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I'm a beginner or early intermediate piano player, and picked up the score to Erik Satie's Gnossienne no. 1 from IMSLP. It contains some textual comments in French, which I presume are from the composer himself. My French is extremely rusty so I used Google Translate to check, and it doesn't make much sense to me:

  • très luisant: "very shining". I would interpret this as "lightly" or "gently" but it's written over the refrain of the piece, which is the heaviest-sounding of all.
  • questionnez: "questioning". That's actually halfway sensible.
  • du bout de la pensée: "the tip of thought". Something like "very thoughtfully"?
  • postulez en vous-même: "apply on yourself". I thought this was a piece of piano music, not an ointment.
  • pas à pas: "step by step". Maybe give the individual notes a bit more emphasis as if they had a dot written over them?
  • sur la langue: "on the tongue". Ointments, foodstuffs, sure, why not? I know langue also means "language" but that doesn't make it clearer.

Was the use of halluciogenic substances already common among musicians in the 19th century? Is Satie just messing with us? Or do these instructions have an actual commonly understood meaning that should be expressed in the performance of the piece?

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  • Google Translate won't give you good results for this level of creativity in use of language. But you can have some fun with linguee.com for something like this. – aparente001 Feb 4 '20 at 5:43
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Satie played a lot with the absurd and was very eccentric. Things he did remind me of Dadaism, Surrealism and other types of modern art that came in the next generation after Satie. Compare Satie's Vexations - with 840 repeats, probably more joke that literal instructions - with Conceptual art. These are expressions that exist more as thoughts rather than physical manifestations.

IMO, Satie is both playing with words just for the humor of it - "shiny, questions...", sort of reminds me of "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" you can say it, but it doesn't necessarily having clear meaning - and poking fun at pretentious 19th century notions of the artistic genius.

I think the dedication he gave in Sports and Diversions makes clear Satie's irreverent attitude:

For the Dried Up & Stultified I have written a Chorale which is serious & respectable. This Chorale is a sort of bitter preamble, a kind of austere & unfrivolous introduction. I have put into it everything I know about Boredom. I dedicate this Chorale to those who do not like me. I withdraw." - ERIK SATIE

I don't think the words in the Gnossienne are literal instructions.

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  • Thank you, that explains a lot! – Thomas Feb 4 '20 at 9:17
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    I disagree with your last sentence. Satie was bonkers, for sure, and much of what is written on his scores is pretty weird, but I don't think there's anything to suggest that he didn't intend performers to follow his instructions. They're not concrete instructions like crescendo or pp, but they generally seem to be intended to inform the mood of the performance, and often tell a little story of sorts. – Bob says reinstate Monica Aug 23 '20 at 12:27
  • Err.. 'play like a nightingale with a toothache' - how do you follow that instruction? – Peter Aug 23 '20 at 15:49

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