Thomas de Hartmann

Chronology of Thomas de Hartmann’s life
and major musical works

Thomas Alexandrovich de Hartmann was born on 21 September 1885, in the Ukraine, into a family that belonged to the highest Russian aristocracy. He started to play the piano at the age of four. After the death of his father, when he was nine years old, he was sent to a military school in St. Petersburg. Because of his obvious talents, he was given the opportunity to study music in addition to his military education.
He studied harmony with Arenskii and Taneiev -who also taught Rachmaninov and Scriabin- and piano technique with Esipova-Leschetizky, Prokoviev’s teacher. He received his diploma from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1903, at the age of eighteen. That same year, his music for the tragedy Caligula by Dumas the Elder was performed at the Imperial Theatre. In 1906, his ballet The Scarlet Flower was performed in the presence of the Tsar with Fokine, Nijinsky and Pavlova in the cast. Two years later, after an intervention by the Tsar himself, de Hartmann was allowed to study conducting in Munich with Felix Mottl, a pupil of Wagner.
He married Olga Arkadievna de Shumacher, who would later function as Gurdjieff’s secretary, translator and household manager. The de Hartmanns stayed in Munich from 1908 to 1912 and later returned for a short period in 1914. There, they established contact with the avant-garde, and especially with Vassily Kandinsky, who remained a life-long friend.

De Hartmann composed music for several theatre projects of Kandinsky. His work for The Yellow Sound was published in 1912 in what was to become one of the most famous and prestigious art books of the twentieth century: Der Blaue Reiter Almanach edited by Kandinsky and Franz Marc. In the same edition is an article by de Hartmann, ‘Über die Anarchie in die Musik’ from which we quote:
“External laws do not exist. In music, every means that arises from inner necessity is correct. Anarchy in art should be welcomed. Only this principle can lead us to a shining future, a new rebirth.”
Kandinsky, in his famous treatise ‘Über das Geistige in der Kunst’ published in the same year, emphasised that only inner necessity can lead to art. De Hartmann’s reference to the “new rebirth” foreshadows his interest in the expositions of his future teacher Gurdjieff.
At the end of 1916, the de Hartmanns met Gurdjieff and decided to follow him. The incredibly adventurous years from 1917 to 1923 have been described in their book Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff. They were part of a small expedition led by Gurdjieff out of war-torn Russia, during which Thomas de Hartmann was almost killed by typhus. They travelled from one country to another while he worked as a musician in whatever town they passed through. Finally, the de Hartmanns settled in France, in Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau.

From May 1923 to June 1927, Gurdjieff and de Hartmann composed, in a collaboration unique in the history of music, the orchestral pieces for the Movement Demonstrations in 1923 and 1924 as well as many compositions for piano solo. In 1922, de Hartmann accepted a job as director of the music-publishing company Belaieff and, as a further effort to raise money both for himself and for the Gurdjieff household, started to write music for films under the pseudonym Thomas Kross. By 1936, when he stopped this activity, he had written the music for 52 films.
The de Hartmanns travelled with Gurdjieff on his journeys to America in 1924 and 1929. In that last year, de Hartmann left Gurdjieff, never to see him again, but his faith in his teacher remained unaltered. From then on, he worked on his own music, in which Gurdjieff’s influence is not discernible.
In 1935, he finished his first symphony, opus 50, which was performed later in Paris and Brussels, as well as his Cello Concerto, opus 57, which was performed by Pablo Casals and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His Violin Sonata, opus 51 was published in 1937.

He survived the Second World War in France, composing quietly, almost in seclusion, five Concertos and his Second Symphony. After Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, he prepared several volumes, privately distributed by Editions Janus in Paris, of the music he composed in collaboration with him. In 1951, he emigrated to America. There he finished his Opera Esther, opus 76, begun in 1946, and his second Piano Sonata, opus 82 (dedicated to PD Ouspensky’s ideas of the Fourth Dimension). In 1955, Leopold Stokowski directed his ‘Four Dances’ from the opera Esther.
Thomas de Hartmann died of heart failure on the 26th of March, 1956 in Princeton, New Jersey. He had just started working on the chapter ‘Music’ in his autobiography and a concert of his work, with himself as a soloist, was scheduled in Town Hall, New York the next month.
His 90 opus numbers include several ballets, three operas, four symphonies, seven concertos, works for piano, chamber music, and many songs on texts by Balmont, Pushkin, Verlaine, Joyce, Proust, Shelley and Shakespeare. His work gradually evolved from a late Romantic towards a modern and personal style. However, he was a forgotten composer soon after his death and even Belaieff removed his compositions from their catalogue after 1960.