The music of Gurdjieff and De Hartmann

George Gurdjieff, who is best known as the founder of a now-worldwide spiritual teaching, was born in 1866 near the border of Armenia and Turkey. His childhood was spent at the crossroads of many and varied ethnicities and religions. During his long years of travel in search of true knowledge about Man, he absorbed the music of the Middle East and Central Asia. He was especially interested in the effects this music had on people.


Though not a trained composer, he was able to remember much of the music he heard. Returning to Russia in 1912, where he began his activity as a teacher, he gathered a small group of pupils. Among them was Thomas de Hartmann, a young composer who was a rising star in the Russian musical world. Gurdjieff and De Hartmann began a unique collaboration unique in the history of music. Taking dictation from Gurdjieff’s humming, strumming, or one-finger playing on the keyboard, de Hartmann organized these subtle melodies into fully-developed compositions for piano. These pieces were often heard by Gurdjieff’s students, both for listening, as a special part of his teaching, and as accompaniments for Gurdjieff’s Sacred Dances.

The body of their music can be roughly divided into three categories. The first consists of folkloristic evocations of songs and dances of the peoples Gurdjieff encountered on his journeys. The second category includes the music of the certain sects related to Sufism.
The third, and perhaps the most important, category is one composed of hymns, prayers, and rituals. Especially powerful are those in the collection Hymns from a Great Temple, some of which will be performed at the concert.


A note from Thomas De Hartmann: Near the end of his life, Thomas De Hartmann was invited to play for a few senior students of Gurdjieff' teaching the piano music he wrote with Gurdjieff. At one point in the program, he said the following:

I can't keep from saying something about Georg Ivantch.


Once he told that on certain points in the space where the emanations of the earth encounter the emanations of the Sun Absolute­that means the emanations of the Almighty ­in these points is a reflection, an image, something which can be seen, received, felt, from the Almighty. And for earth people, with concentration it is possible to visualize, to see, in a certain inner way the emanations of the Almighty. Of course for this a very deep concentration is wanted.


Here we understand why Georg Ivantch always put a great weight on music. He himself played, and he also composed. If we compare his music with the music of all the religions we can see that music plays a great part in religious service. But after the work of Georg Ivantch we can understand it better, that music helps to concentrate oneself, to bring oneself to an inner state when we can receive the greatest possible emanations. That is why music is just the thing which helps you to see higher.


In this regard, I will just play.





Songs to the Beloved


Notes by the composer, Laurence Rosenthal


Several years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I might be interested in setting some of Rumi’s poetry to music. He lent me a little volume. I was already acquainted with Rumi as a 13th century Sufi, author of the monumental Mathnawi and founder of the Mevlevi Order of whirling dervishes, but not as a poet. The verses were superb— insightful, witty, sometimes elusive, always profound. My first musical experiments with them, however, were disappointing. Although the translations were admirable, as were others I later tried to set, I finally concluded that Rumi just wouldn’t “take” music. Perhaps the poems already had their own music. In any case, I abandoned the project.


A few years later, I was invited by a chamber music society near San Francisco to compose a piece for one of their concerts. I determined to go back and have another try at Rumi. I soon came upon a translation by Jonathan Star and Shahram Shiva which, as I perused the verses, began immediately to sing to me. Perhaps it was just this particular collection of poems or the informal and even colloquial manner of the translation. Whatever the reason, Rumi’s unique voice, his pungency and his ecstasy, and his humor, seemed to fly directly across the centuries and to speak with startling directness, both timeless and precisely for this moment. The songs quickly took shape.


The piece is in five sections; the first two linked without interruption. The opening verse, Invocation, is a call to the listener, the seeker. The second and fifth sections are odes, while the third and fourth are each a chain of quatrains or ruba’i, a form made famous by the earlier Persian poet, Omar Khayam. A curious coincidence occurred immediately after I started working on the songs. I had already decided that the instrumental ensemble accompanying the voice should include, in addition to the string quartet, a flute and a harp. The next day I came across the ode This Is My Wish in which these two very instruments are evoked by the poet, calling on them to sing of his deepest longings.


The third section, The Wine of Love, consists largely of love-poems. Rumi used the images of human love as a metaphor for the love of God, the joy of the lover’s presence, the pain of his absence. One could often forget it is a metaphor, so tender and passionate are the words! In fact the identity of the Beloved seems not always clear. Perhaps it is God, perhaps the soul, or the essence of God in the human heart, or perhaps all of them. When Rumi speaks of wine, it is really God-stuff, bringing the intoxication with the divine. As he says in one of his poems, “Our drunkenness does not come from wine,” and elsewhere, “O brother, bring the pure wine of love and freedom.”


The third part, Secrets, begins with a prayer for liberation from bondage to the world, and continues with a series of short verses about inner silence, the hazards of thought, the search for the highest in oneself, and the urgent need to stay awake.


The final ode, The Body Is Too Slow For Me, ardently describes the inner journey of the soul toward the gardens and the orchards, the sacred space.


In composing the music, I found myself leaning toward various Persian and Turkish modes. However universal the substance of the poems, somehow I wanted to place Rumi on the globe, in his culture. So I was drawn, for example, to the centering effect of the thrumming drone as a ground or anchor for the free melodic improvisation or taksim which explores the upper air, but never loses its relation to the source below. In fact, most near- Eastern music is monophonic, a single line of melody, devoid of harmonic underpinning, other than the pedal point. While certain characteristic intervals from the music of Asia Minor frequently do color the melodic contour of these songs, the pervading structure is harmonic and Western.