Thomas de Hartmann’s musical output consists of some 90 works written in the classical idiom, 53 film scores and several hundred pieces of sacred music from the East composed for piano in collaboration with George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877-1949).
The earliest music reflects the Romantic taste of the Russian aristocracy, and also of his teacher Anton Arensky. It is reminiscent of Chopin, Schumann and Mussorgsky. Trois Morceaux Op. 4 and the Six Pieces Op. 7 for solo piano, as well as the 3 Romances Op. 5 for soprano and piano showcase the precocity of the young composer, still in his teens. They were published in 1899 and 1902 by the prestigious Jurgensen edition in Moscow.
In the first decade of the 20th century new influences came into de Hartmann’s writing. Already in the 3 Preludes (Op. 11, 1904) he was experimenting with Impressionism, rapidly changing rhythmic meter, and unusual harmonic structure. The great success with his ballet La Fleurette Rouge (Op. 9, 1907), performed in the presence of the Tsar Nicholas with Nijinsky, Fokine and Pavlova in the cast at the Imperial Opera of St. Petersburg, enabled him to be released from military duty. He went to Munich, where he came in contact with the avant-garde in art and music and joined the Blaue Reiter group. With Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Alexander Sacharoff (1886-1963) he worked towards a synthesis of the different artistic media of painting, dance and music, best exemplified in the ballet scenario Der Gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound).
As successful as he was outwardly, de Hartmann began to look for something more in his work with music. He writes in his autobiography Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff (Penguin Books, 1992):
“To my great surprise, I took myself to account and began to realize that all that had attracted me in my youth, all that I had dearly loved in music, no longer satisfied me and was, so to say, outdated. It was clear to me […] that to be able to develop in my creative work, something was necessary – something greater or higher that I could not name. Only if I possessed this “something” would I be able to progress further and hope to have any real satisfaction from my own creation…”
In 1916 de Hartmann met his spiritual teacher Gurdjieff, who provided him with what he was looking for. Over the next 13 years he learned many techniques for inner growth and an encyclopedia of musical ideas from their collaborative work in composing the sacred music from the East. Gurdjieff asserted that there was such a thing as “objective music” which could have a specific effect on the emotions and the psyche of the listener, not dependent upon taste or style.
De Hartmann was to draw upon these resources for the rest of his life. When he left his teacher in 1929 he returned to composing in the classical style. To support himself he wrote some 50 film scores in the 1930s under the pseudonym Thomas Kross. While they draw heavily from his Romantic roots, they also show the influence of his time with Gurdjieff. The introduction to the movie L’Or des Mers (Jean Epstein, 1932) begins with a long oboe solo which sounds distinctly like the Eastern ney before the score turns to the main romantic theme.
De Hartmann’s later work shows a remarkable eclecticism. He drew from many different styles, often to be found in the same piece. The Violin Sonata (Op. 51, 1937) combines Romanticism, Impressionism, Eastern melody, jazzy harmonies and hints of bitonality. The second movement of the Double Bass Concerto (Op. 64, 1943) includes a romantic, Russian-sounding Romance 1830 sandwiched between a first movement filled with dissonance, and the third based on folk elements.
The extensive catalog of vocal music shows a wide ranging literary curiosity, which includes poems by Pushkin, Shelley, Proust and Verlaine as well as James Joyce’s Ulysses. It also demonstrates a great interest in the music of different cultures. There are authentic Bulgarian songs, Chinese music from the 13th century, and music from Catalonia sung in Catalan.
The orchestral music also has much variety and illustrates his gift for colorful instrumentation in this medium. His four symphonies include an hour long Symphonie-Poéme (Op. 50, 1934). He wrote seven concerti which feature the piano, violin, cello, flute, harp and double bass. There are ballet scores and an opera Esther (Op. 76, 1946). Few of these pieces have been heard since de Hartmann’s death, although the privately published recordings of the violin and cello concerti (Op. 66, 1943 and Op. 57, 1935, respectively), and the scores of the Piano Concerto (Op. 61, 1942) and the orchestral Suite (Op. 62, 1941) indicate that there is a treasure to be found here.
Towards the end of his life de Hartmann turned to greater dissonance in his music. Many, but not all of his compositions are shorter and more compressed, with a definite program. There is sometimes an ironic commentary on the human condition in this music, with subtitles such as “The banality of life which cannot be conquered by man”, as well as La Fête de la Patronne d’après Degas (Op. 77, 1947), which portrays a brothel in Montmartre, and the Humoresque Vienoise (Op. 45, 1945), which adds some disturbing dissonance to Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. Other works point in a different direction, towards what de Hartmann saw as man’s possibilities: The Music of the Stars (Op. 84, 1953): “Look into the depths of Eternity” and the Second Sonata for piano (Op. 82, 1951) “dedicated to P.D. Ouspensky and the idea of the Fourth Dimension.”
De Hartmann’s music with its many styles is held together by his inner search, aspects of which find expression through his composition. It is not necessary to be aware of all that he is trying to say in order to enjoy the music, with its colorful palette and wide variety. However, the enquiring listener may well be rewarded by the depth of what is conveyed and revealed upon repeated listening. Beyond the intriguing musical forms, we are engaged with a particular understanding and experience that de Hartmann was determined to explore and bring forth. The many styles which he drew from were always at the service of this aim, and the result is the creation of a unique sound world.
Pablo Casals, with whom he had a close friendship and extensive correspondence, writes:
“Pay no attention to the taste of your Parisian colleagues–Rare all of those who have a real talent, more rare yet those who dare to be themselves.”