Together with Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian (1903 – 1978) is considered one of the three giants of Soviet music, albeit the most conservative for he wrote colourful, evocative and unashamedly tuneful music with a broad popular appeal. His background proved crucial to his musical career. He was born to Armenian parents in the cosmopolitan capital of Tiblisi (in Georgia), a vibrant melting pot of Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and Turkish cultures which strongly influenced his music.
Khachaturian became an important figure of the emerging multi-national Soviet identity in a musical culture that was dominated by the Russian masters. Even the most remote republics were encouraged to set up their own conservatories and opera houses and to write politically correct music. Where there was no local capacity, composers were imported from elsewhere; for instance, Reinhold Glière (a Russian) wrote the first Azerbaijani opera and Sergei Balasnyan, an Armenian from Turkmenistan, became the Tadzik national composer. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” as the saying goes; for Armenian music it was Aram Khachaturian.
Musically, Khachaturian was a late starter and was largely self-taught. On the suggestion of his brother, he started formal musical studies when the family moved to Moscow in 1920: firstly cello, and then composition at the Gnessin School while studying Biology at the Moscow State University. He entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1929 where he studied composition under Myaskovsky, graduating in 1934 with his first symphony.
On meeting Nina Marakova for the first time (a fellow student in Myaskovsky’s class), Khachaturian exclaimed that “happiness walked in” and in 1933 they married. Happiness (Schast’ e) would become the title of his first ballet in 1939, the story set on an Armenian collective farm in the Ararat valley close to the Turkish border.
It is not difficult to see why the ballet Happiness bombed and fell into obscurity. The libretto tries to depict “the theme of labour, the defence of the country, the patriotism of the Soviet people” (which is about as far away as you can get from the ballets of Tchaikovsky). Khachaturian worked hard to imbue this farrago with some local colour by using Armenian, Georgian, Ukrainian and Russian folksongs and dances. But no amount of inventiveness could carry such a vestigial plot which ends with a clunking “chorus of collective farmers and border guards praising the socialist homeland”.
Khachaturian reworked most of this material for his second ballet, Gayane, composed in 1942 during his evacuation with the Kirov ballet to safety in the city of Perm. This was a far more successful project and it had something resembling a plot. It is set in a Georgian farm collective; the heroine Gayane is married to a drunken and treacherous loafer whose villainy is finally unmasked but not before Gayane falls for the handsome Red Army commander Kazakov, “a symbol of the idea of friendship of the Russian and Armenian peoples”.
A measure of the libretto is given by the descriptive titles used for the scenes, such as Gathering of the Cotton, Embroidering of the Carpets and Dance of the Old Men and Carpet Weavers. The colourful music does have a vibrant and instant appeal and contains many catchy melodies based on Armenian folk music. The vivid musical score calls for an Armenian drum (the daira) with the orchestra providing the sounds of other regional instruments such as the duduk (bagpipe), the sas (mandolin) and the kamancha (cello). Energy abounds throughout, not least in the frenetic, barnstorming and exhilarating Sabre Dance (a Kurdish war dance) which has since become one of the signature pieces of 20th century music and has been widely copied and adapted in popular culture. Equally striking is the rowdy, almost bacchanalian Mountaineers’ Dance with its exotic, shrill melody.
Khachaturian sealed the popularity of the music by producing three orchestral suites and it is through these that Gayane is known today. In 1957 he reluctantly revised about a third of the ballet score for a new production at the Bolshoi Theatre. The new libretto contained a drastically altered plot which reflected the changing political climate during the Cold War. The action is relocated to a mountain village in the Caucasus where the inhabitants struggle, not with foreign saboteurs and spies, but with nature (wind! storms! … and bears!) and each other (love! lust! … and jealousy!). The titles of the scenes were also changed (eg. Friendship, Regaining Health, Jealousy and Repentance). Small wonder that Khachaturian described working on the revisions as “terribly unpleasant and dirty work”. It is however this 1957 version that has become the standard performing edition for the ballet.
His popularity notwithstanding, Khachaturian did not escape the censure of the Soviet authorities. Originating with ideas of the author Maxim Gorky, the only movement in Soviet arts was one of so-called “socialist realism” and Khachaturian (like other composers) was expected to write programme music which was optimistic and socialist in nature, rooted in folk melodies and containing a happy ending which praised the state. It didn’t help that Jozef Stalin himself took an active interest in music; in spite of his busy career from gangster and thug to one of history’s most notorious mass murderers, he is reputed to have had a fine singing voice and liked to comment on pieces of music and to suggest revisions. Khachaturian, like everyone else, knuckled under.
It therefore came as a shock in 1948 when the leading composers of day, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian, were denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party under Andrei Zhdanov for ‘formalism’ – music perceived to be “reminiscent of the spirit of contemporary modernistic bourgeois music of Europe and America”.
Together the composers wrote a grovelling letter of apology to Stalin in which they thanked him for the public rebuke and promised to mend their ways. But the damage was done and Soviet music went into hibernation. The fear of reprisals is said to have hastened the death of Khachaturian’s teacher Myaskovsky and Khachaturian himself was sent to Armenia ‘in exile’. The ailing Prokofiev had further troubles heaped upon him when in the same year his wife was sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour for the heinous crime of sending money to her mother in Spain.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Khachaturian and others in the All-Union Congress of Composers sought greater musical freedom and in 1958, a party decree formally exonerated the composers mentioned in the 1948 denunciation. By then, Khachaturian was a spent force; following the huge success of his ballet Spartacus (1954), he wrote little else of note and concentrated instead on conducting and teaching.
The Russian conductor Alexander Lazarev tells a colourful story about the middle-aged Khachaturian visiting Salvador Dalí at his castle in Púbol in Spain. He was kept waiting for the eccentric artist, during which time he helped himself to generous quantities of cognac. Being caught short and unable to find a bathroom, he was relieving himself in an ornamental vase when Dalí burst into the room, naked, riding a mop and brandishing a sabre, all to the strains of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.
It’s an amusing story but is almost certainly apocryphal; a version also appears in the novelette The Sabre Dance by Mikhail Veller. Compared to the libretto of the ballet Happiness, the story does however have the advantage of being somewhat more plausible.
Published 8 July 2015 on primephonic