The Gymnopédies, published in Paris starting in 1888, are three piano compositions written by French composer and pianist Erik Satie.


These short, atmospheric pieces are written in 3/4 time, with each sharing a common theme and structure. Collectively, the Gymnopédies are regarded as an important precursor to modern ambient music[1] – gentle yet somewhat eccentric pieces which, when composed, defied the classical tradition.[citation needed]For instance, the first few bars of Gymnopédie No. 1 consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chords, the first on the subdominant, G, and the second on the tonic, D.

The melodies of the pieces use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece "painfully", "sadly" or "gravely".[2]

From the second half of the 20th century on, the Gymnopédies were often erroneously described as part of Satie's body of furniture music, perhaps because of John Cage'sINTERPRETATION of them.[3]


The work was possibly based upon the poetry of J. P. Contamine de Latour (1867–1926),[4] who wrote Les Antiques ("The Ancients"), a poem containing these 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 miroitant Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie

Slanting and shadow-cutting a bursting stream

Trickled in gusts ofGOLD on the shiny flagstone Where the amber atoms in the fire gleaming Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia

Satie claimed they were inspired by reading Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammbô. (Orledge, p. 207)[broken citation]

The exact connotation intended by Contamine in using the Greek word gymnopédie remains uncertain. Among the possibilities are:

  • dance – probably, as he mentions it alongside another dance, the saraband(e);
  • antiquity – supposedly, given the title of the poem. This however does not yet give a clear picture of how antiquity was perceived in late 19th-century France (see below);
  • nudity – maybe, although words like "gymnastique" (gymnastics) and "gymnase" (gymnasium) based on the same Greek word for nudity (γυμνός – "gymnos") were common in those days, but had lost any reference to nudity; in Sparta, when much of schoolwork was physical training, the youths were typically nude. It seems clear that -ped refers to children (paed). As suggested below, a dance or parade by children from the gymnasium seems a reasonableINTERPRETATION.
  • warfare (as in Ancient Greece the wordINDICATED a war dance) – probably not; little war-like intent is apparent in the poem;
  • religious ceremony/festivity (which was the context of the Ancient gymnopaedia) – probably neither; there seems to be no allusion made to them in the poem.

Gymnopédie also appears as an infrequently used word in 19th century France, to the point it might have been perceived as a neologism by many. It was, however, already mentioned in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de Musique (Paris: Duchesne, 1775), where Gymnopédie is described as “Air ou Nome sur lequel dansoient à nu les jeunes Lacédémoniennes” (vol 1, p. 376).

All this mightINDICATE that Satie and Contamine chose the word gymnopédie perhaps rather for its intangible exoticism, than for connotations of which they were probably hardly aware themselves.[citation needed]

Satie gymnopaedistEdit

The Gymnopédies are the first compositions with which Erik Satie tried to cut himself loose from the conventional 19th century "salon music" environment of his father and stepmother. In September 1887 Satie composed three "sarabands" (Trois Sarabandes), taking a quote from Contamine's La Perdition by way of introduction. By this time, Satie knew Contamine personally.

Gymnopédies: 1. Lent et douloureux

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Performed by Robin Alciatore. Courtesy of Musopen

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Satie apparently used the word "gymnopédiste" (gymnopaedist), before having written a note of his later famous gymnopédies.

The anecdote of Satie introducing himself as a "gymnopaedist" in December 1887 runs as follows: the first time Satie visited the Chat Noir cabaret, he was introduced to its director, Rodolphe Salis, famous for serving sharp comments. Being coerced to mention his profession, Satie, lacking any recognisable professional occupation, presented himself as a "gymnopaedist", supposedly in an attempt to outwit the director.

Measures 3–10 of Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1 (Urtext edition)

The composition of the three Gymnopédies started only two months later, and was completed in April 1888.

In August 1888, the "First Gymnopédie" was published, accompanied by the verse of Contamine quoted above. However, it remains uncertain whether the poem was composed before the music, or whether Contamine intended the verse as a tribute to his friend, who had now completed both a set of sarabandsand gymnopédies.

Later the same year the "Third Gymnopédie" was published. There was, however, no publication of the "Second Gymnopédie" until 7 years later, with several announcements of an impending publication of this gymnopédie being made in the Chat Noir andAuberge du Clou periodicals.

Orchestrations by Claude DebussyEdit

By the end of 1896, Satie's popularity and financial situation were ebbing. Claude Debussy, whose popularity was rising at the time, helped draw public attention to the work of his friend.

Debussy expressed his belief that the "Second Gymnopédie" did not lend itself to orchestration. (Orchestrations of this gymnopédie were only realised many decades later, by other composers, and without being frequently performed). Thus, in February 1897, Debussy orchestrated the Third and First only, reversing the numbering:

"First Gymnopédie" (original piano setting by Satie) → "Third Gymnopédie" (orchestration by Debussy)
"Third Gymnopédie" (original piano setting by Satie) → "First Gymnopédie" (orchestration by Debussy)

The score was then published in 1898.

Twentieth century arrangementsEdit

The first and second Gymnopédies were arranged by Dick Halligan for the Jazz Fusion group Blood, Sweat & Tears under the title "Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie" on the group's eponymous album, released in 1968. The recording received a Grammy Award the following year for "Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance."

In 2007 Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann (de) arranged the first and the third Gymnopédie for the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. No. 1 was produced by EMI Classics 6085012 "Fleur de Paris".

Influences and cover versionsEdit

This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (January 2015)*In the 1970 Canadian film Goin' Down the Road, Peter follows a woman into the classical music section of Sam the Record Man, where she plays an orchestral arrangement of Gymnopédie No. 1. Despite having no knowledge of classical music, Peter buys a copy of the record.

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