It’s the 150th birthday of the French composer and pianist Erik Satie. His mother, who was English, had him baptized in the Anglican church; but after her death, Erik was sent to live with his French grandparents, who had him re-baptized as a Catholic. In his late teens he spent a year at the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers were by all accounts unimpressed with him. After dropping out of music school he joined the French army, but was discharged a few months later after he deliberately infected himself with bronchitis. In his mid-twenties he joined a Rosicrucian sect, another enthusiasm that didn’t last long; and after leaving the Rosicrucians, he founded his own church, which he called L’Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur (Metropolitan Art Church of Jesus the Conductor), of which he was the sole member.
At age twenty-seven Satie fell passionately in love with an artist named Suzanne Paladin, but that too proved unsuccessful; she refused his proposal of marriage, and soon afterward she moved away, leaving him with a broken heart. So far as historians know, that was Satie’s last romantic relationship, although he lived another thirty-two years — a remarkable accomplishment for a man who drank as heavily as he did, and who by his own account consumed only white food.*
Erik Satie is best known today for his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, short works for piano solo that he composed between 1888 and 1897. Here are the first pieces in each set.
*According to Satie’s memoir, “white food” included “eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish” — and if you’re wondering what in the world “cotton salad” is, you’re not alone.