Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann (1884-1956) was widely acclaimed in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and he enjoyed a successful career in France during the 1930s and 1940s. His unique voice brought together many styles to produce a colorful and vibrant catalog. However, since his death his music has fallen into obscurity.
The Thomas de Hartmann Project was begun in 2006 with the aim of bringing the composer’s music back to the listening audience. Performances, recordings, lecture recitals, and articles have been employed to accomplish this task. The work is ongoing.
The Piano Music, Chamber Music and Songs of Thomas de Hartmann
Author: Guy Rickards
Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956) was one of musical history’s “nearly men’. As Elan Sicroff – the pianist in all three Nimbus releases here – noted in his informative April Gramophone blog, “Why Thomas de Hartmann?’, the initial acclaim of his youth in tsarist Russia gradually waned in exile in the West to death in obscurity in New York. Yet he was known to a large and celebrated circle of friends and colleagues that included Casals, Kandinsky (three of whose paintings adorn the booklet covers) Koussevitzky, Tortelier and many more. A pupil variously of Arensky (composition), Taneyev (counterpoint), Esipova Leschetizky (piano) and Mottl (conducting), his ballet La fleurette rouge (1906) was danced by Nijinsky, Karsavina and Fokine. He was, as much as were Stravinsky and Steinberg pre-1914, a Great Hope of Russian music.
For most listeners (if they are aware of him at all), Hartmann’s reputation rests on his collaborative piano pieces with his sometime mentor, George Gurdjieff (Wergo, 1/99). However, Hartmann’s true stature and range as a composer (not to mention his Ukrainian heritage) are apparent from Nimbus’s two discs of piano music, beautifully played by Sicroff, fully in tune with the diverse idioms from all stages of the composer’s career. As with Stravinsky, Hartmann’s style altered over time, becoming more radical as he aged, and both discs chart that progress dearly. The gauche, almost naive writing of the early Trois Morceaux (1899; No 1’s absence is unexplained) or Three Preludes (1904) gradually gave way to more modern influences, such as Stravinsky in the Divertissements from Forces of Love and Sorcery (1915) and Musique pour la fête de la patronne, d’après Degas (1947). The Twelve Russian Fairy Tales (1937) highlight the strengths and limitations of his musicality, charming vignettes of Russian folklore aimed at children (Stokowski orchestrated some), but ‘The Witch’s House on Hen’s Legs’, ‘Baba Yaga’ and ‘Kasstchei the Deathless’ are tame compared with better-known evocations by Mussorgsky, Liadov or Stravinsky. Nonetheless, the more cerebrally expressive world of the two piano sonatas (1942; 1951) and the Two Nocturnes (1953) shows Hartmann on a very high plane of attainment indeed.
Hartmann’s output eventually included operas, symphonies and concertos recordings of which we will have to wait for – and chamber music, two discs of which Nimbus has also released. As with the piano set, this pair of chamber discs combines smaller, salon-like items such as the Feuillet d’un veil album, Hommage à Borodine (both 1929) and La Kobsa (1950, looking back to his Ukrainian roots) and major works such as the sonatas for violin (1936) and cello (1941), both with piano. Only the second chamber disc, however, follows a chronological format, covering the brief span 1941-46 and concluding with the utterly delightful Trio for flute, violin and piano (1946). Chamber disc 1 opens with the fine, mostly lyrical Violin Sonata, keenly performed by Katharina Naomi Paul, especially in the weighty, somewhat Bartókian finale. (Natalia Gabunia handles that disc’s violin miniatures very neatly.) The composer’s own reduction of his Fantaisie Double Bass Concerto (1942), written with Koussevitzky in mind, is magnificently rendered by Quirijn van Regteren Altena. Its wistful central ‘Romance 1830’ has no connection to the song of the same name of 1936. The disc concludes with the set of Ukrainian Christmas carols, Koladky (1940), for saxophone quartet, one of only two works on any of these five discs where Sicroff’s piano is absent (but also playable by strings or piano).
The performances, recorded in Hilversum between 2011 and 2015, are uniformly of the highest quality. Nimbus’s sound is first-rate and all the musicians consistently sound as though they relished Hartmann’s idiomatically conceived, sometimes sinuous melodies, whether cellist Anneke Jansen in the lovely Chanson sentimentale (1929) and Deux Pleureuses (1942), or sopranos Nina Lejderman and Claron McFadden in the songs, or the Amstel Quartet in Koladky.
As with the second chamber disc, the song album is a joy from start to finish, the pieces presented chronologically, from a clutch of charming romances and melodies sung prettily by Lejderman, to larger cycles (those setting Shelley and Joyce sung marvelously well by McFadden) and the unaccompanied vocal quartet La Tramuntana (1949), dedicated to Casals.
If I had to recommend just one performance, it would be (one or two intonational infelicities aside) Jansen and Sicroff’s of the magnificent Cello Sonata, one of the finest for the instrument penned in the 20th century. Occasionally one encounters an unfamiliar work that compels wonderment from the very first bar. Deborah Pritchard’s Wall of Water was one such (Nimbus, 5/15); Hartmann’s Cello Sonata is another – an unalloyed masterpiece with a wonderful variation set at its centre. A revelation.
“Sicroff is a fine pianist who brings out the best in each work on this set. This is a fine introduction to de Hartmann’s music and a valuable contribution to the history of 20th-century music.” link to article
Lynn René Bayley, Art Music Lounge, March 25, 2021
Thomas de Hartmann specialist Elan Sicroff unlocks the secrets of two nocturnes by the Russian master
The Nocturnes Op 7 No 5 and Op 84 No 1 by Thomas de Hartmann provide a good introduction to his music, bookending his creative work. Before going into detailed discussion about them, however, some information about this largely unknown composer is in order.
De Hartmann (1885-1956) was born into the Russian aristocracy in Ukraine. He studied composition with Anton Arensky (teacher of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Scriabin) and later with Sergei Tanaieff, a master of counterpoint trusted by Tchaikovsky for his critical advice. De Hartmann was also a student of the virtuoso pianist Annette Essipova — another of Prokofiev’s teachers — at the St Petersburg Conservatory.
In 1906 de Hartmann was catapulted to fame by the performance of his ballet La Fleurette Rouge (The Red Flower) starring Nijinsky, Fokine, Pavlova and Karsavina. It was staged for six consecutive seasons in St Petersburg and another in Moscow before the advent of the First World War.
De Hartmann relocated to Munich in 1908 to study conducting with Felix Mottl, a pupil of Wagner. There he met his lifelong friend Wassily Kandinsky and joined the avantgarde in art and music. Impressionist and modernist elements began to appear in his writing. In 1916 de Hartmann met his spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff, with whom he worked for the next 13 years. Together they composed a large body of sacred music from the East, mostly for the piano.
From 1928 to 1935, de Hartmann composed around 50 film scores to support himself while living outside of Paris. The years from 1935 to 1949 marked his most productive period. He composed many large works for orchestra, solo piano, voice and chamber ensemble. By the late 1940s he was well known in France and Belgium, where many great musicians performed his music, including the cellist Paul Tortelier, flautists Jean-Pierre Rampal and Marcel Moyse, violinist Alexander Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet, and conductors Serge Koussevitzky and Eugène Bigot.
De Hartmann moved to the United States in 1950, where his last works were composed in the modernist idiom. He died in Princeton, New Jersey on 28 March 1956.
Nocturne Op 7/5
The Nocturne Op 7/5 was composed in 1902 when de Hartmann was 17 years old. It is one of his Six Pieces dedicated to Annette Essipova. Each explores a different Romantic form, in styles reminiscent of Schumann, Chopin and Musorgsky. They include a Prelude, Etude, Scherzo, Impromptu, Nocturne and Novelette.
When I first came across these pieces in the late 1970s, I felt certain that they were destined to enter the piano repertoire: they are all gorgeous and reflect Arensky’s Romanticism and Essipova’s virtuosity. The Nocturne may be the easiest of the group to play.
In 2017 I brought a sampling of de Hartmann’s work for assessment by the Dutch composer Gilius van Bergeijk. He told me that de Hartmann ‘used functional harmony in a non-functional way’. This helped me to understand why I found his music so difficult to memorise.
Even in this early work, de Hartmann’s musical language is subtle and rich. He creates constantly shifting colours by moving between the tonic minor and its relative major, and avoids the dominant until the eighth bar. Instead, he uses chord relationships built on the second, fourth, and sixth degrees of the scale.
An interesting example of his chord sequencing comes with the progression beginning in bar 14: from F minor to B diminished (bar 14) we expect him to go to C (dominant of F), but instead he moves to A-flat (bar 15) and establishes the key of A-flat with an E-flat dominant 11th chord. Then in bar 17 he moves suddenly to C major, after all. This development section is ultra-Romantic and anticipates the film scores that de Hartmann would compose in France in the 1930s.
The beautiful coda at bar 53, the ‘moral of the story,’ recapitulates some of the harmonic material from the beginning of the piece (bar 5), ending in a series of brooding broken chords in B-flat minor.
A few pointers for studying this piece:
I recommend playing the right-hand melody alone without the inner voice in order to get a sense of the tempo and flow.
Take de Hartmann’s pp dynamic at the beginning seriously – the sound should be very atmospheric. The middle voice should be a ripple, a mere suggestion, as quiet as you can play it.
There are some inaccuracies in notation in this piece. For example, notice the dotted rhythms in bar 1, bar 3 and elsewhere. However, I have found them easily decipherable, and they may be corrected when the music is republished.
There may be a mistake with the last note in bar 12, left hand. He may have meant to write B-flat instead of a D-flat.
Beginning at bar 37 the finger-work in the right hand is quite intricate and will need some unusual fingering to maintain the legato. In bar 39, for the fourth triplet semiquaver in the right hand leading to the beginning of the second beat, I have found that 4-5-4-1 is a way to negotiate, albeit with an uncomfortable squeeze.
Bar 37 to the end: it is of paramount importance that the left-hand melody be heard as primary. This can be difficult unless one trusts the right-hand filigree and keeps most of the attention in the left hand.
Nocturne Op 84/1 – The Music of the Stars: ‘Look into the depths of eternity’
Shortly before meeting Kandinsky in 1908, de Hartmann began to express dissatisfaction with his early work in composition:
‘To my surprise I took myself to account and began to realise 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.’
‘Without inner growth there is no life for me.’
These statements mark the beginning of the active phase of de Hartmann’s quest for meaning, expressed through music. From this point onward much of his output has an underlying programme. Often it is clearly expressed through the words to his songs and the descriptive subtitles of his instrumental music. Love of a Poet Op 59, nine songs set to poems by Pushkin, explores different aspects of love, while in the Six Commentaries from ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce Op 71 de Hartmann applies stream of consciousness to music. By his later works, the ideas are often philosophical, even metaphysical: ‘the poetic idea of the fourth dimension’ in the Second Piano Sonata Op 82, and ‘Look into the depths of eternity’ in The Music of the Stars Op 84/1.
The Music of the Stars is clearly programme music. The sparkling dissonant chords in the upper register of the piano first evoke individual stars, then recognisable patterns, then constellations and shooting stars. The use of overtones, whole tone patterns and unusual chord combinations in the bass create the feeling of spaciousness and emptiness. At bar 22 the stars begin to sing: an unworldly, bitonal affair. From bar 29 a change occurs. The alternating E minor and D minor chords a ninth apart stretch the musical fabric, making way for a new and momentous announcement in bar 31. For the first time an unadorned tonal melody appears in a much lower register than the rest of the piece. It lasts for only a short time before dissolving, leaving the listener watching the stars from a distance, as in the beginning. Then all disappears into emptiness, with the last two notes an octave apart held by the pedal.
All well and good, but what lies behind this programme, we might ask? It is the assertion that different levels of consciousness are available to man. At the beginning we see only stars. Then awareness increases and patterns emerge. The critical moment comes in bar 32, with the descent of the melody into a lower register. Paradoxically, this symbolises a jump in the listener’s own awareness: one is now on the same level as the stars, and they appear close at hand. The melody that follows expresses a message that can now be understood. The experience doesn’t last long, and the listener/observer returns to ordinary awareness, with the stars again at a distance. The last two notes, Bs, an octave apart with the pedal held, evoke the emptiness of the Void.
A few pointers for playing this piece:
In bar 7 and bar 8 I find that using the third finger on the G in the left hand makes the cross-over more reliable.
The jumps in the left hand in bars 10-15 can be awkward. In bar 10 I take the g’’ on the last beat in the middle stave with the right hand. I do the same on the first and sixth beats from bar 11 to bar 15.
As with the Nocturne Op 7/5, it is helpful to play the melody line in the right hand alone, to get a sense of the flow. Afterwards, one can take the piece apart and enter into each of the dissonant harmonies, as slowly as necessary.
Otherwise, except for the awkwardness negotiating the right-hand notes in the quasi cadenza section, there are no technical difficulties in the virtuosic sense. But how to capture the mood? From the outset, one should have a mental conception of what the piece wants to express. The programme notes above may provide a starting point.
By far the greatest difficulty lies with the dynamic, which ranges for the most part between ppp and pppp. Each of the stars really needs to twinkle in this piece, on the border between audibility and silence. Keep your fingers on the surface of the keys and make your staccato by pinging horizontally to the next note, rather than vertically. Your touch should be very shallow, with just enough pressure to make a sound. If you don’t play softly enough, the effect will be lost.
Elan Sicroff’s recordings of Thomas de Hartmann’s nocturnes Opp 7/5 and 81/1 can be heard on his new album The Piano Music of Thomas de Hartmann (Nimbus NI6409)
“Elan Sicroff proves an exceptional exponent of a sometimes bewilderingly diverse range of musical influences – from the nineteenth century via the salon and thence to Scriabin, Stravinsky, and perhaps a little Bartók. These represent, at least, some of the staging posts of de Hartmann’s musical journey…” Link to article…
“…the de Hartmann Project has done the world an immense service in finally presenting a somewhat orderly and in-depth look at this talented composer whose work has been not only vastly underrated but almost wholly ignored by the rest of the classical music world.” Link to article
Lynn René Bayley, Art Music Lounge, March 28, 2021
“I came to this collection with no expectations, not until now having been particularly aware of Thomas de Hartmann’s piano music. This is a brilliant survey, superbly played and recorded, of some tremendously worthwhile music.” Link to article
Dominy Clements, Music Web International, March 2021