Music and magic at the Satie museum, Honfleur, France

(Last Updated On: March 10, 2021)

From the street, the Satie House and Museum (Les Maisons Satie) in Honfleur, France, looks like any other half-timbered medieval house in the city. However, step inside and you’ll discover a dreamlike world set to the words and music of composer and pianist Erik Satie.

Erik Satie House and Museum Honfleur France

Never heard of Erik Satie?

That’s ok. You’ll still enjoy this highly innovative museum.

The Erik Satie museum is not your ordinary museum

I had a passing familiarity with Erik Satie’s work before visiting the Erik Satie museum. That translates to: I knew he was a relatively modern composer of quiet, sort of melancholy piano music.

Yeah, that’s it.

I also knew the Satie museum was often described as surreal, but I couldn’t imagine what that meant when applied to a museum. Particularly when applied to a museum about a composer, rather than a visual artist.

I soon found out what it meant.

A feast for the senses

In the reception area at the Satie museum we put on headphones and entered the first of what would turn out to be several darkened rooms.

pear Erik Satie House and Museum Honfleur France

The headphones provide a flowing background of Satie’s music, environmental sounds, the words of Satie and his friends, and the occasional commentary on Satie’s life and work.

That soundtrack changes as you move through each room, and it took me a while to understand how to get the most of it. That means I’m not really sure what the winged pear represents. Looking back on it, I assume it relates to Satie’s composition “Three Pieces in Pear Form,” which he composed after being accused writing music that lacked form.  And which, in what turns out to be typical Satie style, actually has seven sections.

The Satie House and Museum consists of a series of these mostly dark rooms with a (usually small) selection of items. It’s a museum where the story is told through the music and “voices” of Satie and his contemporaries. The physical objects on display – few of which have any direct connection to Satie himself – tie the soundtrack to the space. Indeed, the lighting in each room is probably as important as objects.

Erik Satie House and Museum Honfleur France

Erik Satie House and Museum Honfleur France

apartment room Erik Satie Museum Honfleur France

It is a museum for the emotions, not the rational mind.

Each room addresses a broad theme in Satie’s life – his youth and introduction to music, his development as a composer, religiosity, the artistic and political milieu in which he moved, and more. Sounds and images float in the air as visitors move from one room to another, from a raucous party to medieval-sounding church music, from political discord to a chaotic living space.

A musical interlude

At what seems like the end of these rooms, a white piano sits in the middle of an otherwise empty white space, natural light streaming down from clerestory windows.  An invisible force plays the piano, creating an endless stream of the soothing formless music for which Satie is best known today. It is a space that invites contemplation.

piano Erik Satie Museum Honfleur France

While it seems like it will be the last room in the museum, it is not.

Ready for a carousel ride?

In the next room a pedal-powered carousel comes to life whenever anyone takes a seat and begins pedaling. The carousel turns, lights up, and actually expands as one of Satie’s boisterous carnival pieces begins to play. The faster you pedal, the brighter-bigger-louder the contraption becomes.

carousel Erik Satie Museum Honfleur France

Off to the cabaret

The final room is a darkened cabaret, with plenty of seating and a large screen on stage. Here visitors can watch one of the short surreal films for which Satie composed the music near the end of his life.

We are nearly alone here this afternoon, but I can imagine this room filled with people chatting as they watch the screen. From there it is only a short step to image the room filled with the avant-garde of Paris loudly commenting and critiquing and complaining as they grapple with the future of art in the changing world around them.

The film itself is strange, jolting, and without context. It leaves me wondering what exactly I just saw – which is probably the perfect way to end a visit to a museum about Erik Satie.

So who was Erik Satie anyway?

In the notes for the Eve Egoyan recording “Erik Satie: Hidden Corners (Recoins),” Professor Robert Orledge of the University of Liverpool begins thus:

Erick Satie remains one of the most bizarre and fascinating composers in the history of modern music.

Satie’s life and music

Erik Satie was born in 1866 and came of age during the Belle Époque, a highly romanticized period between 1871 and the beginning of World War I in 1914 that was later viewed as the epitome of style and sophistication in Paris.

I have come into the world very young into an era very old.

self-portrait Erik Satie Museum Honfleur France

Having learned to play piano at from his stepmother, Satie attended the Paris Conservatory. His time as a student there was unsuccessful, as he was either the school’s laziest and least talented student or a genius unmotivated by the traditional musical forms being taught . . . or perhaps something in between. (At age 40 he would enroll in another conservatory where he was a very good student.)

As a young man he lived in the center of Bohemian culture in Montmartre. There he mixed with other artists and composed a variety of music, including religious music and the formless Gymnopédies for which he is best known today.

Plan your visit to the Satie Museum

You do NOT need to know anything about Erik Satie or classical music to enjoy this museum. The museum is a fascinating sensory experience in and of itself and is unlike any other museum you’ve visited.

And you’ll come away knowing a bit about a composer whose work has been described as “indispensable” to those who followed him.

This is not a traditional house museum

The Satie House and Museum (Les Maisons Satie) in Honfleur, France, is not a traditional house museum.

Unlike a traditional museum where rooms would either be designed to replicate spaces from Satie’s life or serve as display space for artifacts, photographs, and written descriptions about Satie’s life and work, the Satie museum brings visitors into his world without replicating its appearance. Instead, the museum sets visitors adrift in a series of sounds and images designed to invite you into “the soul of Erik Satie.”

This approach makes a lot of sense, given that Satie only spent part of his childhood here. It seems unlikely that this house played much of a role in his development as a musician – these are not the rooms where Satie played the piano or wrote his music. The museum’s decision to use the house as a stage set to evoke Satie’s world through artful images and sound seems both obvious and completely unexpected.

Resources

Whether you like his music or not, Erik Satie is a fascinating and influential figure, and his peculiar life makes for great reading.

Read more about Satie’s life on the web:

Learn more about Satie’s music:

  • From CBC Music, Essential Erik Satie: 10 pieces you should know provides great (often very funny) background information on each piece, a link to a recording of it, and PDFs of scores, art, and other related material.
  • Erik Satie’s crystal ball is a website that explores the idea that Satie’s music provided a glimpse of the music that would follow over the next 50 years. The site is packed with research and bibliographies.
  • Another website filled with research can be found in the archives of the defunct Erik Satie website. This covers a broad range of research on Satie’s life and work.

Erik Satie Houe and Museum Honfleur - www.ExplorationVacation.net market scene with text "Normandy, France, beyond the Beaches" old chateau with text "France"

6 thoughts on “Music and magic at the Satie museum, Honfleur, France”

  1. We are dogging you! We just got back from Honfleur, where we BYPASSED the Satie Museum. Big mistake, huh? We walked along the chalk coast at Etretat, instead because we wanted to appreciate that rock layer from the other side, and to see if it, too, had flint. (It did.) Nice post, Cindy.

  2. His Seven Gnossiennes, which are probably his most familiar works (often used as haunting music in TV and movies), have no time signature or measures. Very avant-garde!
    Other wonderful music museums are the MIM, or Musical Instruments Museum, in Brussels (in a fabulous Art Nouveau former department store) and the Espace Georges Brassens in Sète, France.

    1. Yes, I’ve heard there is a wonderful musical instrument museum in Belgium. but I have yet to get there. (There is also an amazing one in Phoenix, Arizona, although I found their headphones quite uncomfortable.) I was not aware of the Brassens Museum. It sounds wonderful. Thank you for the suggestions!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.