Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Erik Satie

Although in character they often maintain a low profile, the piano works of Erik Satie in many ways presage some of the most pervasive musical ideas in the twentieth century, from the syncopations and melodic contours of jazz to the chordal oscillations of pop to the harmonic stasis of minimalism. At the heart of each of his piano miniatures is a streamlined texture and economy of means that induce an acute expressive focus, one that, as those who play his works will attest, contradict the characterizations of emotional detachment and austerity that are often associated with Satie and his French followers. On the contrary, as demonstrated by the first of his series of Gnossiennes for solo piano, Satie's use of reduced means heightens and exaggerates the arc of his melodies and the mood of his textures. Gnossienne No. 1 was composed in 1890, when the composer was still in his mid-twenties. The piece may seem rather unrevolutionary to modern ears, but when considered in the context of high romanticism and early expressionism, the piece's Spartan elegance is remarkable. The contours of the simple melody, which mysteriously meanders within an unusual kind of minor mode, are subtly highlighted with vaguely Eastern-sounding grace note articulations, while the left hand maintains a drowsy tonic chord accompaniment. This rather gray palette sets in greater contrast the two most notable features: the shifts from the tonic to the subdominant chord -- which, in traditional tonal practice, would be a rather weak move, but weighs more heavily under these circumstances; and the appearance of a new melodic idea, which ascends through the mode in a more directed fashion, peaking on the strident-sounding sharped-fourth scale degree that sets the mode apart. The piece's interest thus relies not on changes of color, but subtle variations in the intensity of hue.

-- Jeremy Grimshaw