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shameless pleading






Speaking of weirdos.

Dear Word Detective:  This afternoon, while a couple of my friends and I were waiting around before a choir rehearsal, trying to remember the steps to a Baroque dance we had learned this summer, somebody sat down at the piano and started playing a piece by Kabalevsky which we supposed was a gymnopedie.  We began speculating on the origins of “gymnopedie,” which seemed like a funny thing to call a quiet piece of music.  The best we could guess was that it had something to do with “gymnos,” which is Greek for “unclothed,” but we couldn’t imagine what.  Please enlighten some etymologically puzzled musicians.– Elizabeth  Lightwood.

Good question, and thanks for the opportunity to add “gymnopedie” to my spell checker’s dictionary.  And “Kabalevsky,” of course, which for some reason it wants to change to my choice of “Lobachevsky” or “Dostoevsky.”  Typical.  I notice it’s not throwing a fit over “Madonna” or  “The Beatles.”  I guess I should give it credit for recognizing Lobachevsky, but that’s probably just because it was programmed by math weirdos.  Huh.  It seems to like “weirdo.”  I rest my case.

Steinlein-chatnoirSpeaking of omissions, I was mildly surprised that you asked a question about “gymnopedie” and didn’t mention the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).  As musicians, you and your friends are doubtlessly acquainted with Satie’s three “Gymnopedies,” quiet and impressionistic solo piano pieces published beginning in 1888 and probably Satie’s best-known works.  What I guess is less well-known is that Satie seems to have invented the term “gymnopedie” himself.  But it’s not entirely clear what he meant by it.  There have been, in fact, scholarly papers written debating exactly how Satie came up with the word.

Satie was, by all accounts, a strange but clever duck.  A famous anecdote, probably at least partly apocryphal, recounts the aspiring composer’s first visit, in 1887, to Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) nightclub, at that time the epicenter of the Paris musical scene.  According to the story, Satie, lacking any artistic reputation at that point, arranged for his arrival to be announced by a friend with the words “Erik Satie, gymnopediste.”  Rodolphe Salis, Le Chat Noir’s formidable proprietor, is said to have been temporarily taken aback, finally responding, “That’s quite an occupation.”

Satie’s purported occupation was indeed impressive.  The “Gymnopaedia” were dances performed at festivals in Ancient Greece by young men bereft, for the occasion, of clothing (“gymnos,” naked, plus “pais,” youth).  That’s the same “gymnos,” by the way, that gave us “gymnasium,” after the Ancient Greek habit of exercising in the buff.

Satie picked the word to impress the crowd, which it certainly did, but what, if anything, he meant by it is a mystery.  Satie’s friend Contamine de Latour had recently used the term “Gymnopaedia” in a poem Satie would likely have read, and any musical scholar would have been familiar with the ancient dances.  Most likely, Satie simply chose the term for its absurdity and risque overtones.

Taken with his own invention, and perhaps pushing the shtick a bit, the following year Satie published the first of his three “Gymnopedies,” the piano pieces which brought him the fame he craved and remain immensely popular today.  Incidentally, a nice video from ABC Classics which uses Gymnopedie No. 1 as its score can be found by searching YouTube for “The Colours of Autumn – Gymnopedie No.1″ or just click here

16 comments to Gymnopedie

  • Elizabeth Lightwood

    There’s a good explanation. We’re Baroque and early music people.

  • The nightclub may have been the center, but not the epicenter. An epicenter is above the center, generally the point on the surface of the Earth above the center of an earthquake, which is underground. An epicenter isn’t the dead center or really, really the center. But it sounds fancy compared to a plain old center, so it gets misused.

  • Linlee

    May I suggest that Eric Satie was possibly referring to nakedness of heart as these 3 works are very heart felt and contemplative and could have been expressing what was on his heart at the time he wrote them.

  • Minimully

    It is probable that Satie did not even know the historical meaning of “Gymnopedies.” The word was in a musical dictionary he had at home, and the given definition was “An event at a greek festival wherein maidens danced in the nude.” We have very little historical evidence to actually understand what those festivals actually were about. This is the composer who later said that the sensuous and violent “Salommbo” inspired these quiet Gymnopedies, and who named other pieces “Pear Shaped” and “Desiccated Embryos.” Satie was an absurdist to the core, and I don’t think there’s too much to read in his titles. If anything, they were more to joke at the high-flung archaic-themed works of the German Romanticists he was musically rebelling against.

  • Danny S.

    Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies first came to my attention, and doubtless that of many others, with the 1969 release of the second (self-titled) album by the group Blood, Sweat & Tears, which included excerpts from the work under the title Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie. A year or two later, that music was used in a widely-seen coffee commercial. Anyway, I bought a copy of that album, and I interpreted the name Trois Gymnopédies as meaning “three barefoot girls”. I suppose that’s not right; “ped” can certainly mean “foot”, as in “pedicure”, but probably not with an acute accent. But I like the thought anyway.

  • Greg

    I first heard Saties’ music on CBC radios Off The Record while driving in Toronto, around 1978. I pulled over to the shoulder, his music still plays in my head. The book, The Banquet Years, gives a wonderful and vivid account of Satie, and Paris in his day.

  • Phil

    The Gymnopedie pieces are delicate and understated in emotional terms, and implicitly a critique of the overstated and bombastic style of the romantics, especially in Germany with the likes of Wagner.

  • R. Quint

    What a wonderful explanation. I’ve been enamored with Satie and never quite knew the meaning. I always felt he was one of founding composer’s who could bend time and space with his compositions and still keep it within the measure . I just wonder if Einstein was somewhat inspired subliminally by his pieces. Satie sure did push the envelope…

  • Mark

    A French friend told me it meant movement of feet. But she did say it was an unusual way to say it. But that is what it means in French

  • John

    Since I understand the work requires a lot of pedaling on the piano, perhaps Satie likened that effort to dancing?

  • Christen

    I think this may be the music used in the film shown in “France” at Epcot center in Disney World. I saw it back in 1994 and have been haunted by it ever since. For many years I thought the music must have been one of Debussey’s pieces, but could never find it. I heard this a few months ago and think it’s the one. Does anyone know?

  • Luis Rafael

    Hi there.

    That sound became of my interest recently. I’m writing from Brazil.

    Suddenly I tried to discover what was this music’s name and author, cause I remembered listen to it long time before and even recently at “phone waiting” music.

    After getting through it’s name and author, I realized it’s a music overused at the cinema and so in tv publicity. Here in my country, it was used in a tv propaganda of soap with beautiful women, at the 1980’s, and a had watched a movie from Woody Allen which uses it too (movie from 1988 with Gena Rowlands).

    Search IMDB for more information.

    I think the “users” of this Saties themes get more significance about the title he gave to his music, certainly moving it to the “nakedness” of people, of hearts, of innocence, or even from security.

    Glad to meet this site!


  • Carmen

    Nice website! I’ve just discovered it and I love it. Well done!
    Greetings from Spain!

  • just discovered this and I am impressed, I love word origins and am always saying “I wonder where that came from.”

  • I think it means barefoot, or bare feet.

  • Ako

    Last night, I was dreaming with this piano piece on the background. I woke up and goggles the title, which led me to this website. I read all the comment and enjoyed so much! Thank you! Definitely Eric Satee keeps attract us not only with this melody but also with its title. Our conscious mind wants to put a reason for things around us. However, he is one of the French impressionist composers. Once my voice teacher told me to stop analyzing French poems because words are used to evokes a certain feeling. Another word, they juxtapose words to express the image/feeling of themselves.
    When I take this in consideration, ” naked, bear, dance, movement, feet.” must have a connection with this melody- melancholic and some what mysterious.
    (I try not thinking why I heard this music on the background in my crazy dream! lol )

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