The Piano Music of de Hartmann

cover NI6409

2021 winnerDE HARTMANN: 3 Morceau, Op. 4: Nos. 2 & 3. 3 Preludes, Op. 11. 12 Russian Fairy Tales. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. 2 Nocturnes. 6 Pieces, Op. 7: Nos. 1, 5, 6. Forces of Love and Sorcery: Divertissement. Humoresque Viennoise. Lumière Noire. Musique pour la fête de la patronne. / Elan Sicroff, pno / Nimbus Alliance NI6409

de Hartmann & Kandinsky 1911

De Hartmann, far right, and Kandinsky, sitting on the bucket in front. The others are identified in the lower left-hand corner.

Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956) is one of those shadowy figures in classical music. His name is bandied about because of his relationship with Vassily Kandinsky, the famed synesthesia painter, and his mid-1910s publication The Blue Rider in which he encouraged famous composers to contribute works, but his music is often unheard and unknown. Pianist Elan Sicroff was lucky enough to have met and worked with de Hartmann’s widow in the 1970s and gave concerts of his music in the early 1980s. These recordings, made in 2016, have been licensed by Nimbus from the “Wyastone estate,” but there is no indication whether or not these are all first recordings.

A friend of the Theosophist mystic George Gurdjieff, de Hartmann  began as a Romantic (he studied composition with Anton Arensky). I’ve heard that his orchestral music (he wrote four symphonies) is more modern, but trying to find recordings of them—even live recordings, one-time performances—is difficult. He apparently went from “hero to zero” even during his lifetime; by the time he died, his music was marginalized by the classical establishment.

Elan Sicroff

Elan Sicroff

Yet although de Hartmann himself was not a synethesiac, his music appealed greatly to Kandinsky, who heard a great many colors in it. Many of the pieces on this 2-CD set are actually quite good, i.e. the “Impromptu” of the 3 Morceau and “Verlioka the Monster” in the 12 Russian Fairy Tales—in fact, many of the Fairy Tales are indeed imaginative and interesting (I especially liked “Baba Yaga the Witch Goes Galloping Through the Forest”)—and Sicroff is a fine pianist who brings out the best in each work on this set.

Indeed, I found that de Hartmann’s music falls into two categories: the early pieces from 1899 to about 1910, which are ultra-Romantic, and the works written from 1937 onward, which are nearly as creative and original as those of his contemporary Nikolai Medtner (but less technically difficult to play). The 1915 Divertissements lay somewhere in between these two worlds. The Piano Sonata No. 1 from 1942 even seemed, in addition to pentatonic scales, to contain some neo-Classical devices borrowed from Stravinsky, and by the time you reach the 2 Nocturnes of 1953, de Hartmann is really on a strange space trip. In the second of these, subtitled “The banality of life that cannot be conquered by man,” he even indulges in some “backwards” rhythms that seem to syncopate against one another. Beam me up, Scotty!

The Humoresque from 1931, subtitled Hommage à Johann Strauss, picks apart, transposes and reorganizes elements of that composer’s Blue Danube Waltz, shifting it to a 4/4 ragtime-jazz rhythm. Again, something weird, but not as bizarre as his Lumière noire from 1945, which is already an advance on the 1942 Piano Sonata No. 1 and a step towards the “spacey” music of his later years. There are also some jazz syncopations in the third piece of the Lumière noire, titled “Allegro giocoso e molto ritmico.” Also quirky, and interesting, are the “dance” pieces in his 1947 Musique pour la fête de la patronne (after Dégas), little atonal gems.

We end this particular excursion into de Hartmann’s music with his second Piano Sonata of 1951, another piece using pentatonic scales but this time shifting them harmonically both upwards and downwards. I really wonder if de Hartmann was thinking in terms of a sonata when he wrote these pieces, as their form is more that of a free fantasia, with themes that are juxtaposed rather than developed.

Nonetheless. this is a fine introduction to de Hartmann’s music and a valuable contribution to the history of 20th-century music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “The Piano Music of de Hartmann

  1. Pingback: The Piano – The Thomas de Hartmann Project

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