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He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1879 but failed to benefit from academic education, which he embarked on again only in his 40th year, when he enrolled as a pupil of Vincent d’Indy and Albert Roussel at the Schola Cantorum. Long before that, however, he had composed a number of short piano pieces, whose eccentric titles and unfashionable and yet convincing simplicity of melody were matched by an individual sense of harmony. It is still a moot point whether Satie got his harmonic ideas from his fellow student and friend Claude Debussy, or whether the debt was on Debussy’s side. It is quite clear, however, that Satie’s tasteful principles influenced Debussy in the composition of his opera Pelleas et Melisande and that Satie was the main influence in helping Debussy to free himself from the musical domination of Richard Wagner. Satie became interested in plainsong through his association with a so-called Rosicrucian group, while he earned his living as a cafe pianist in Montmartre.
Satie was a conscious eccentric and a determined enemy of all establishments, including the musical. The comical titles that he attached to his small piano pieces are characteristic of the Bohemian wit in the Paris of his day. Irony and a deceptively childlike attitude, a dislike for pomposity of all kinds, and an instinctive secretiveness were hallmarks of both the man and his music. In 1916, Satie was befriended by Jean Cocteau and wrote the music for a ballet, Parade, on which Pablo Picasso and Leonid Massine also collaborated. By far the most important of Satie’s works is Socrate , an harsh setting for four sopranos and chamber orchestra of Plato’s account of the death of Socrates. The young composers who formed the essentially Parisian group known as Les Six regarded Satie as a kind of tutelary genius, and in 1923 one of them, Darius Milhaud, tried to found an “Ecole d’Arcueil,” named for the obscure Paris suburb where Satie lived in extreme poverty.