G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff and Music

Laurence Rosenthal

That Gurdjieff was a composer of music is in itself a remarkable fact. A spiritual master who, in addition to the main body of his teaching, has created forms of art which can be viewed as essential expressions of that teaching is certainly a rare phenomenon. Gurdjieff’s sacred dances, or Movements, and the two hundred or so musical compositions he left attest to the importance he attached both to disciplined bodily movement and to the vibrations of sound in relation to spiritual practice.

Gurdjieff’s views on the subject of music, and indeed on art in general, stem from his differentiation between what he terms subjective and objective art. Most of the music we know, he says, is subjective. Only objective music is based on an exact knowledge of the mathematical laws that govern the vibration of sounds and the relationship of tones.

In either case, the particular configuration of sounds will evoke a response in the human psyche in which the relation of the tones and their sonic qualities will be translated into some form of inner experience. This phenomenon appears to be based on a precise mathematical relationship between the properties of sound and some aspect of our receptive apparatus.

It is difficult to speak of the response to what could be considered objective art. It would appear to transcend the ordinary associative process which we have all experienced. In most of the music we know, at least within the common experience of a given culture, certain progressions and qualities of tones as well as their combination and spacing in time will evoke in the listener particular sensations and emotions that are shared in common with others. This phenomenon is as undeniable as it is seemingly inexplicable. It must result from a sympathetic resonance activated within the listener which can, moreover, also trigger associations with past experience, even when the connection between the sound and the memory is obscure or unknown. In most art, this power of vibration is used with only partial knowledge of the process and its consequences. Limited by his subjective consciousness, what the artist transmits can produce no more than an equally subjective response.

It is therefore Gurdjieff’s contention that the results of this subjective expression are accidental, and may even produce opposite effects in different people. “There can be no unconscious creative art,” he asserts.

Conversely, objective music is based on a precise and complete knowledge of the mathematics determining the laws of vibration, and will therefore produce a specific and predictable result in the listener. Gurdjieff gives as an example a nonreligious person coming to a monastery. Hearing the music that is sung and played there, the person feels the desire to pray. In this instance, the capacity to bring someone into a higher interior state is given as one of the properties of objective art. The effect, depending on the person, differs only in degree.

In Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff cites another example of the objective power of music, which certainly does not belong to the realm of art as we usually think of it, but shows the capacity of sound to produce a specific, externally visible result. He describes a remarkable old dervish repeatedly striking a certain series of notes on an ordinary grand piano which has been tuned according to a special system. These notes soon produce a boil on the leg of one of the listeners on the exact spot the master had predicted. Shortly thereafter, a different series of notes quickly makes the boil disappear. On another scale, could we consider the possibility that the legendary destruction of the walls of Jericho may be not simply an imaginative tale of miraculous events? Perhaps the specific properties and potency of sound vibrations were known to Joshua.

What is paramount, then, in objective music is the exactness of its intention and the mastery of means to realize that intention. All the arts, according to Gurdjieff, were in ancient times related to the laws of mathematics and served as repositories of higher knowledge about man and the cosmos, encoded in various forms and thus preserved from later distortion. Even if the inner meaning were for periods of time forgotten, the “text” remained intact, the essence within waiting to be rediscovered.

This view of art is reflected in the cosmological side of Gurdjieff’s teaching, and especially in his use of the musical scale as a model of the universe, mirroring the two great laws which govern all cosmic processes. The form of music is seen as a microcosm, expressing on the scale of sound perceivable by the human ear the same dynamics that comprise all cosmic movement.

Thus the law of three with its positive, negative, and reconciling forces is echoed in the triadic structures of music, in which combinations of three tones constantly give birth to new combinations, with certain tones in common. Moreover, the law of seven, manifesting in a chain of octaves stretching like a cosmic ladder down from the ultimate source of Creation through increasingly dense orders of being, presents the specific form of the major scale in music, with its succession of tones and semitones. The semitones form the “intervals” that block or deflect the progression of any process and which require new sources of energy in order to be bridged, allowing evolutionary movement to continue. The subtle vibrancy of the “energy field” that exists between mi and fa and between si and do is palpable to any sensitive musician.

Thus it seems clear that in Gurdjieff’s view the mere enjoyment of pleasant musical sounds, however serious and exalted, does not even remotely approach the ultimate function of music as a science as well as an art, as a kind of diagram of higher knowledge, and as a possible food for human growth and evolution. It was principally in the East that Gurdjieff discovered art fulfilling this original and sacred purpose, the embodiment of truth. Ancient Eastern art could be read like a script. It was not for liking or disliking, he said, but for understanding.

However, to the average Westerner, even with a degree of musical cultivation, much Eastern music seems, at best, exotic, sometimes aurally attractive, but finally monotonous and impenetrable. We don’t understand what most of this music “is about” in the same way we seem to be able to receive the “content” of a symphony of Beethoven, a lied of Schubert, or a simple folk tune. Gurdjieff reminds us that although the octave is universal, in Eastern music it may be divided in ways quite strange to us. Between the fundamental note and the octave above there may be as few as four and as many as forty-eight subdivisions. With our Western conditioning, our perceptions are limited by seven-tone diatonic scales and the equidistant twelve-tone chromatic structure of the tempered scale, as on a piano keyboard. Can oriental music, with its microtonal gradations, ever sound anything but out-of-tune to most of us, even though we are told that those very nuances can evoke remote feelings that our “adjusted” scale is powerless to reach? Is it possible for even a great avant-garde jazz drummer to encompass the formidable rhythmic complexities in an improvisation on an Indian tala?1 On the other hand, can the subtleties in a harmonic progression of Debussy ever speak to an Armenian ashokh?

Perhaps not. It is of course true that a Westerner of particular sensitivity and openness may find in certain examples of Eastern music a quality that strongly persuades him that something profound is there to be understood, however much the specific language eludes him and prevents him from “reading the script.” The deep, triadic chanting of Tibetan monks, the heavy-breathed guttural crescendo of the Sufi zikr, the sliding, glottal vocal sounds that accompany a Noh drama, all are forms of music which may produce not only sense impressions but corresponding feelings that seem new. This unprecedented response may last for a while, but still the question persists: If the final impression remains that of a somewhat vague emotional and sensory experience, if we cannot, with the intelligence of the ear, follow the musical “syntax” just as we follow the progression from dominant to tonic, has the music been wholly received?

It thus appears that cultural barriers may impede the communication of higher knowledge in the form of art. Perhaps, however, there is a channel through which the pursuit of this knowledge is still possible for us. Might we not search within our Western heritage and tradition for examples of music which could be said to approach Gurdjieff’s definition of objective art? What of the purity and precision of Ambrosian and Gregorian chant, with its curving filament of unadorned melody, set in strict modes of specific inner reference, often seeming to echo its Eastern sources? Or perhaps we must look to the enigmatic Organum of the Notre-Dame school, or to Jakob Obrecht, a fifteenth-century Flemish master, composing a vocal Mass that expresses the permutations of the number three. Could we consider the Leipzig Choral Preludes or the Art of the Fugue, in which J. S. Bach explores the arcane mysteries of counterpoint within a serene and contemplative shell? Or is there perhaps, concealed beneath the silken, deceptively blithe surface of a Mozart quintet, an understanding of the secret by which combinations of tones, intervals, and rhythms can touch in the human heart certain emotions of which no verbal descriptions exist?

Questions like these become especially relevant when we try to assess Gurdjieff’s ideas about art and relate them to the music of his own composition. Of course, the very purpose of Gurdjieff’s music and even the conditions in which it was created could have some bearing on how it may be viewed. Its origins, certainly unique, have been described elsewhere, but it may be well to review them briefly.

Gurdjieff was born and spent his childhood in the heart of a rich ethnic and religious mixture on the border of Russian Armenia and Turkey. His profound questioning about the meaning of human existence, even as a boy, was accompanied by a great sensitivity to the sights and sounds which surrounded him, and particularly to music. His father, to whom he was deeply attached and about whom he has written a very moving chapter in Meetings with Remarkable Men, was by avocation an ashokh, a kind of bard who related in song and verse many of the ancient legends of his people. This may well have been Gurdjieff’s earliest musical impression and influence. Later, as a young student, he sang in the Russian Orthodox Church choir. Beyond that, he seems to have had little or no musical training. However, his extraordinary receptiveness to the many kinds of indigenous music absorbed in his youth and his later travels is made abundantly clear in his own compositions. They echo all manner of folk songs and dances, religious chants of various holy orders, as well as the sacred choral music he heard in temples and monasteries in Egypt, throughout central Asia, and as far as Tibet. As to his own instrumental capabilities, they appear to have been modest, including the guitar and the keyboard in the form of a small harmonium, played by one hand and pumped with air by the other.

Gurdjieff’s association with the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann is well known. The young de Hartmann, in search of a spiritual teaching, came to Gurdjieff in 1916 and soon became his disciple. Since Gurdjieff was in no sense a trained composer, de Hartmann also became the ideal instrument for the expression of Gurdjieff’s musical thoughts. He began by harmonizing, developing, and fully realizing Gurdjieff’s music for the sacred dances, or Movements, which were an integral part of Gurdjieff’s teaching. Some years later, de Hartmann collaborated in a similar way on Gurdjieff’s musical works that were independent of the Movements. Amazingly, these latter pieces, very considerable in number, were almost all composed between 1925 and 1927 at the Prieuré in Fontainebleau, France, where Gurdjieff had, a few years earlier, established his Institute. In 1927, this musical work came to an end and Gurdjieff never composed again.

The importance of de Hartmann’s contribution cannot be overemphasized. In fact, one may ask whether Gurdjieff’s musical ideas would ever have emerged as we know them without de Hartmann’s devoted collaboration. And yet, a close study of Gurdjieff’s music, especially when it is compared with de Hartmann’s own very sizable musical output—before, during, and after his association with Gurdjieff—makes it quite clear that the true source of Gurdjieff’s music was Gurdjieff himself. Of course, de Hartmann was possessed of a refined and sophisticated musical mind and employed it most admirably in this collaboration. But his sense of Gurdjieff’s purpose was so keen that he could sublimate his own creative nature for the sake of the task, while fully preserving his acute musical instincts. However elegantly and appropriately he harmonized and developed the melodies dictated to him by Gurdjieff, it is obvious that the essential musical impulse and the unique quality of feeling which the music evokes came from one man only. De Hartmann’s draft of each composition was played to Gurdjieff and often extensively revised until Gurdjieff was satisfied that his intentions had been realized.

De Hartmann was always completely modest and self-effacing about his role in this collaboration, as is evident in his remarkable description of the process of composition with Gurdjieff:

The catching and noting down in general of all the music of Georgi Ivanovitch usually happened in the evening, either in the big salon of the Prieuré house or in the Study House. From my room I usually heard when G. I. began to play, and taking my music paper I had to rush downstairs. All the people came soon, and the music dictation was always in front of everybody.

It was not easy to note down. Having listened to him playing a melody at a feverish pace, I had to scribble at once on paper the twisting musical inversions, sometimes a repetition of just two notes. But in what rhythm? How to make the accentuation? The flow of melody could not at times be stopped or divided by bar-lines. And the harmony on which the melody was built was an Eastern harmony, which I only gradually recognized.

Often—to torment me, I think—he would begin to repeat the melody before I had finished my notation, and these repetitions were very often new variations with subtle differences which drove me to despair. Of course this process was never just a matter of simple dictation, but always a personal exercise for me to “catch and grasp” the essential character, the very noyau or kernel of the melody.

After the melody was given, Georgi Ivanovitch would tap on the lid of the piano a rhythm on which to build the bass accompaniment. Then I had to perform at once what had been given, improvising the harmony as I went.

Very soon after I began this work with Georgi Ivanovitch, I came to understand that no free harmonization of the music was possible. The genuine true character of the music is so typical, so in itself, that any invented embellishments would only destroy the absolutely individual essence of every melody.2

The external form of Gurdjieff’s music is for the most part simple, direct, and modest. The pieces are generally short. They lack any pretension to elaborate formal construction; their shapes often follow traditional modes. But they may also turn in unexpected directions, allowing the musical elements to seek their own unique resolution. The music is all composed for the piano, although it reveals a minimum of typical pianistic figuration. The general style or idiom could be described as a particular blending of Eastern and Western elements, the oriental modes modified by the tempered scale, while the more European pieces are often infused with a degree of Near Eastern color.

These combined qualities seem to produce a certain immediacy and accessibility in the music. On the other hand, its external simplicity can be deceptive. Curiously, listeners without musical training or even not possessing much essential musicality often respond much more directly and positively to Gurdjieff’s music than a professional musician or composer, especially when hearing it for the first time. The question of the listener’s conditioning is critical here, since it is relevant to the intent of the music, and what aspect of it is received. The musically literate listener is far more likely to notice the technical elements that constitute these pieces, draw immediate and facile comparisons, and thus assign the music to a category to which it has, in fact, little connection. Let us examine for a moment these elements.

Quite naturally, the melodies and rhythms of Gurdjieff’s music echo, as was said earlier, the sounds among which he grew up. The sources, quite rich and varied, include the folk tunes and dances of Armenia, the songs of the Persians and Kurds, the rhythms of the Turks, the chants of the Sayyids and the Dervishes, the liturgy of the Orthodox church, and other traditional forms.

The idioms of these sources are in fact quite various. For example, Armenian songs and dances were often played by folk-orchestras with simple, characteristic harmonizations very naturally integrated with the melodies. These songs, full of humanity and warmth, are often performed by mixed men’s and women’s voices. In marked contrast, the music of the Orthodox church, also choral but often entirely male and unaccompanied by instruments, is harmonized with triads and basic chords of the seventh, at once rich and austere.

But when we come to the great body of music of the Near East and central Asia which influenced Gurdjieff’s musical language so intensely, we see an essentially monophonic form: the melody appears without harmonic underpinning. Its only accompaniment may be either a persistent drone (pedal-point or organ-point), a rhythm of percussion, or sometimes both. Harmony, the most obvious feature of most Western music, is nonexistent.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this source of folk and religious music interested many Russian composers, especially those of the nationalist school. In the case of the folk music, they were no doubt attracted by what was for them the exotic coloration of the melodies, cast in unusual modes, especially employing intervals like the augmented second in a manner quite different from Western classical music. This attraction resulted in a fairly large number of compositions, some for full orchestra, which became very well known to Western audiences. The basic technique in these adaptations involved attaching Western harmonies to melodies in a kind of oriental mode. The form of the Eastern prototypes from which these melodies were derived had to be modified, not only rhythmically for orchestral performance, but in tuning so that they could accommodate chords and progressions in the tempered scale.

One could say that this was exactly the method employed by Thomas de Hartmann in realizing Gurdjieff’s melodies. The listener with a practiced ear is very likely to be struck immediately by this apparent relationship to the familiar Russian repertoire, and that very association, coupled with certain aesthetic judgments, may deter him from a deeper investigation. Further confusing the matter, the occasional eccentricity of harmonic progression, contrapuntal method, or rhythmic correspondence in the Gurdjieff music could prove unsettling, precisely because it contradicts any easy association with what is perceived as the model.

Here, of course, we are approaching the zone of subjective response, with its inherent hazards. A cursory review of the Gurdjieff music may produce a limited and somewhat automatic reaction, whereas a more intensive study could create quite another impression. One might begin to see that the similarity to Russian folklorism is superficial indeed, and that the intent of this music is in another realm. In fact, it is perhaps at this crucial point that we may be confronted by the elusive secret, the enigma of Gurdjieff’s music. How is it that these everyday musical “words,” these conventional melodies and harmonies, seem to reflect a world so much deeper and more unknown than their ordinariness would suggest? To gain a perspective on this question, a brief survey of the music itself may be helpful.

We can divide Gurdjieff’s entire musical output (apart from the music for Movements) into three general categories of which, in fact, the folk-derived pieces are only one, the simplest. Their tone, however, covers a wide range of feeling, sometimes inward and tranquil, sometimes full of charm and vitality, and in a few instances in major keys, highly charged with exhilaration.

The second group includes chants and dances of the Dervishes and Sayyids. These are more subjective, personal, more deeply emotional. The most typical form in which they are cast is in two parts. First a song, an expression of intimate feeling, often tinged with great sadness. However, these chants, emotionally expressive as they are, never lean even slightly toward the sentimental or self-pitying, but are marked by a great sense of dignity and restraint. Then, in the second part, this quality of feeling is put aside as a dance begins, more outward and with a clear rhythmic pulse. Something of the tone of the first part may subtly linger, but that mood has in essence been abandoned or perhaps resolved in the dance. Even when not set in this two-part form, the Sayyids and Dervishes have the same feeling of inwardness, whether expressed in touching melancholy or in dynamic, powerfully concentrated Dervish dance-movements. These dances are often set in one of the pungent oriental scales like the Turkish Hejaz mode, and are structured on simple, forceful rhythmic patterns such as:

Although there are many pieces in the first two categories that are truly memorable and moving, it is in the third category that Gurdjieff’s music establishes its unquestionable uniqueness. This is comprised of the sacred hymns and prayers. These pieces are cast in no typical form. Each one is a thing unto itself. Here questions of style and idiom seem to pale to the point of irrelevance in the face of the depth and force of the feeling the music evokes.

As was mentioned earlier, Gurdjieff’s hymns and prayers are said to echo the music he heard in remote temples and monasteries of central Asia. Exactly what could be the relationship of such music to Gurdjieff’s own compositions is impossible to guess. In any case, the term “hymn” must here be interpreted in the broadest sense. The sacred hymns and what he called temple hymns are not bound by any conventional structure. They often possess highly evocative titles such as “Easter Night Procession,” “Prayer and Despair,” and “Holy Affirming, Holy Denying, Holy Reconciling.” But the music of these hymns is never merely descriptive or illustrative. Anything typical or folkloristic has been left far behind. Each hymn, each prayer, is an interior journey, a search, an inner vision, a state. The language remains essentially simple. The melody may trace a long arc with the plainest of accompaniments, suggesting voices or stringed instruments. Or it may be fragmentary, with dissonant, bell-like interjections. Sometimes the hymn is entirely chordal, with powerful progressions of intense and poignant harmonies, often surprising, or ending unexpectedly on an unresolved sound, a questioning combination of notes, far from the reassuring tonic.

Somehow, the special nature of these hymns and prayers, their seeming to speak of another quality of being, their capacity to express simultaneously depths of joy and sorrow, of searching and questioning, establishes a level of musical expression which transcends the simplicity of its speech. In addition, the inner content of these pieces may shed a new light on the Sayyid and Dervish music and also on the songs and dances of Asia. These may now emerge as more than they had appeared. Many of the lightest of the folk-like pieces will take on a certain gravity and inner resonance that was not perceived on first hearing.

What can we consider to be the purpose of Gurdjieff’s music? Perhaps it is related to man’s work on himself, what Gurdjieff called “harmonious development.” He offered food for the growth of a man’s being through the different sides of his nature: ideas for the mind, special exercises and dances for the body and mind together, and music as a way to awaken a sensitivity in the feelings, to arouse in the deeper level of the listener’s interior world questions and intimations beyond words. And perhaps, in dissolving the barriers created by associations and conditioning, these sounds could bring the listener into closer contact with his own essential nature.

From the point of view of a musician, one must say that the Gurdjieff music defies definition. Its essential simplicity of language is difficult to relate to the complexities of the Gurdjieffian cosmology in any literal way. And it seems, in fact, impossible to compare it to almost any known music in a way that illuminates its special quality. One can find examples—not too numerous—both Eastern and Western, in which music of the greatest profundity and sublimity is composed of a bafflingly simple combination of elements. Gurdjieff’s music—the greatest of it—may indeed belong to this rare type.

It is true that in some of his pieces the form seems awkward. The harmony is occasionally underdeveloped or naïve, and the melody—even if it begins with a striking idea—may lose itself in a series of phrases in which its direction and shape become obscure. But these flaws do little to diminish the astounding power of Gurdjieff’s voice. It is the consistency and objectivity of his essential tone that is so compelling. Whether in a delicate dance, a soulful song, or an uncompromisingly stark hymn, one hears always his call to return to and confront one’s inmost being.

In his own recorded improvisations on the harmonium we witness perhaps the most profoundly touching example of Gurdjieff’s musical nature, reduced to its very essence. Through the primitive recordings come high, nasal, wheezing sounds. One feels with certainty that he plays directly from the heart. “It is a prayer,” he says. The form could not be simpler. With the right hand alone he plays descending thirds very slowly in a minor key, with characteristic suspensions, resolving, suspending, resolving. The harmony echoes the music of the Armenian ashokhs he heard as a boy. The line climbs up, descends again slowly, by degree. Time seems suspended. There is no recognizable pulse. The inner octaves can almost be felt in each wavering, hesitating note. Something of the mystery of sound was known to him.


1 A tala is the general name in Indian classical music for the complex traditional rhythmic cycles that underlie the improvisations on the sitar, sarod, or other instruments. The tala of a performance is particularly emphasized by tablas, the pair of hand drums that accompany the sitar or sarod. Eds.

2 Thomas de Hartmann, Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff, Definitive Edition (New York and London: Penguin-Arkana, 1992), adapted from passage in Chapter 25.

Copyright © 1996 Laurence Rosenthal
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Summer 1999 Issue, Vol. II (4)
Revision: June 1, 2019