The Gymnopédies, published in Paris starting in 1888, are three piano compositions written by French composer and pianist Erik Satie. These short, atmospheric pieces are written in 3
4 time, with each sharing a common theme and structure. Collectively, the Gymnopédies are regarded as an important precursor to modern ambient music. The first few bars of Gymnopédie No. 1 consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chords, the first on the subdominant, G, and the second on the tonic, D.
The melodies of the pieces use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece "painfully" (douloureux), "sadly" (triste), or "gravely" (grave).
From the second half of the 20th century on, the Gymnopédies were often erroneously described as part of Satie's body of furniture music, perhaps because of John Cage's interpretation of them.
The work was possibly based upon the poetry of J. P. Contamine de Latour (1867–1926), who wrote Les Antiques ("The Ancients"), a poem containing these lines:
Oblique et coupant l'ombre un torrent éclatant
Ruisselait en flots d'or sur la dalle polie
Où les atomes d'ambre au feu se miroitant
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie
Slanting and shadow-cutting a bursting stream
Trickled in gusts of gold on the shiny flagstone
Where the amber atoms in the fire gleaming
Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia
Satie claimed they were inspired by reading Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammbô.
The exact connotation intended by Contamine in using the Greek word gymnopédie remains uncertain. Among the possibilities are:
dance – probably, as he mentions it alongside another dance, the saraband(e);
antiquity – supposedly, given the title of the poem. This however does not yet give a clear picture of how antiquity was perceived in late 19th-century France (see below);
nudity – maybe, although words like "gymnastique" (gymnastics) and "gymnase" (gymnasium) based on the same Greek word for nudity (γυμνός – "gymnos") were common in those days, but had lost any reference to nudity; in Sparta, when much of schoolwork was physical training, the youths were typically nude. It seems clear that -ped refers to children (paed). As suggested below, a dance or parade by children from the gymnasium seems a reasonable interpretation.
warfare (as in Ancient Greece the word indicated a war dance) – probably not; little war-like intent is apparent in the poem;
religious ceremony/festivity (which was the context of the Ancient gymnopaedia) – probably neither; there seems to be no allusion made to them in the poem.
Gymnopédie also appears as an infrequently used word in 19th-century France, to the point it might have been perceived as a neologism by many. It was, however, already mentioned in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de Musique (Paris: Duchesne, 1775), where Gymnopédie is described as "Air ou Nome sur lequel dansoie