The extreme simplicity of many of Satie’s pieces, their thin textures and strange, unprepared harmonies, coupled with his idiosyncratic sense of humour, have led many to view him as the clown (or the madman) of French music. Certainly some of his jokes are as banal as some of his compositions: he holds the dubious distinction of being the world record holder for the longest duration of any piece of music, his Vexations, played in New York in 1963, a 180-note piano piece with instructions for it to be played 840 times. It took five pianists working in relays overnight to get through it. His colleagues were puzzled by him, a man who worked as a cabaret pianist in Montmartre, wrote popular songs and gave his (mainly piano) compositions titles like Flabby Preludes for a Dog, Bureaucratic Sonata, Desiccated Embryos and Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (the last written in response to a critic who said his music had no form). Some are witty, concise, satirical, effervescent; other pieces are more lyrical and reflect his spiritual interests (he was involved with the Rosicrucians).
Listen to his Sarabandes (1887) and you will hear harmonies that anticipate those for which Debussy would later become famous; he rebelled against the excessive emotionalism of the Romantics and the dominating influence of Wagner, and was instrumental in returning music to simpler, sparser textures. Whimsical, unorthodox and musically under-educated, he was 40 when he decided to become a pupil of d’Indy and Roussel. This period of study led him to become more ambitious, resulting in his most famous work, the Cubist ballet Parade, a collaboration with Picasso and Cocteau, commissioned by Diaghilev (the score calls for a siren, a typewriter and a revolver). Revered by the younger French composers, he became the father figure of Les Six, mocking Debussy and the excesses of Impressionism. He died in poverty aged 59 from cirrhosis of the liver.