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

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