Georg Ivanovitch Gurdjieff
Gurdjieff was probably born in 1866 from Greek-Armenian parentage in what is now the frontier region between Russia and Turkey. While still a young man, a thirst for a special form of knowledge, which he believed still existed somewhere on earth, drove him into the most inaccessible areas of the Orient, on a search that was to last for more than twenty years.
From 1912 on, he became a spiritual teacher in Russia, fled during the Revolution and, after a journey through several countries with his caravanserai of family and pupils, finally settled down in France. In a mansion in Fontainebleau, he founded his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man that, despite a controversial reputation in the press, drew many pupils from America and England. Among the disciplines practised in the Institute were dances, generally referred to as Movements. These Movements were created by Gurdjieff, influenced by the dances and rituals he studied during his travels.
These were presented to the public between December 16 and 25, 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and in the spring of 1924 in several American cities, including a performance on March 3, 1924 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The music for them was created by Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. De Hartmann made orchestral arrangements especially for these public presentations.
A serious car accident in 1924 forced Gurdjieff to reassess his situation and in the following decade, he immersed himself solely in the writing of his books, a trilogy known as All and Everything. The first book, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson aimed to destroy “mercilessly” all previous beliefs about humankind, the universe and God. The second, Meetings with Remarkable Men, describes the characters of members of the group “Seekers of the Truth,” whom he portrays as collaborators in his own search. The third, Life is Real Then, Only When “I Am” can be called autobiographical.
Gurdjieff and de Hartmann continued to compose and, between 1925 and 1927, produced some 170 new compositions in close collaboration. When he had completed his third book in 1935, Gurdjieff saw his Institute closed and sold in the aftermath of the Depression, and interest in his work gradually diminished. After the war, pupils from England and America reconnected with him at his Paris apartment, where he presided over dinners -in which he was the patriarch- and summarised his teachings for the last time. He died in Neuilly, near Paris, the 29th of October 1949.
Fragments of an Unknown Teaching
We know almost verbatim what Gurdjieff taught in the early years between 1914 and 1918, because one of his pupils possessed such skills of understanding and memory that he was able to write down with meticulous precision everything he remembered, either from private conversations or from lectures given in St. Petersburg or Moscow. This pupil was P. D. Ouspensky and his book Fragments of an Unknown Teaching was authorised by Gurdjieff and published after Ouspensky’s death in 1947. It is considered the most comprehensive overview of Gurdjieff’s early teachings. The title was later changed into In Search of the Miraculous.
Gurdjieff’s own books remained without acclaim from literary or scientific circles. One of the rare exceptions was the French surrealist André Breton, who considered Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson “the greatest book of this century” -an amazing statement for anybody who knows Breton’s critical mind. Gurdjieff attracted several prominent pupils like Ouspensky, whose own book Tertium Organum had established him as a powerful thinker before he even met Gurdjieff, and the English scientist and philosopher J. G. Bennett, as well as the Jungian Maurice Nicoll and the literary critic A.R. Orage. Mainly as a result of the study groups initiated by many of his followers, the relatively small inner circle of pupils surrounding Gurdjieff during his lifetime gradually spread to much larger proportions.
The practice of Gurdjieff’s ideas is generally referred to as “The Work.” This codeword is now used by a large variety of methods and organisations, only some of which have historical ties that can be traced back to Gurdjieff. Such an explosive growth has its risks. Gurdjieff’s teachings are being popularised, if not distorted, often without mentioning their source. Diametrically opposed, is an inclination towards dogmatism among his more ardent followers and students. “The light in one man blinds another,” as André Breton formulated so aptly, although in another context.
Gurdjieff left behind an unfinished ballet, his three books, over 200 musical compositions and at least 250 Movements. A unique diversity, and yet, the expression of one organic and coherent body of thought. Fifty years after his death, an entire library of books has been written about his ideas. His music, however, has not reached a large audience yet and, until this day, the Movements have remained virtually unknown outside a small circle of initiates. These discrepancies are regrettable because the books, music and Movements were not only expressions of the same vision, they are complementary to each other -representing intellect, heart and body- and were certainly intended that way by Gurdjieff.
The most remarkable aspect of this music is that it was the result of a unique collaboration. De Hartmann notated and harmonised the themes that Gurdjieff dictated to him, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of music. Only slightly less remarkable is the fact that the musical sources Gurdjieff drew upon -ethnic music as well as the various rituals of remote monastic brotherhoods- were transmuted with one bold sweep into the well-tempered keyboard of a piano. This process made available a repertoire of music from various Eastern sources that would have remained unknown to Western ears otherwise. In this synthesis of Eastern and Western music resounds the echo of the task that Gurdjieff had set himself: to combine the wisdom of the East with the knowledge of the West.