Originally published in PLEASURE 2012
On inner necessity
“In all the arts, and especially in music, every means of expression that arises from an inner necessity is a right…the correspondence of the means of expression with inner necessity is the essence of beauty in a work.” - Thomas de Hartmann
In 1912 Thomas de Hartmann published an article called “On Anarchy In Music,” which featured the quote above. The article was featured in Der blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an avant-garde periodical run by Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Though he did not know it at the time, de Hartmann’s article struck on themes that would later become of the utmost importance to him, perhaps even the dominating force of his later life.
Born in the Ukraine in 1885 into a family of Russian aristocrats, Thomas de Hartmann began his formal musical training at the age of 11. He studied in St. Petersburg under Anton Arensky, and eventually entered the St. Petersburg Imperial Conservatory. He had early success--by 1906 (when he was 21), his first songs, piano pieces and works for chamber ensemble were being published. In 1908, he moved to Munich, where he studied under Felix Mottl, a pupil of Wagner.
Though his training erred towards the formal, de Hartmann maintained an interest in the esoteric, which he began to explore in both his art and social life, once he had moved to Munich. He became friends with Kandinsky, a man over 20 years his senior, and their relationship had a profound effect on both men. After Kandinsky’s death his wife Nina wrote
As far as I can remember, among all his circle of friends, there was only one whom [Kandinsky] ever addressed by the familiar second person singular, and only one who addressed him likewise: the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Even with his closest painter friend, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, who was revolted by all excessive familiarity, kept always to the formal plural.
Through Kandinsky, de Hartmann met Alexander Sacharoff, a young Russian dancer, and together the three men started to collaborate across their separate artistic mediums. In a manner that closely resembles how de Hartmann would later work on the musical compositions with Gurdjieff, the three men would improvise with de Hartmann on piano, Kandinsky directing with storylines based on Russian folklore, and Sacharoff interpreting through dance. They began work on Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound), a one-act opera without any dialogue or conventional plot. The work was an exploration of color theory and synesthesia, but too experimental for their time—neither men ever saw the opera staged in their lifetime. Eventually, their collaboration ended with the interference of World War I.
His life upturned, de Hartmann stumbled forward--he participated in the war as a Russian officer, and spent time at the front--still searching throughout, for the spiritual understanding he had caught a glimpse of in his explorations with Kandinsky. In 1916, he crossed paths with George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and his life immediately switched tracks. For the next 13 years, he and his wife Olga followed Gurdjieff as pupils and assistants: de Hartmann became the composer Gurdjieff needed for his music, and Olga became his personal secretary. G. I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949) had spent most of his life traveling, searching and studying in spiritual centers across the Middle and Far East--when he arrived in St. Petersburg in 1913 he began to teach what he had learned, and gathered many followers. At the center of his teaching was the idea that through work of a certain kind, humans can develop an immortal self. Gurdjieff’s role was to show people what the required efforts were to engender one’s being, which is why his teaching is often referred to as The Work (also The 4th Way). One method that he taught was called the Movements, a series of ancient sacred dances he had learned on his travels, that he brought back to the West and adapted for Western man. These dances are designed to awaken the practitioner, to enable self-observation and to invite experience through posture. In the years that they were together, de Hartmann helped Gurdjieff to compose and transcribe the music that Gurdjieff’s followers continue to use today.
Currently, the future of the Gurdjieff work is in question. Though he left many followers when he died, the Work splintered and despite spreading across the world, it still exists only in small pockets and places hidden from view. There are many at work in preserving his teaching, but it has proven difficult due to internal political struggles amongst the various groups. By now, there are very few of his students still alive, and so it is up to the 3rd generation to decide what direction to go with the body of knowledge that they have inherited. It is the story of every religion generations after the founder has left, still--a rare thing to witness in action.
In 2010, I conducted an interview with a man named Elan Sicroff, one person who has taken on the task of preserving the Gurdjieff work. Elan has been called “the preeminent living interpreter of the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann legacy.” We met at Camp Caravan--one of the few active 4th way communities in the Northeastern U. S. This community is referred to as part of the “Bennett Camp,” meaning in the line of J. G. Bennett, one of Gurdjieff’s pupils that split from the other students after Gurdjieff’s death. When I met Elan, he was the pianist for the Movements classes at Camp Caravan, as well as being one of the leaders of the seminar. Though he had been a student of the 4th way for over 30 years, and a pianist all that time as well, when I met him he had just taken on a new task. He had recently embarked on developing the Thomas de Hartmann Project, a collective devoted to preserving de Hartmann’s music, as well as promoting and making it accessible for the modern world.
In the following interview we discuss the history that led him to create this project, as well as the story of de Hartmann and Gurdjieff. In both, there is this idea of an artist taking on a task outside of personal gratification--creating work not just for themselves, but for others: both specific individuals and the audience at large. De Hartmann gave up so much of his life for Gurdjieff, and in a similar manner, Elan has been and is doing that for de Hartmann. In my discussion with him one thing became clear to me: that for both men their work--a commitment that to most would seem stifling and daunting--comes almost without effort. Yes, at some point they both made the decision to work, but this came almost automatically; it arose from a need as much in them as outside of them. This perhaps is what de Hartmann was referring to in that early article for The Blue Rider: an artist’s inner necessity, and the right to act on that necessity.
Can we start off with some background on the relationship between de Hartmann and Gurdjieff?
De Hartmann came across Gurdjieff in 1916... [G.] was in Moscow at the time and he had set up a work group... Hartmann joined that group and shortly after his wife Olga joined and they stayed with Gurdjieff there until the outbreak of the revolution, de Hartmann was an aristocrat so if he hadn’t escaped they probably would have gotten killed--they were close with the Tsar... his family and also Olga de Hartmann’s family... so, they escaped across the Caucasus Mountains from Russia in 1917, many exciting adventures there which you can read about in a book called Our Life With Gurdjieff by Thomas de Hartmann which chronicles that whole period of de Hartmann’s life... And then they came across to Tiflis and Gurdjieff kept trying to set up his institute. He tried in Tiflis and the war came there and then he went to Constantinople and he set up work there (which is where J. G. Bennett met Gurdjeff). When they were on their travels, de Hartmann was already absorbing the eastern music that Gurdjieff would later have him put in western notation. In France, Gurdjieff finally settled down, about 35 kilometers outside of Paris in Fontainebleau, that’s where he set up the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.
De Hartmann was the composer, he was well known in Russia at the time... much better known than he is now (which is pretty much unknown) but he was very well known in those days. His music had already been published by the time he was 16, but he basically gave up a very flourishing career for Gurdjieff and stayed with Gurdjieff in Fontainebleau until 1929, when, under some pretext, G. told him to go away and so he went away... He remained very connected to G.’s teaching for the rest of his life and continued to express in his music what Gurdjieff had taught...
When he was with Gurdjieff, the two of them composed all of the music together?
Gurdjieff and de Hartmann had a very unusual relationship. One of the things about de Hartmann’s compositional style was that he was like a chameleon, he could write in all different kinds of musical idioms--his early music was romantic, and then it sounds Russian, like heavy Russian music and then it starts to sound modernistic, some of the later stuff has jazz elements, blues elements, bitonality... he also wrote 50 film scores under the pseudonym Thomas Kross… so, de Hartmann was able to connect with Gurdjieff in a very direct way; he could tell what G. wanted. G. would always have compositional sessions down in his salon, he would start tapping out a rhythm and everyone would run down to the salon. So the music was always composed in front of a group of people, on the spot, no privacy, maximum pressure... Gurdjieff remembered over 300 compositions that were put together by the two men over a 13 year period, mostly within a 3 years stretch. G. remembered the melody and he’d tap out the rhythm, hum the melody and de Hartmann had to flesh it out on the spot, and then it was performed, right then and there. One of the interesting things about this music is that if you look at the manuscript there’s almost no crossing out, no changing... it was like it just came direct between the two people. Some people say this music was really de Hartmann and some people say, just as vehemently, this was really Gurdjieff’s music and that Hartmann was just transcribing. It’s not true, this music was a total collaboration. The Gurdjieff music (not the de Hartmann classical music) is a real synthesis of Eastern and Western music. It uses eastern scales, eastern rhythms, western harmonies, 9th chords and blue chords and all kinds of things that come straight out of the conservatory and yet the music has an Oriental flavor.
How did you become involved with this music?
My work with this music started when I went to Sherbourne and I met J. G. Bennett. I was only into classical music at the time--I had heard the de Hartmann music and I thought it sounded very simplistic, the Movements music had no interest to me… and it took quite a number of years for me to develop an appreciation for this music. After I had been at Sherbourne for a year or so, J. G. Bennett wrote to Mme. de Hartmann and said he had a good piano player who could help promote her husband’s music.
So Mme. de Hartmann had been looking for a pianist?
What happened to Mme. de Hartmann was that Thomas died in 1956, and she went into mourning, and she didn’t come out... three years later she was still moping around... this is the story she told me... until one day, she woke up and she realized she had a mission, and that was to get her husband’s music known. First, she set out to rectify the situation with the Gurdjieff music because some of the Gurdjieff people had published the music without de Hartmann’s name on it... and so she set about that, which is a very interesting story but I won’t tell you on record [laughs]... She also started looking around for musicians to play her husband’s music, the classical stuff. There were almost no classically trained musicians in the Gurdjieff Foundation or even in the Bennett camp... there are some, but very few pianists... so when she found out that I could play piano... although she said that all I could do was run up and down the keys fast and with no feeling and it was her mission to show me how to play with feeling... what she saw in me was the potential to make that part (the classical) of her husband’s music known.
So you were chosen to play de Hartmann’s later music, the classical pieces.
Yes. When I first met Mme. de Hartmann I was invited out to Montreal to do a concert at McGill University and she… she was a very colorful human being to say the least…she only wanted me to play the classical music. She didn’t want me to play the Gurdjieff music, she let me play a few pieces, but her idea was that anybody that’s 25 years old and has a beard and looks 45 wasn’t going to play with her so, I had to cut off my beard or get on the next plane. She didn’t think that anybody should be playing the Gurdjieff music until they were quite a bit more mature than I was and of course, being 25 years old at the time, I thought she was full of it and I was perfectly mature enough to play this music just fine... so she let me play a little bit of the G. music but it was mostly the classical stuff she was interested in me playing. Later, I did gradually come to understand something about the Gurdjieff music... it’s not a static situation, its continually growing, the music is very barebones music, it describes particular inner states with no fluff, it’s just very direct whereas the classical music has all the other stuff going on…the classical music is more like a narrative, the de Hartmann and Gurdjieff music is more like “snapshots”...
That was about 35 years ago. Would you say you’ve taken on playing this music as a personal task?
Very gradually... it’s like what Robert Fripp was talking to us about the other night, he said: “music so badly wants to be heard that it often chooses the most unlikely candidates”... well, I’m one of those unlikely candidates. I have stage fright, I’ve always preferred to be in the background, I did some performing when I was in my late 20s, early 30s and then I stopped... I did almost nothing until Robert came over here 4 years ago and said “hey, the hairs turned gray it’s time to get to work!”... so he set up a program for me to start working with, that I should be performing every 6 weeks, and it has happened that way, I’ve been doing regular performances, it started out just the Gurdjieff music, then the de Hartmann music, I still think the Gurdjieff music is going to be the passport for de Hartmann to become known because there are so many unknown composers he’d be lost in this sea of mediocrity if it wasn’t for the Gurdjieff music... so it’s only really in the last 4 years that I’ve gotten serious, and now I’ve gotten even more serious.
And now you have the Thomas de Hartmann Project; how did that get started?
There have been a number of impulses to get me to play the piano over the last 60 years and one of them was J. G. Bennett who said: “if you have talent, you need to look at it is as a gift that doesn’t belong to you, and you need to share it with other people.” Which had never occurred to me--I just thought: “well, I have a little bit of talent but so does everybody else and if I don’t want to use it I don’t need to.” So he tried to push me to perform. And Mme. De Hartmann tried, and now Robert Fripp has given me this project. It started just with me and then last year, Stefan Meier decided he would support me in making a new CD and that really was the beginning of the Thomas de Hartmann project... we recorded it, we needed money for it, he put down some money, we needed more, we had to start gathering in funds, then we had to start getting help from other people... Roberto Dulce, Shawn Marquis and Beth Brown, various people started getting on board and it’s just been growing. We’ve isolated three pieces that are going to get de Hartmann’s name famous, one is a piano concerto, one is a violin concerto, the other is a violin sonata…and I will be going to Europe to see about getting an orchestra to record these pieces. So we’re looking to record these pieces, we’re also looking for other musicians to perform the music…what’s interesting to me about this is everything de Hartmann wrote after he met G. was related to his ideas about the work, G.’s teaching. So, hidden in this music, is this teaching... it’s in code, you have to decipher the code, but it’s there... not a lot of composers have that, there are a few... but not very many. So that’s, in my opinion, what sets it apart... there are lots of great composers out there but they don’t have this one thing... that it’s possible to express something about inner search in a musical idiom.
So you’ve taken this on as a serious commitment in your life, perhaps even despite yourself... this sounds not unlike what de Hartmann himself did for Gurdjieff.
If you look at de Hartmann, he gave up 13 of the best years of his life for G.; he was at the top of his popularity, he was close friends with Kandinsky, he knew all the great composers of the time, and he slipped underground and was not seen for 13 years... literally, it was like he was wiped off the face of the planet, like we are right now, you know? People are complaining to me “oh, we can’t get in touch with you” that’s right, [laughs]... we’re living in a parallel universe right now, and that’s what happened to de Hartmann. He gave that up. And I think that the reason G. got rid of him, because it seemed pretty heavy, but actually I think G. realized that he had used de Hartmann a lot for his purposes, and it was time to let him do something for the future in his own medium... so that’s what he did.
But his commitment to G. remained beyond that, after G. had forced him out of the Prieure?
Something that’s very interesting to me about de Hartmann’s music, is I teach piano and the kids, when they get up to a certain level, all they want to do is play de Hartmann—they love this music, they say: “Yeah, Chopin is great but he’s no Thomas de Hartmann,” and they really believe it! There’s something about the music that really touches people right now…he was a little ahead of his time, and it’s the vehicle of the classical music, to be in the everyday world putting it out, that could do a lot to make people aware of what’s going on without having to feel like they are being hit over the head with some philosophy... the music speaks.
What does it mean to take on a task as an artist?
Having an aim, first of all, if this is a 21 year project, I wasn’t planning on living that much longer... so to be looking at another 17 years is pretty daunting actually, and also keeping myself in some kind of a shape so that I can actually play... things do fall off... I would say that what this task is doing for me is energizing me, it’s making a lot of things much simpler, in other words it’s telling me how I’m going to live my life. I’ve had the suspicion that things needed to change and now it’s totally crystal clear, that things are going to change, is it gonna be all peaches and cream? I do not think so. If you’re gonna do it, you have to do it. You have to commit to it. Go the whole hog including the postage.
For more information on Elan and the Thomas de Hartmann Project, visit www.sicroff.com.