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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. Feb 4, 2020 at 5:43

2 Answers 2

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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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    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. Aug 23, 2020 at 12:27
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    Err.. 'play like a nightingale with a toothache' - how do you follow that instruction?
    – Peter
    Aug 23, 2020 at 15:49
  • @Peter creatively.
    – phoog
    Aug 17, 2021 at 16:11
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Satie and his instructions

Satie is as famous for his cheeky, absurd, and even meaningless musical instructions as for his music.

Regarding the Gnossiennes specifically, Markus Lajunen writes as good a description/explanation as I've found:

Satie was famous for mischievous comments. Over the years he included all kinds of written remarks to his compositions e.g. “To whom it may concern: 'I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the musical performance. Ignorance of my instructions will incur my righteous indignation against the presumptuous culprit. No exception will be allowed.'”....

By the time Satie composed the Gnossiennes in the late 1800s, he was involved in esoteric gnostic religious sects and movements e.g. Rosicrucianism. These religious movements emphasize secret knowledge that is revealed only for a few selected persons. These ideas might have influenced the way Satie composed the Gnossiennes.

After years of heavy drinking (including Absinth [hallucinogens, anyway? -Aaron]), Satie died in 1925 from cirrhosis of the liver.1

For those of seeking literal/musical meaning in the instructions, it's a dubious project. Nevertheless...

English translations

From the Murray Baylor edition of "3 Gymnopedies & 3 Gnossiennes" (Alfred Masterworks, 1993):

  • très luisant: "Very radiant".
  • questionnez: "Ask!".
  • du bout de la pensée: "Deep in thought".
  • postulez en vous-même: "Make demands on yourself".
  • pas à pas: "Step by step".
  • sur la langue: "On the tip of the tongue".

Interpretation

I should preface by saying I interpret the piece based without regard to those instructions. That said, here's what they mean to me, and these meanings are consistent with how I tend to play the piece.

  • très luisant: Play with pride. Short of maestoso, but in that realm, giving a bell-like quality to the melody notes. Allow for larger, comparatively more spacious physical movements between bass notes and chords in the left hand.
  • questionnez: Allow for some rubato here. Stretch the eighth notes heading up to the topmost B, and give some stress to the half notes, as though there is urgency in finding an answer to whatever the question is.
  • du bout de la pensée: Play softer and with a less-than-full tone; just barely touch the key bed. Consider using the una corda pedal.
  • postulez en vous-même: This is very much like the questionnez section, except more so. It should sound like each note requires an effort. So a more pronounced stretching of the time in the eighth notes leading up to the B, and a more laborious left hand. As in the très luisant section, putting a sense of effort in the left hand's movements between notes can help reinforce the musical effect.
  • pas à pas: Play a bit pedantically. Tempo is strict, little if any dynamic change, play a bit mechanically — as though each note is separate from the next.
  • sur la langue: Similar to the du bout de la pensée section, but even softer, gentler, as though the sound is coming from very far away. Una corda pedal is again a possibility here. Slow down, as though you're really trying hard to grasp an idea that's just out of reach, but with each note you're trying to reach a bit further (i.e., requires a bit more time).

1Markus Lajunen is teacher of Theory of Knowledge And Psychology at Jyväskylä Lyceum High School in Finland. His class notes from which I've quoted can be found at link to class notes. Wikipedia says much the same things.

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  • Questionnez does not mean "ask"; it means "call into question" or "interrogate."
    – phoog
    Aug 17, 2021 at 16:14
  • @phoog I'm just the messenger. :-) I think "interrogate" is why the translator included the exclamation point — to make clear there is a directive in the meaning.
    – Aaron
    Aug 17, 2021 at 16:56
  • I suspect that the exclamation point is intended to convey that the verb is in the imperative mood. (Some languages, at least German, require imperatives to have an exclamation point.)
    – phoog
    Aug 17, 2021 at 17:31

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