Claude Debussy & Erik Satie: Two Rosicrucian Composers

Claude Debussy & Erik Satie: Two Rosicrucian Composers

 Links between music and mysticism

At a time when much has been said about the links between music and esoterism, one can think about how many times the historical grounding remains unreliable and often are barely speculations. However, it is widely known the effective engagement of illustrious names in music with the Freemasonry, for example. This is the case of Mozart (who wrote many pieces dedicated to the ritual or the Masons or Masonic-themed), Beethoven, Rossini, Liszt, Puccini, Sibelius (who, like Mozart, wrote music inspired by the Masonry), Piazzolla and Gershwin (these last two were initiated in lodges of New York, in the first half of the twentieth century). We wonder then at what point the Rosicrucian thought and the mysticism itself also influenced the personalities who built the history of our music.

Many informations can be reached about the esoteric relationships of Francis Bacon, Comenius, Paracelsus, Nicholas Flamel, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Jacob Boehme, for example, to stay mainly in the gravitational field of philosophers and statesmen. On the other hand, we find just a few lines dedicated to renowned musicians and even less about the artistic pages that they’ve produced under the light of the mystical inspiration. Certainly, among these ones, the two greatest names were linked to the  Rosicrucianism: Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925).

From the musical point of view, Satie is historically taken as the great agitator whose inspiration boosted more than one generation of French composers to renew the musical manifestation of their country, at that time poisoned by the excessive academicism and dominated by the influence of opera. Carrying a large load of genius, Satie, through its libertarian attitude, bathed in an insightful literary humor, opened ways to other composers, technically better prepared than himself, to produce the maximum works of French music.

The best of Satie’s production can be found in his miniatures for piano, where his genius is more completely manifested. He was a great improviser and his creations were born of sudden inspirations, usually driven by non-musical stimuli. Many of his compositions took humorous titles, but it is curious to note, among his most appreciated works, the series of six piano pieces that take the suggestive name of Gnosiennes (which we freely translated as ‘Gnostics’). This fact automatically leads us to intuit Satie’s philosophical concern, which is also a predominant factor in his creation.

Debussy, in turn, is a most celebrated figure and artistically is more representative. It is worth to mention some aspects of his personality and his work, which are almost inseparable. It is curious how Debussy, the man, was seen through the eyes of some of his illustrious contemporaries. The French composer is portrayed as someone quite disappointed with the human race, and his toleration of the “humanities” disappeared as he was getting old. Both in his music as in life, he expressed an aversion to the superfluous and to all useless ornamentation. He was, according to a testimony, “the personified accuracy”, always concise when expressing his thoughts and careful with his phrases, words and gestures, be they musical or not. According to the French art critic Gabriel Mourey

“Debussy was a human being who lived an intense inner life.

 In this sense, the composer Raymond Bonheur also recalls that in Debussy

“There was no trace of that vulgarity common to artists, nor that ‘friendly camaraderie’ which often hides clandestine intentions (…). At the same time, he showed a great indifference to the opinion of the masses and, above all, a refined pride which was nothing more than the certainty of being alive somehow on a higher plane. “

Moreover, the composer Alfredo Casella left an interesting testimony about Debussy as an adult and father:

“Until the end of his life, Debussy remained what the Frenchmen call ‘grand enfant’ [Grown Child]. Those same wonderful innocence and purity of feeling, that are the hallmark of his art, appeared in all his deeds and words. When he was fifty, he amused himself more than his little daughter Chouchou [Claude-Emma] with her toys brought home by her mother. “

In this sense, we see that insightful, mysterious and somewhat ironic side when the composer, regarding the composition of the ballet La Boîte à Joujoux (‘The Toy Box’), said that he was inspired by “extracting confidences of some of Chouchou’s old dolls”. This puerile purity was brought up again in his personality by his daughter. Beside his passion for literature and philosophy, for example, there was his taste for the circus, the puppet theater and the children’s books of illustrations.

The composer and pianist Gabriel Pierné reports, in his memoir, that Debussy, as a boy, had a particular fondness for delicate, rare, precious and tiny objects. Possibly, at that early time, was appearing the perfectionist that painstakingly sculpted every sonic detail of his later compositions. His sister Adèle recalls a child who “spent whole days sitting and dreaming of something that nobody could have a clue”. He was extremely careful choosing the colors he was about to use and, moreover, he was sensitive to the highest degree: the smallest thing could cheer him up or enrage him, according to the testimony of Marguerite Vasnier, for whom Debussy dedicated some of his songs. His independent and feisty temperament also has manifested itself since his youth. The musician Paul Vidal, also his contemporary, says that “nothing has any power over him”. Also quite early, during his academic life at the Paris Conservatoire, he showed his attraction to the symbolist poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Verlaine. These poets were a constant reference in his musical production, and he set to music some of the most sublime pages of their works. For him and the symbolist poets, the esoteric nature of art was a central, almost dogmatic belief. Baudelaire, particularly, was a constant reference in the production of Debussy. We should recall that Les Fleurs du Mal (‘The Flowers of Evil’), Baudelaire’s masterpiece, is characterized by the deliberate exploitation of the duality of existence, and several poems of this work, and from other creations of Baudelaire, were recurrent on the debussyan creation. The composer also attended to many of Mallarmé’s literary soirées, directed to a scrupulously refined audience, in order to appreciate his productions inclined to mysticism. Not surprisingly, one of Debussy’s greatest productions for orchestra, Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune, was inspired by Mallarmé’s homonimous poem.

In 1895, Debussy finished his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, that deserves from our part a closer look. Among all his compositions, this is the one that sums up better his aesthetic and his ideal. Here, Debussy subdues the momentum of human emotion to the sobriety of its refined and subtle musical expression. It’s a portrait of human feeling without the dramatic action expected of an opera. About this work, the British singer Mary Garden, who sung Mélisande at the première of the work, declared:

“(…) I had the most extraordinary emotions I’ve experienced in life. Listening to that music, I felt I become someone else. Someone inside me whose language was akin to my soul. “

About the composer, she adds:

“Debussy lived in a world where nobody, even his wife Lilly, with all her love and adoration, could reach him. (…) He sat at the piano for an hour or more, and improvised. Those hours remain like jewels in my mind. I never heard a music like that in my life (…). How beautiful and amazing it was, and nobody but Lilly and I would never listen to it. Debussy never put those improvisations in the paper: they turned back to the strange place where they came from, never to return. That precious music, lost forever, was distinct from anything from Debussy. It had a quality all its own, remote, other-worldly, always saying something to the edge of words. “

Such was the man, such was the composer. His artistic credo, as he professed, was “the pleasure is the law.”

Debussy and Satie met in 1890 at a popular Parisian cabaret called “Chat Noir” (‘Black Cat’). The following year, they were initiated in a Rosicrucian fraternity called the “Cabalistic Order of the Rose-Cross”, just restructured in Paris. Among those ones that have reorganized it, there were some names well known especially among the Martinists:  Stanislas de Guaita, Sâr Josephin Péladan, the celebrated mystic Gérard Encausse, known as Papus and Augustin Chaboseau were part of its Supreme Council. Péladan, who later left the Order because of disagreements with Papus and founded the “Rosicrucian Order of the Temple and the Grail”, defended the idea that art had a divine mission and was the best way of reaching the reintegration with God. The esoteric tendency of some artistic movements such as the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists naturally pulled Debussy and Satie to those fraternities. The artists who belonged to them sought a reaction to the excesses of Romanticism and, therefore, leaned to the world of the symbolic and of the metaphorical, naturally more purified. The poet Charles Baudelaire, for example, embraced the ideas of the mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg and applied them in his poetry. One way or another, all the great artists who gravitated around these movements and these orders were associated to these initiatic orders and were truly “mistics of Art”, especially Debussy and Satie in musics. The realization of the famous Salons de la Rose-Croix (‘Halls of the Rosy-Cross’), the major landmark of the symbolist movement, was perhaps the greatest achievement of Sâr Peladan in this way.

 We should recall that, at that time, the Rosicrucian Order (A.M.O.R.C.), as we know it today, was not yet organized. Within the brotherhood, Satie would play a role similar to that of Kapellmeister, and thus produced works involving the ritual of the order, as Le Fils des Étoiles (‘The Son of the Stars’), written on Sâr Péladan’s argument, and Sonneries de la Rose+Croix (‘Sounds of the Rosy-Cross’), which consists of three parts, namely: Air de L’Ordre (‘Aria of the Order’), Air du Grand-Maître (‘Aria of the Grand Master’) and Air du Grand-Prieur (‘Aria of the Chaplain’). Later, Satie would start his own sect, and there he continued to exercise the eccentricities in which he was lavish.

 As for Debussy, if on the one hand he did not actually produce any intentionally esoteric work, it’s evident that his musical thought and some of his artistic and human ideals were imbued with a superior philosophy, that if did not manifest itself fully in his personal life, it was only because of an impulsively independent character and because of the vicissitudes of his material existence.

We should also recall that Debussy defended even the idea of creating an “Esoteric Musical Society”, in an attempt to create a music less accessible to the masses who, according to his understanding, were unable to comprehend the true art. Undoubtedly, like all great minds, his genius stemmed from a Herculean struggle in the duality of existence and operated under a somewhat feline and lonely temperament, which separated him from his peers. At one time strong and sensitive, and also extremely self-critical, as it happens in the works of great philosophers and thinkers, its creation holds an undeniable simplicity under the veil of complexity. His ideals, as well as his artistic creation, never bowed to the material needs and never made a concession to popular taste or to what could be simply mediocre.


It is remarkable, and even of full importance to understand his personality and his work, to admit his inescapable inclination to inspiration stimuli found in the mysteries of the Orient, Egypt and Ancient Greece. Irrefutable proof of this attraction is, for example, the ballet Khamma, set in the Ancient Egypt and the preludes for piano “Danseuses of Delphes” (‘Dancers of Delphi’) and “Canope”, which can refer both to Canopus, the god of Egyptian mythology, to the city of same name situated on the banks of the Nile, or to the canopic jar, a funeral vase used in the Egypt of the pharaohs.

One must also add that, renovating an entire musical system rooted in Western culture, Debussy requires more of the listener towards a new perception of the musical event, and forces one’s attention to the perception of the ‘music that is beyond music’. Reorganizing and re-ranking the sound values outside the limits of typical traditional archetypes, his music provokes the listener and invites the sharpest sensitivities to experience extra-sensory phenomena promoted by his sonic palette. It’s astonishing to find out that some of his compositions, notably the famous “Clair de Lune” and the ecstatic “L’Isle Joyeuse” are perfectly built in Golden Proportion. In this sense, he gives back to music its vital function and indirectly evokes a return to nature, which too often dominates the theme of his compositions. In other words, the sound, individualized, regains its autonomy and its intrinsic value, similar to that one that the Rosicrucians attribute to the vowel sounds, by analogy. Musically speaking, with this attitude, Debussy enshrines the process initiated by Satie and opens the horizon for a new musical avant-garde.


“Those around me refuse to accept that I could never live in the everyday world of things and people. Hence the irrepressible need I have to get away from myself and go on adventures that seem inexplicable – because nobody knows who this man is, that is perhaps the best part of me! Anyway, an artist is, by definition, someone used to live among dreams and ghosts…”

(Claude Debussy) 

 Raul Passos



NICHOLS, Roger. Debussy Remembered. Londres. Faber and Faber. 1992.

ROBERTS, Paul. Claude Debussy. Londres. Phaidon Press. 2008.

ROBERTS, Paul. Images: The piano music of Claude Debussy. Portland. Amadeus Press. 1996.

SALZMAN, Eric. Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction. New Jersey. Prentice-Hall. 1967.

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