Home » Uncategorized » Aram Khachaturian and his “Sabre Danse” from Gayane

Aram Khachaturian and his “Sabre Danse” from Gayane

Aram Ilyich Khachaturian (June 6, 1903 – May 1, 1978) was a Soviet Armenian composer who, along with Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, was one of the three “titans” of Soviet music, and who continued the nationalist tradition of the St. Petersburg school, being known principally for his Piano Concerto and the ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus. Khachaturian was born in Tiflis, Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire, now Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, to a poor Armenian family. His father, Yeghia Khachatryan, was born in Upper Aza village near Ordubad in the Nakhichevan region of the Erivan Governorate; he moved to Tiflis at the age of 13 and became the owner of the bookbinder’s shop at 25. His mother, Kumash Sarkisovna, was from Lower Aza, also a village near Ordubad. Khachaturian’s parents were engaged before knowing each other, when Kumash was 9 and Ilia was 19. They had five children, one daughter and four sons, of whom Aram was the youngest. In his youth, Khachaturian was fascinated by the music he heard around him, but at first he did not study music or learn to read it. Although a tuba player in his school band and a self-taught pianist, he wanted to be a biologist.

In 1920, when Armenia was declared a Soviet republic, Khachaturian joined a propaganda train touring Armenia, populated by Georgian-Armenian artists. The following year, at the age of 19, he travelled to Moscow to join his brother, the stage director of the Second Moscow Art Theatre. Although he had almost no musical education, Khachaturian showed such great talent that he was admitted to the Gnessin Institute as a cellist where he studied cello under Sergey Bychkov, and later Andrey Borysyak. In 1925 Mikhail Gnessin started a composition class at the Gnessin Institute, which Khachaturian joined. In 1929, he transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where he studied composition under Nikolai Myaskovsky and orchestration with Sergei Vasilenko, graduating in 1934 with his First Symphony. In 1933 he married the composer Nina Makarova, a fellow student from Myaskovsky’s class. From earliest years he was fascinated by Armenian folk-music, and ‘oriental’ sounds and melodies, In 1936, his substantial and popular Piano Concerto included Georgian as well as Armenian elements within a lushly romantic framework. Thus, much of his music is deeply rooted in the folklore of his native Armenia as well as drawomg from the sources of Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, Turkmenian and Irano-Azerbaijan national melodies, yet at the same time revealing marked features common to West-European art forms.

Khachaturian held important posts at the Composers’ Union, becoming deputy chairman of the Moscow branch in 1937, then appointed vice-chairman of the Organizing Committee of Soviet Composers in 1939. In 1939 he also composed his ballet Happiness, which was later reworked into the ballet Gayane during World War II. 1940 saw two key works, incidental music for a production of Lermontov’s Masquerade, from which he produced a charming suite evoking the aristocratic world of early 19th century St. Petersburg; and the brilliant and easily accessible Violin Concerto. The composer joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1943, the year of his epic Second Symphony, a vivid chronicle of the struggles of war ending in a rousingly optimistic finale.. However, he temporarily fell from official favor in 1948. That year Andrei Zhdanov, secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, delivered the so-called Zhdanov decree which condemned Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and other Soviet composers as “formalist” and “anti-popular.” It was the Symphonic Poem, later titled the Third Symphony, that officially earned Khachaturian the wrath of the Party. Ironically, Khachaturian wrote the work as a tribute to communism. Perhaps because he did not include a dedication or program notes his intentions backfired. All three were forced to apologize publicly.

Despite this mortifying episode, Khachaturian responded with patriotic works including Ode in Memory of Lenin (1949) and returned to official favor. In 1951, he became professor at the Gnessin State Musical and Pedagogical Institute (Moscow) and the Moscow Conservatory. As a conductor, Khachaturian made several commercial recordings, including a 1953 recording of his second symphony with the National Philharmonic Orchestra. He received numerous state awards both before and after the Zhdanov decree: for example, four Stalin prizes (1941, 1943, 1946 and 1950), one Lenin prize (1959), a USSR State Prize (1971), and the title of Hero of Socialist Labor (1973). Khachaturian went on to serve again as Secretary of the Board of the Composers’ Union, starting in 1957, and was also a deputy in the fifth Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (1958–1962). In his last years he wrote several more concertos, as well as chamber music. Khachaturian died in Moscow on May 1, 1978, just short of his 75th birthday. He was buried in the Komitas Pantheon in Yerevan, along with other distinguished Armenians who made Armenian art accessible for the whole world.

Aram Khachaturian is considered one of the major musicians of the 20th century. His works were often influenced by classical European music and Armenian folk music, spanning a broad range of musical types, including ballets, symphonies, concertos, and numerous film scores. These include concertos for violin, cello, and piano, as well as concerto-rhapsodies for the same instruments. These three concertos were written for the members of a renowned Soviet piano trio that performed together from 1941 until 1963: David Oistrakh, violin; Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, cello; and Lev Oborin, piano. He is most famous for the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from his ballet Spartacus, and for the “Sabre Dance” and the adagio from his ballet Gayane from the same ballet, much used in films and TV series around the world. He also wrote several solo piano works. Khachaturian’s notable students were Aziz El-Shawan, Andrei Eshpai, Vyacheslav Grokhovsky, Mark Minkov, Georgs Pelēcis, Alexey Rybnikov, Tolib Shakhidi, Mikael Tariverdiev, Enrique Ubieta, and Anatol Vieru. Composers who were particularly influenced by Aram Khachaturian include Alexander Arutiunian, Arno Babajanian, Tigran Mansurian, Edgar Hovhannisyan, Edward Manukyan, and Loris Tjeknavorian.

My collection includes the following works by Aran Khachaturian:

Gayane ballet (1942): Highlights, including the Sabre Dance.
Masquerade incidental music (1940): Highlights.
Spartacus ballet (1956): Highlights.
Violin Concerto (1941).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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