Four Gnossiennes was originally choreographed for a workshop at the School of American Ballet. This inventive pas de deux entered the repertory of New York City Ballet as part of the program for the Dancers' Emergency Fund benefit performance at the end of the winter season in 1990. Satie wrote six Gnossiennes in all, the first three in 1890 and the remainder during the next seven years. The name "Gnossienne" refers to the palace of Knossos on Crete, which was being excavated at the time the pieces were written. Satie's pieces contain his characteristic witty commentary and directions to the pianist: instructions such as "wonder about yourself," "don't be proud," "with amazement," and "lightly, with intimacy." These short, simple piano works, with overtones of Romanian folk ensembles and Gregorian chants, predate Satie's famous "Gymnopedies."
Eric Satie (1866-1925) studied at the Paris Conservatory and supported himself in his early years as a cafe pianist. His early works used simplicity, repetition, and original, modal harmonies to evoke the ancient world. These early works (Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes) had an influence on Debussy who, along with Ravel, brought Satie to the attention of the general public by performing his piano pieces in concerts. Cocteau admired Satie's modest, absurdist works and the two collaborated with Picasso and Massine on Parade for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1917.