Satie - Gnossienne No. 3
Erik Satie, originally named Eric Alfred Leslie Satie (1866 - 1925) was a French composer and pianist. He studied at the Paris conservatoire.
Satie was something of a character, who played at the Chat Noir cabaret in the town of Montmartre.
Satie's earlier works, which include the Gnossiennes, anticipated some of the harmonic features of impressionism, but are very distinctively written in Saties' own style, which included some eccentric performance markings that amusingly parodied those his friend, Debussy.
One of Satie's works, music for the ballet, Parade features both sirens and typewriters!
Pupil Match & Suitability
The unique eccentricity of Satie's music , with its absence of barlines and witty performance indications has enormous appeal for young pianists, particularly those around the late teenage years.
No particularly difficult technical demands are made, other than the ability to play the LH leaps with confidence.
Style & Tempo
The music itself has a hypnotic quality that is emphasised by the modal character of the melody lines.
Satie invented the word Gnossienne to represent the ritual dances of evocation performed in the ancient city of Gnossos.
We need not take the performance indications literally, but students can have fun thinking about the meanings as they play and this will help to colour each phrase with some individuality, giving a more interesting interpretation.
Phrasing & Articulation
Although the absence of bars lines, key signature and time signature make this piece appear outrageous at first glance, these characteristics actually make it particularly appealing to the adventurous spirit!
Phrasing is not such a difficult task once the student listens to the piece and studies the performance indications. Satie's 'tongue-in cheek' performance directions, along with phrase markings, are really very helpful in taking the performer in the right direction.
Tone & Texture
The texture is obviously melody and accompaniment, with the RH playing only single lines and the LH providing a rhythmic chordal harmonies over a repetitive bass line.
The melody must sing out clearly and the bass notes need to be sufficiently strong to sustain and provide balance. The chords must be quieter but may emerge a shade louder where there is a break from the melody.
Listen to how effectively Gorisek controls the tone at the end of the piece - the melody is very quiet, yet the chords are quieter still.
The most significant technical issue is that of maintaining a controlled tone in the LH despite the continuous leaps from bass note to chord.
The chords need to be precise in co-ordination - a ragged effect is unacceptable.
A good hand position, in which there is a straight line down the Finger 5 side of the wrist as far a possible will help.
Also observe the student from behind to ensure that they do not tense and raise the left shoulder as the chord is played. The arm should be free to range over the compass required.
Fingering is straightforward here, although the early editions give no fingering indications.
The only ornamentation is a few grace notes, which may be played just before the beat.
The student should make sure that these do sound like acciaccaturas in timing and not like semiquavers. They need to be light and unobtrusive in tone.
Pedalling goes with the bass notes, which should be sustained through the semibreve.
It will rarely be necessary for pedalling to be any more complicated than this, as long as the melody line is well defined, since the chords tend to stay the same until the bass note changes.
Legato pedalling may therefore be practised with just the LH at first.
Some Grade 6 students are still unsure about pedalling technique, so check to ensure that the pedal comes up as the new bass note is played, to be depressed again before the finger leaves the note.
In this piece even more than most, it is important for the student to listen, before playing, to a musical interpretation of the music. The reason is two-fold:
1/ to gain a clear idea for the character to be conveyed
2/ to be clear about the relationship between rhythms and phrasing.
The piece is not difficult to learn if the student understands it structurally and the absence of bar lines and time signature will barely be noticed.
Practice should be an extension of what has been covered in the lesson, so the student should continue to work at individual phrases, building up the textures gradually.
Pedalling may be practised while playing just the LH, since this is what is to be sustained.
Eventually all the parts need to be linked seamlessly together.
Motivation is rarely an issue with this piece, indeed students who begin playing Satie often want to go on to learn another of his pieces!
However, should you need to convince your student that this music is cool, try showing them this video of Coldplay performing the Gnossienne No 1 ...
An excellent performance will positively draw the listener into the atmosphere of the music, creating a poised sense of trance-like fluency.
The pace will feel just right for the interpretation, the phrasing will be shaped, enhanced by convincing rubato. The tone will be balanced to allow for a singing melody that just floats above the accompaniment.
A good performance will have a sense of character and some feel for phrasing, with an attempt to define the melodic lines clearly. Pedalling will be fairly competent although the poise and charm of an excellent performance may well be lacking.
A sound performance will demonstrate generally reliable familiarity with notes and rhythms and the pace will be appropriate. The dynamic will be quiet although there may be a need for more awareness of phrasing and character, or the tone might not yet be even in control.