Erik Satie

Descriptions automatiques, for piano

    Description by Alexander Carpenter

    Descriptions automatiques consists of three short pieces for piano: "Sur un vaisseau" ("On a Ship"), "Sur une lanterne" (On a Street Lamp), and "Sur un casque" (On a Helmet). This work is among the first of Satie's to make liberal use of folk songs, popular songs, and children's songs. Satie's borrowings are reminiscent of those of American composer Charles Ives, well-known for his use of folk, pop, and hymn tunes; however, Satie's use of borrowed tunes in this work does not approach the seriousness or complexity that characterizes Ives' treatments of similar tunes.

    The first of the three Descriptions, "Sur un vaisseau," makes use of a children's song well-known in Satie's time: "Maman, les p' tits bateaux qui vont sur l'eau ont-ils des jambes?" ("Mama, do the little boats on the water have legs?"). The second Description, "Sur une lanterne," borrows a phrase from the revolutionary song "La Carmagnole" (a reference to the costumes, called "carmagnoles," of French revolutionaries). The final piece, "Sur un casque," has the piano playing martial rhythms and imitating bugle calls. Like many of Satie's piano pieces, "Sur une lanterne" also contains humorous instructions to the pianist, including directions to play "heavy as a sow" and "light as an egg." In the Descriptions, Satie juxtaposes borrowed, diatonic melodies with harmonies that are often dissonant, or at least tonally ambiguous--typical of Satie's style in his early "fantaisiste" period.

    Although these little pieces stand on their own as charming examples of Satie the humorist, musicologists have rightly pointed out that Satie's works in this vein, like those of Ives, are self-limiting in terms of accessibility by the fact of their use of borrowed material. Street songs and children's rhymes that would have struck a chord and conveyed a multiplicity of meanings to a Parisian audience in 1913 say little to twenty-first century ears.


    1. Sur un vaisseau (On a Ship)
    2. Sur une lanterne (On a Streetlamp)
    3. Sur un casque (On a Helmet)

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Sony Classical 88875177492
    2016 BIS BIS 2215
    2016 Brilliant Classics 95350BR
    2016 Erato 555263
    2016 Sony Classical 88875192922
    2015 Harmonia Mundi / Little Village LVC 69020004
    2015 Erato / Warner Classics 0825646047963
    2014 Skarbo DSK 3135
    2014 Harmonia Mundi HMX 290871015
    2013 Praga PRD 250299
    2013 BNL Productions BNL 112972
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099967815326
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94087
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099968582
    2010 BD Jazz / Zebralution
    2010 Sony Classical 88697720132
    2009 Harmonia Mundi HMC902017/18
    2009 Harmonia Mundi 902017
    2009 Romeo Entertainment / Romeo Records 7278/9
    2008 Virgin Classics 562466
    2008 Virgin Classics 22050
    2007 Scandinavian Classics 220510
    2007 LTM LTMCD 2501
    2007 Brilliant Classics 93559
    2007 Cherry Red ACMEM 130CD
    2006 Él 78
    2006 Virgin 363296
    2005 Erato / Virgin Classics 7243482002
    2005 Ddd 99384
    2003 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243585602
    2003 Sony Classical 87280
    2003 Decca 000023002
    2003 EMI Classics
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 74534
    2002 Forlane 16591
    2002 Virgin 545533
    2001 Virgin 61846
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 568994
    2000 Mandala 4975/79
    1998 Berlin Classics 21262
    1998 Denon Records 17019
    1995 Classico 126
    1994 Mandala 4821
    1994 Naxos 550305
    1993 Virgin / Virgin Classics 59296
    1992 Vox 5011
    1992 SBK Records 48283
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 67282
    1989 Decca / London 421713
    Accord 201022
    Accord 221362
    Virgin Classics 62363
    Brilliant Classics 93559/3