics’.
The original song has appeared in many TV shows, movies, and more recently, video games. Even though this isn’t another artist’s inspiration, or impression, of the music, it’s used as the original piece to inspire emotion throughout particular scenes.
One well-known appearance is in the Star Trek episode Where Silence Has Lease, from Season Two, Episode Two, where it played in the background when danger threatened the U.S.S. Enterprise.