Origin of Erik Satie's "Gnossiennes"

 


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The ‘trois Gnossiennes’ (1890) is a set of dance-like pieces of similar character, like the earlier composed ‘trois Sarabandes’ (1887) and ‘trois Gymnopédies’ (1888). The ‘trois Gnossiennes’ were first published by Satie as a set through Rouart, Lerolle & Cie.in 1913.

The Gnossiennes continue in the minimalist style of the Gymnopédies but add ornaments that give the pieces a destinctly oriental feel. Although the pieces are obviously composed in a 4/4 time signature, Satie did not indicate it in the score. He also omitted barlines, leaving one big “bar" for the entire piece. This gives the impression of great freedom for the pianist. The comments written above the score, like ‘Du bout de la pensée’ (from the tip of the thought) and ‘Postulez en vous même’ (wonder about yourself) also give much room for interpretation. This has proven to be true since there are few pieces in piano literature that have been interpretated in such diverse ways as the Gnossiennes.

The name ‘Gnossiennes’ can be explained in multiple ways. The ancient Greek word for ‘knowledge’ is ‘gnosis’. Gnosticism was the name of a religious-philosophical belief which has its origins in Greek philosophy as well as early Christian and Jewish Apocalyptic thoughts. In this belief ‘Gnosis’ stands for ‘True knowledge', which is supposed to lead man to true emancipation. Gnosticism also played a great role in the beliefs of Joséphin Péladan's (1859-1918) ‘Rose et croix’ sect. Satie's collaboration with Péladan led him to take an interest in partly-heretical views. It is possible that the title of these works is an hommage to gnosticism.

The most common explanation however is that the title refers to the ritual dances performed by the inhabitants of the island of Crete, with its capitol city Knossos, famous in Greek mythology for the story of its labyrinth, Theseus and the minotaur. In 1890 Crete was in the news because of archeological excavations. Other works by Satie from the same period were named after dances as well. Namely the ‘Sarabande', a dance which was first introduced in Portugal in 1586 and the ‘Gymnopédie’ which has its origins in ancient Sparta. Even so, it is very unlikely that Satie, a member of the ‘Rose et croix’ from 1891 to 1892, was unaware of the gnosticism relation when the second Gnossienne was first publicly performed in 1893.

In 1967 french composer Robert Caby (1905-1992) revealed many of Satie's posthumous and often untitled works, taken from sketchbooks and manuscripts. He named three of these pieces Gnossienne. These became Gnossienne 4, 5 and 6 respectively. The piece known as the fourth Gnossienne was composed in 1891, the fifth in 1889 and the sixth in 1897. These pieces were first published in 1968 by ed. Salabert.

Joffrey Wallaart started the Piano Society website to give the public easy access to classical piano music.

http://www.pianosociety.com

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