In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Erik Satie

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources
  • Life and Works
  • Eyewitness Accounts by Satie’s Contemporaries
  • Satie in the Context of French Music and Culture
  • Artistic Movements Connected with Satie
  • Satie as Writer
  • Satie in a Wider Context

Music Erik Satie
Caroline Potter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0212


Erik Satie (b. 1866–d. 1925) was a French composer mostly remembered as the composer of short piano pieces such as the three Gymnopédies (1889) and as a collaborator with several prominent artists in Paris in the 1910s and early 1920s. As a writer, he contributed pithy, humorous texts to many music and art magazines, and wrote a play, Le piège de Méduse (1913), with interludes for prepared piano. His scores also show that he was an accomplished calligrapher. He was considered by many as eccentric; his quirky personality and the irony and humor of his writings continue to intrigue and baffle audiences. His studies at the Paris Conservatoire were unfruitful, and in the late 1880s and 1890s he was active as a cafe and cabaret pianist in the Montmartre district of Paris and as the composer of esoteric piano works such as Vexations (1893), many of which were not published until after his death. Further study at the Schola Cantorum in Paris from 1905 was more successful and prompted him to include chorale and fugue textures in many works, often in parodic form. From the 1910s, his early piano pieces were championed by leading performers and composers, including Debussy and Ravel. Satie composed many mixed media pieces, including piano works with in-score texts. He collaborated with Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), and Léonide Massine (1896–1979) in the Ballets Russes–commissioned Parade (1917), which resulted in a notorious riot. Cocteau promoted Satie as the standard-bearer for a group of young French composers with whom Satie had been acquainted since the mid-1910s; many of these composers were known as Les Six. His later ballets Mercure (1924, which renewed his collaboration with Picasso) and the Ballets suédois commission Relâche (with Francis Picabia, 1924) sealed his reputation as a provocateur. Relâche features a film interlude by René Clair in which Satie appears in the first scenes. Satie has been an important influence on many avant-garde artists, including John Cage, and is often considered a precursor of minimalism and Muzak.

Primary Sources

The main contribution of Ornella Volta to Satie scholarship has been her editions of the composer’s writings, correspondence, and other documents, including images (Volta 1979a, Volta 1979b, and Volta 2003). Some of this material has been translated into English in Volta 1989, Melville 2014 and Wilkins 1980.

  • Melville, Antony, trans. A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie. Rev. and updated. Edited by Ornella Volta. London: Atlas, 2014.

    Excellent translation of many Satie texts that brings many of his writings to an English-speaking audience in an accessible format (and not only those published under the title Cahiers d’un mammifère).

  • Volta, Ornella, ed. Satie Écrits. Paris: Champ-Libre, 1979a.

    Satie’s writings gathered in chronological order; very full notes provide complete sources and comprehensive explanation of each text. Writings attributed to Satie but not signed are given under a separate heading. Drawings and very short notes by Satie are included.

  • Volta, Ornella, ed. L’Ymagier d’Erik Satie. Paris: Van de Velde, 1979b.

    The Satie iconography is exceptionally rich, not least because for the composer, the visual dimension of his work was central; he also collaborated extensively with other artists. This work is a sourcebook of images, arranged chronologically and including drawings by the composer, manuscript images demonstrating his beautiful calligraphy, and pictures of material associated with Satie performances, such as ballet set designs and costumes.

  • Volta, Ornella, ed. Satie, Seen through His Letters. Translated by Michael Bullock. London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1989.

    Attractively illustrated collection of letters to and from Satie, translated into English. Not all the letters addressed to Satie are readily available elsewhere.

  • Volta, Ornella, ed. Erik Satie: Correspondance presque complète. Paris: Fayard/IMEC, 2003.

    Essential reference tool for serious scholars of Satie: the most comprehensive collection of letters from Satie (and, to a lesser extent, to Satie). Presented in chronological order with brief overviews of Satie’s activity in a given year and extensive biographical details on each recipient and commentary on each letter.

  • Wilkins, Nigel. “Erik Satie’s Letters to Milhaud and Others.” Musical Quarterly 66.3 (July 1980): 404–428.

    Groundbreaking article that reproduces notes from Satie’s sketchbooks as well as letters. Wilkins, a former student of Milhaud, puts this material into context and translates it into English.

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