Gurdjieff International Review
nnette Herter was born in France and moved to the United States in 1924 where she later established “The American Conservatory of Music, Drama and Dance.” After meeting Gurdjieff, she began to play piano for Movements classes. She was an active member of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception until her death in 1970.
Annette Herter, I think one could safely say, was an “original.” She was a woman of great intensity, immense warmth, and the capacity for a kind of gruff contrariety and impatience with mediocrity that could be truly frightening for the small group of young men clustered around her, wishing to imbibe her wisdom of experience in playing the music for the classes of the Gurdjieff movements, the Gurdjieff piano music, as well, indeed, as in her closeness to the Gurdjieff teaching itself.
My knowledge about her earlier life is limited. She was at one time a student of the Jaques-Dalcroze school with its fascinating approach to music, rhythm, and bodily movement, expressed in the dance-form known as Eurythmics. As long as I knew her, she was obliged to walk with a cane. I never knew whether this was because of illness or injury, but it only reinforced her image as a woman of fierce determination, complete absence of self-pity or self-indulgence, and a passionate devotion to the Gurdjieff teaching, the movements, and the person of Mr. Gurdjieff himself.
My understanding is that because her physical disability precluded her participation in any dance-form, she had made it her mission instead to become a perfect musician to accompany the movements. In this I have the impression she was almost completely self-taught—not only in piano playing, but also in improvisation; she devoured the text-book on harmony of Rimsky-Korsakov. I was never a piano pupil of hers but was told by friends who studied with her that she was relentlessly exacting.
I can say with absolute assurance that in spite of her so-called amateur status, she accompanied the movements more perfectly, skillfully, and sensitively than anyone I have ever heard. Her sense of the relationship of sound to movement seemed impeccable. While improvising, she stayed within the parameters set by Thomas de Hartmann, the pre-eminent composer for the movements, her taste and judgment were nonetheless unfailing.
In the classes of Gurdjieff movements held in New York, she collaborated for years with her one-time fellow Dalcroze student, Jessmin Howarth, whose mastery as a teacher of the movements has rarely been rivaled. Annette’s attention to the class from the vantage point of the piano was keenly perceptive. She would even at times gesture a correction of position to a member of the class with one hand while continuing to play with the other, so dedicated was she to the need for complete accuracy in the performance of these sacred dances. In fact, I remember a class in which I was a pupil when Annette’s energetic signaling of a correction to someone in the front row so exasperated Jessmin Howarth that she strode to the piano and indignantly cried out, “Annette, is this my class or yours?” The tension was immediately dispelled by a chuckle that rippled through the class.
The demands Annette Herter made on all of us young pianists were formidable. She was insistent that the spirit of the playing, whether performing existing compositions or improvising for movements exercises, be perfectly matched to the character, weight, and dynamic of the physical movement. Her criticism could be excoriating when one failed, but she was totally touched and pleased when we would produce even a phrase that blended perfectly with a gesture. Behind her frequently terrifying mien, she “loved her boys.” The censure or praise was all completely impersonal and related only to her profound wish that what was intended by the movement be perfectly realized in its musical counterpart.
I could relate one incident in which I confess to an almost inexcusable naughtiness. Mrs. Herter’s almost dogmatic opinion about exactly how the Gurdjieff music should be played certainly daunted us all. She would sit with her left hand leaning on her cane and with eyes gazing upward, conducting with her right hand her conception of the music as we played, often scowling and growling when the interpretation did not agree with hers. When it was my turn I decided, probably unforgivably, to play her game. I watched her carefully out of the corner of my eye and adapted my playing exactly to her conducting. I slavishly followed every movement of her arm. It was as though she herself were playing. As the music progressed, a smile gradually came over her face, and when the piece had ended, she turned to my classmates and announced, “Now that, gentlemen, was piano playing!”
To work with this powerful, devoted, imperious, sometimes cantankerous but essentially affectionate woman was an honor and an unforgettable experience for those of us who came under her magisterial influence. □
Composer and pianist Laurence Rosenthal has studied the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music for many years.
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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 15, 2020