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Aram Il'yich Khachaturian (/ /; Russian: Арам Ильич Хачатурян; Armenian: Արամ Խաչատրյան, Aram Xačatryan,[A] pronounced [ɑˈɾɑm χɑt͡ʃʰɑt(ə)ɾˈjɑn]; 6 June 1903 – 1 May 1978) was a Soviet Armenian composer and conductor. He is considered one of the leading Soviet composers.
Born and raised in Tbilisi, the multicultural capital of Georgia, Khachaturian moved to Moscow in 1921 following the Sovietization of the Caucasus. Without prior music training, he enrolled in the Gnessin Musical Institute, subsequently studying at the Moscow Conservatory in the class of Nikolai Myaskovsky, among others. His first major work, the Piano Concerto (1936), popularized his name within and outside the Soviet Union. It was followed by the Violin Concerto (1940) and the Cello Concerto (1946). His other significant compositions include the Masquerade Suite (1941), the Anthem of the Armenian SSR (1944), three symphonies (1935, 1943, 1947), and around 25 film scores. Khachaturian is best known for his ballet music—Gayane (1942) and Spartacus (1954). His most popular piece, the "Sabre Dance" from Gayane, has been used extensively in popular culture and has been covered by a number of musicians worldwide. His style is "characterized by colorful harmonies, captivating rhythms, virtuosity, improvisations, and sensuous melodies."
Khachaturian was initially approved by the Soviet government and held several high posts in the Union of Soviet Composers from the late 1930s, although he joined the Communist Party only in 1943. Along with Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, he was officially denounced as a "formalist" and his music dubbed "anti-people" in 1948, but was restored later that year. Since 1950 he taught at the Gnessin Institute and the Moscow Conservatory, and turned to conducting. He traveled to Europe, Latin America and the United States with concerts of his own works. In 1957 Khachaturian became the Secretary of Union of Soviet Composers, a position he held until his death.
Khachaturian was the most renowned Armenian composer of the 20th century and the author of the first Armenian ballet, symphony, concerto, and film score.[B] While following the established musical traditions of Russia, he broadly used Armenian and to lesser extent, Caucasian, Eastern & Central European, and Middle Eastern peoples' folk music in his works. He is highly regarded in Armenia, where he is considered a "national treasure".
Aram Khachaturian was born on 6 June (24 May in Old Style) 1903 in the city of Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi, Georgia) into an Armenian family. Some sources indicate Kojori, a village near Tbilisi (now in Georgia's Gardabani Municipality), as his birthplace. His father, Yeghia (Ilya), was born in the village of Upper Aza near Ordubad in Nakhichevan (present-day Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Azerbaijan) and moved to Tiflis at the age of 13; he owned a bookbinding shop by the age of 25. His mother, Kumash Sarkisovna, was from Lower Aza, also a village near Ordubad. Khachaturian's parents were betrothed before knowing each other, when Kumash was 9 and Yeghia was 19. They had 5 children, one daughter and four sons, of whom Aram was the youngest. Khachaturian received primary education at the Tiflis Commercial School, "a school for aspiring merchants", "where he debated between a career in medicine or engineering".
In the 19th and early 20th centuries and throughout the early Soviet period, Tbilisi (known as Tiflis until 1936) was the largest city and the administrative center of the Caucasus. In Tbilisi, which has historically been multicultural, Khachaturian was exposed to various cultures. The city had a large Armenian population and was a major Armenian cultural center until the Russian Revolution and the following years. In a 1952 article "My Idea of the Folk Element in Music", Khachaturian described the city environment and its influence on his career:
I grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music: popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of the people always accompanied by music, the vivid tunes of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian songs and dances performed by folk bards [ashugs] and musicians — such were the impressions that became deeply engraved on my memory, that determined my musical thinking. They shaped my musical consciousness and lay at the foundations of my artistic personality... Whatever the changes and improvements that took place in my musical taste in later years, their original substance, formed in early childhood in close communion with the people, has always remained the natural soil nourishing all my work.
In 1917, the Bolsheviks rose to power in Russia in the October Revolution. After over two-years of fragile independence, Armenia fell to Soviet rule amid a Turkish invasion from the west in late 1920. Georgia was Sovietized by the spring of 1921. Both countries formally became part of the Soviet Union in December 1922. Khachaturian later wrote that "the October Revolution fundamentally changed my whole life and, if I have really grown into a serious artist, then I am indebted only to the people and the Soviet Government. To this people is dedicated my entire conscious life, as is all my creative work." Khachaturian always remained enthusiastic about communism, and was an atheist. When asked about his visit to the Vatican, Khachaturian responded: "I'm an atheist, but I'm a son of the [Armenian] people who were the first to officially adopt Christianity and thus visiting the Vatican was my duty."
In 1921, the eighteen-year-old Khachaturian moved to Moscow to join his oldest brother, Suren, who had settled in Moscow earlier and was a stage director at the Moscow Art Theatre by the time of his arrival. "Influenced by his brother's work in Moscow, Khachaturian fell under the magic spell of the music world." He enrolled at the Gnessin Musical Institute in 1922, simultaneously studying biology at the Moscow University. He initially studied the cello under Sergei Bychkov and later under Andrey Borysyak. In 1925, Mikhail Gnesin started a composition class at the institute, which Khachaturian joined. He also took lessons from Reinhold Glière. In this period, he wrote his first works: the Dance Suit for violin and piano (1926) and the Poem in C Sharp Minor (1927). Beginning with his earliest works, Khachaturian extensively used Armenian folk music in his compositions. "The Khachaturian of this period was in the position of an eager, intelligent child who has just been given the run of a toyshop [...] Like many other young musicians with fuller cultural backgrounds, Khachaturian discovered music through contemporary music, and only later developed a love of the classics," writes Gerald Abraham.
In 1929, Khachaturian entered the Moscow Conservatory to study composition under Nikolai Myaskovsky and orchestration under Sergei Vasilenko. In 1933, he married the composer Nina Makarova, a fellow student from Myaskovsky's class. He finished the conservatory in 1934 and went on to complete his graduation work in 1936.
His Armenian-influenced First Symphony, which Khachaturian composed as a graduation work from the Moscow Conservatory in 1935, "drew the attention of prominent conductors and was soon performed by the best Soviet orchestras" and was admired by Shostakovich. He began an active creative career upon completing his graduate studies at the conservatory in 1936. He wrote his first major work, the Piano Concerto, that year. It proved to be a success, establishing him as a respected composer in the Soviet Union. It was "played and acclaimed far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union," and "established his name abroad."
His Piano Concerto, along with the two later concertos—the Violin Concerto (1940), for which he won a State Prize (called the Stalin Prize then, the highest artistic award in the Soviet Union), and the Cello Concerto (1946)—are "often considered a kind of a grand cycle." The Violin Concerto "gained international recognition" and became part of the international repertory. It was first performed by David Oistrakh.
Khachaturian held important posts at the Composers' Union, becoming deputy chairman of the Moscow branch in 1937. He subsequently served as the Deputy Chairman of the Organizing Committee (Orgkom) of the Union between 1939 and 1948. He joined the Communist Party in 1943. "Throughout the early and mid-1940s, Khachaturian used that position to help shape Soviet music, always stressing but technically masterful composition. In fact, in his memoirs he reported pride about leading an institution that organized creative work in many musical genres and especially in all Soviet republics."
The years preceding and following World War II proved to be very productive for Khachaturian. In 1939 Khachaturian made a six-month trip to his native Armenia "to make a thorough study of Armenian musical folklore and to collect folk-song and dance tunes" for his first ballet, Happiness which he completed in the same year. "His communion with Armenia's national culture and musical practice proved for him as he put it himself, 'a second conservatoire'. He learned a lot, saw and heard many things anew, and at the same time he had an insight into the tastes and artistic requirements of the Armenian people." In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, he reworked it into the ballet Gayane. It was first performed by the Kirov Ballet (today known as Mariinsky Ballet) in Perm, while Leningrad was under siege. It was a great success that earned Khachaturian a Soviet State Prize.
He composed the Second Symphony (1943) on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the October Revolution and incidental music to Masquerade (1944), "a symphonic suite in the tradition of lavish classical Russian music", on Mikhail Lermontov's same name play. Both the ballet Gayane and the Second Symphony were "successful and were warmly praised by Shostakovich." In 1944, Khachaturian composed the largely symbolic Anthem of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.
In mid-December 1947, the Department for Agitation and Propaganda (better known as Agitprop) submitted to Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee, a document on the "shortcomings" of in the development of Soviet music. On 10–13 January 1948, a conference was held at the Kremlin in the presence of seventy musicians, composers, conductors and others who were confronted by Zhdanov:
We will consider that if these comrades [Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Khachaturian, Kabalevsky and Shebalin namely who are the principal and leading figures of the formalist direction in music. And that direction is fundamentally incorrect.
Thus, Khachaturian and other leading composers were denounced by the Communist Party as followers of the alleged formalism (i.e. "[a type of] music that was considered too advanced or difficult for the masses to enjoy") and their music was dubbed "anti-people". It was the Symphonic Poem (1947), later titled the Third Symphony, that officially earned Khachaturian the wrath of the Party. Ironically, he wrote the work as a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution. He stated: "I wanted to write the kind of composition in which the public would feel my unwritten program without an announcement. I wanted this work to express the Soviet people's joy and pride in their great and mighty country."
According to Norman Lebrecht, Khachaturian "had done everything the party asked of him. He used folk sources from his ethnic heritage and wrote tunes that anyone could sing - as well as a Song of Stalin that glorified the great leader. His only sin was to have charmed with the West with the excellence of his music." Musicologist Blair Johnston believes that his "music contained few, if any, of the objectionable traits found in the music of some of his more adventuresome colleagues. In retrospect, it was most likely Khachaturian's administrative role in the Union [of Soviet Composers], perceived by the government as a bastion of politically incorrect music, and not his music as such, which earned him a place on the black list of 1948." In March 1948, Khachaturian "made a very full and humble apology for his artistic "errors" following the Zhdanov decree; his musical style, however, underwent no changes." He was sent to Armenia as a "punishment", and continued to be censured. By December 1948, he was "restored to favor later that year when he was praised for his film biography of Lenin"—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (ru).
In 1950, Khachaturian began conducting and started teaching composition at his alma maters—the Gnessin Institute (since 1950), and later at the Moscow Conservatory (since 1951). Some of his notable students include Aziz El-Shawan, Andrei Eshpai, Anatol Vieru, Edgar Hovhannisyan, Mikael Tariverdiev, Mark Minkov, Alexey Rybnikov, Tolib Shakhidi, Georgs Pelēcis, Rostislav Boiko (ru), and Nodar Gabunia (ru). During his career as a university professor, Khachaturian emphasized the role of folk music to his students and instilled the idea that composers should master their nations' folk music heritage.
In 1950, he began working on his third and last ballet, Spartacus (1950–54), which later proved to be his last internationally acclaimed work. He was named People's Artist of the Soviet Union in 1954. In the same year, "he bravely denounced state interference in art, but was immediately forced to recant." He revised Spartacus in 1968.
"Following the success of Spartacus towards the end of the fifties, his remaining years were devoted less to composition, and more to conducting, teaching, bureaucracy and travel." He served as the President of the Soviet Association of Friendship and Cultural Cooperation with Latin American States from 1958 and was a member of the Soviet Peace Committee (since 1962). "He frequently appeared in world forums in the role of champion of an apologist for the Soviet idea of creative orthodoxy." Khachaturian toured with concerts of his own works in around 30 countries, including in all the Eastern Bloc states, Italy (1950), Britain (1955, 1977), Latin America (1957) and the United States (1960, 1968). "In January of 1968 he made a culturally significant trip to Washington, D.C., conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in a program of his own works."
As a conductor, Khachaturian made several commercial recordings, including a 1953 recording of his second symphony with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a 1963 stereo recording of the symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, and EMI recordings of suites from Gayane and Masquerade and his violin concerto in 1954 (with David Oistrakh as soloist) with the Philharmonia Orchestra. He later made stereo recordings of the violin concerto (again with Oistrakh), the second symphony in 1977 on the Russian Disc label, and music from Gayane.
Khachaturian went on to serve again as Secretary of the Composers Union, starting in 1957 until his death. He was also a deputy in the fifth Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (1958–62). In the last two decades of his life, Khachaturian wrote three concert rhapsodies—for violin (1961-2), cello (1963) and piano (1965)—and "solo sonatas for unaccompanied cello, violin, and viola (1970s), considered his second and third instrumental trilogies." "His later works were often criticized as repetitive and eclectic."
Khachaturian died in Moscow on 1 May 1978, just short of his 75th birthday. He was buried at the Komitas Pantheon in Yerevan on 6 May, next to other distinguished Armenians. He was survived by his son, Karen, and daughter, Nune, and his nephew, Karen Khachaturian, also a composer.
Khachaturian's works span a broad range of musical types, including ballets, symphonies, concertos, and film scores. Music critic Edward Greenfield expresses the opinion that Khachaturian "notably outshone other Soviet contemporaries in creating a sharply identifiable style, something which his successors have found impossible to emulate." He composed a great portion of his works in a ten-year span—between 1936 and 1946—preceding and following the Second World War. Despite his formal restoration after the 1948 denunciation, Khachaturian only succeeded in composing one internationally acclaimed work in the last 30 years of his life, the ballet Spartacus.
According to James Bakst what made Khachaturian unique among Soviet composers is "the blending of national Armenian vocal and instrumental intonations with contemporary orchestral techniques." Khachaturian's music is characterized by an active rhythmic development, which reaches either a mere repetition of the basic formula (ostinato) or "a game of emphasis within this formula."
Khachaturian is best known internationally for his ballet music.[C] His second ballet, Gayane, was largely reworked from his first ballet, Happiness. While Spartacus became his most acclaimed work in the post-Stalin period. These two compositions "remain his most successful compositions." According to Jonathan McCollum and Andy Nercessian, his music for these two ballets "can safely be included among the best known pieces of classical music throughout the world, a fact that is vitalized by perception that these are perhaps the only works through that the world really knows Armenian music." Ann Haskins of LA Weekly suggests that he has thus "made an indelible mark on the world of ballet."
Spartacus was popularized when the "Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia" was used as the theme for a popular BBC drama series, The Onedin Line, during the 1970s. The climax of Spartacus was also used in films such as Caligula (1979) and Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006). Joel Coen's The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) also prominently featured music from Spartacus and Gayane (the "Sabre Dance" included). Gayane's "Adagio" was used, among other films, in Stanley Kubrick's iconic futuristic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Khachaturian produced around 25 film scores. Among them Pepo (1935), the first Armenian sound film and Zangezur (1938). In 1950 he was awarded the USSR State Prize (Stalin Prize) for the score of The Battle of Stalingrad (1949).
Musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker describes Khachaturian as the only internationally renowned Soviet composer "who emerged from the nationalist project." James Bakst interpreted Khachaturian's views as follows: "Music is a language created by the people. The people create intonational music forms which reveal at once his national elements of an art work."
Khachaturian is widely known for his use of folk songs of various ethnic groups in his compositions, most notably those of Armenians.[D] Despite not having been born in Armenia, Khachaturian was "essentially an Armenian composer whose music exhibits hits Armenians roots." "[M]any of his compositions evoke an Armenian melodic line. However, his works markedly differed from the conventional orchestrations of folk themes," writes Rouben Paul Adalian. He suggests that Khachaturian's works carry "the vibrant rhythms and stirring pace of Caucasian dance music", but at the same time are "original compositions that reworked that cultural material thorough new instrumentation and according to European musical canons, resulting in a sound unique to the composer." He was particularly influenced by the folk-song collector, musicologist Komitas, and composers Alexander Spendiaryan and Romanos Melikian.[E] Khachaturian acknowledged that Komitas "singlehandedly laid the foundations for Armenia's classical tradition." In a 1969 article about Komitas, Khachaturian called him his "greatest teacher."
His plans to write an opera "on the destiny of the Armenian people, the tragic fate of Armenians scattered all over the world, their suffering and the struggle" never realized and his "Armenian Rhapsody for mouth-organ and orchestra, intended for his close friend Larry Adler and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra" remained uncompleted. "Yet the intention, the spirit, was always there." Khachaturian emphasized his Armenian origin, stating:
No matter how I may waver between various musical languages, I remain an Armenian, but a European Armenian, not an Asian Armenian. Together with other [Armenian composers], we will make all of Europe and the whole world listen to our music. And when they hear our music, people are certain to say, 'Tell us about that people, and show us the country that produces such art.'
During his university years, Khachaturian transcribed Armenian, Russian, Hungarian, Turkish and other folk songs. In his mature works, Khachaturian used elements from folk songs of Caucasian (including, but not limited to Georgians), Eastern European (Ukrainians, Poles) and Middle Eastern (Turks, Kurds) peoples.[F] His first ballet, Happiness, incorporates a Ukrainian gopak, Georgian, Armenian and Russian dances and a Lezginka, an energetic dance of many Caucasian peoples. The Masquerade Suite includes a Mazurka, a Polish folk dance music. The ballet Gayane, like its predecessor, features a Lezginka. Act II of Gayane "is filled with Kurdish dances."
Khachaturian is cited by musicologists as a follower of Russian classical traditions.[G] According to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he "carried forward into the twentieth century the colourful, folk-inspired style of such nineteenth-century Russian composers as Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky." Like the members of The Five, especially Alexander Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, "whose works to some extent served him as a model, Khachaturian drew heavily upon "Eastern" and "Oriental" material in creating compositions in various classical genres and styles of European origin. But Khachaturian's cultural identity and rigorous musical training within the Soviet establishment allowed him to penetrate more deeply to the essence of Eastern and Caucasian music and to incorporate it more fully in his mature work, including the ballets." In contrast to Rimsky-Korsakov's "pseudo-orietnalism", "Khachaturian's Asiatic melismas were the genuine article. He devised all the melodies himself and they sat securely in symphonic compositions." "Never dissociating himself from the traditions of Russian music, he came to be regarded in Moscow as a mouthpiece of the entire Soviet Orient, gathering up all the diverse traditions into a grand generalization," concludes Marina Frolova-Walker.
Khachaturian is generally considered one of the leading composers of the Soviet Union. Alongside Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, he has been generally cited as one the three greatest composers of the Soviet era. As early as 1957 the Time magazine called Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian "the three modern giants [of the Soviet Union]". They are sometimes collectively referred to as the three "titans" of Soviet music. "Whether or not history will support the verdict, Khachaturian in his lifetime ranked as the third most celebrated Soviet composer after Shostakovich and Prokofiev," wrote the music critic Ronald Crichton in 1978. According to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "his works do not enjoy the international reputation that those of" Shostakovich and Prokofiev. With the two aforementioned composers and Dmitry Kabalevsky, Khachaturian "was one of the few Soviet composers to have become known to the wider international public." According to music historian Harlow Robinson, "his proletariat origins, non-Russian ethnic origins and Soviet training [made him] a powerful symbol within the Soviet musical establishment of the ideal of a multinational Soviet cultural identity, an identity which the composer enthusiastically embraced and exploited both at home and abroad." Unlike Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Khachaturian was "entirely a creation of the Soviet musical and dance establishment."
Josef Woodard, writing for the Los Angeles Times, suggests that he has "long [been] considered a lighter-weight participant among 20th century composers," while classic music broadcaster Norman Gilliland describes him as a "major" composer of the 20th century. In a 2003 interview, conductor Marin Alsop expressed the opinion that Khachaturian is "a very underperformed composer and I think somewhat underrated as well." She said, "His music, of course, has a little bit of the edginess of the 20th century sound, the dissonances coming in. But at the same time it marries this beautiful neo-romanticism and lush orchestration and the over-the-top approach, so I think he can be quite relevant these days." According to The Guardian's Tim Ashley
Khachaturian's popularity has dipped of late [in the West], probably because we think of him, post-glasnost, as one of Soviet music's "yes-men". Such a view is simplistic, given that he had a major brush with the authorities in 1948. But it's also easy to see how he acquired his awkward reputation when you hear his Violin Concerto, dating from 1940. It's an immensely attractive work, full of his trademark Armenian folk flourishes, and the swaying, hypnotic Andante is notably beautiful. But the unforced optimism of the outer movements now seems unthinking when we realise it was composed at a time when Stalin was giving Prokofiev and Shostakovich hell."
Khachaturian was the most renowned Armenian composer of the 20th century, and the most famous representative of the Soviet Armenian culture. He has been described as "by far the most important Armenian composer", the "Armenian Tchaikovsky", and "considered by some to be the central figure in 20th-century Armenian culture". He remains the only Armenian composer to rise to international significance.[H] Khachaturian is highly regarded in Armenia and considered a "national treasure". Khachaturian is embraced and celebrated by the Armenian people "as a famous son who earned world-wide recognition."
He had a great influence on the development of the Armenian music in the 20th century. "Naturally, he immediately became an example for young national composers and a hero in Armenia," suggests Maya Pritsker. Khachaturian's influence can be traced in nearly all trends of Armenian classical music traditions (symphonic and chamber), including on Arno Babajanian, a significant Armenian composer of the late Soviet period. His unique symphonic interpretation has influenced Edvard Mirzoyan, Konstantin Orbelyan and others. Khachaturian is credited for bringing Armenian music recognized worldwide. Poet Hamo Sahyan said about Khachaturian: "He became the big denial of our myth of smallness, [he] became the symbol of measuring our small people with the great ones... [He] became our certificate of civilization."
The philharmonic hall of the Yerevan Opera Theater is officially called the Aram Khachaturian Grand Concert Hall since 1978. The House-Museum of Aram Khachaturian in Yerevan was inaugurated in 1982.
Music schools are named after Khachaturian in Tbilisi, Moscow (established in 1967, named after him in 1996), Yerevan, Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Watertown, Massachusetts, US (run by the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society). Streets in Yerevan, Tbilisi, Moscow (ru), Astana (Kazakhstan) and Simferopol (Crimea) are named after Khachaturian.
On 31 July 1999 a three-and-a-half meter high statue of Khachaturian in 19th-century realist style by Yuri Petrosyan was unveiled before the Khachaturian Hall of the Yerevan Opera Theater in attendance of President Robert Kocharyan, Speaker Karen Demirchyan and leading poetess Silva Kaputikyan. A statue of Khachaturian by Georgiy Frangulyan was unveiled in Moscow on 31 October 2006. Notable attendees included Armenian President Kocharyan, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Russia's First Lady Lyudmila Putina. On 30 April 2013, a bust of Khachaturian erected by sculptor Gevorg Gevorgyan was opened in the street named after him in Yerevan's Arabkir district by Yerevan Mayor Taron Margaryan on his 110th anniversary.
In 1998, the Central Bank of Armenia issued 50-dram banknotes depicting Khachaturian's portrait and the Yerevan Opera Theater on the obverse and an episode from the ballet Gayane and Mount Ararat on the reverse. It remained in use until 2004 when it was replaced by a coin. He is the only composer to be depicted on Armenian currency.
In 1983, the Yerevan Studio produced a TV documentary film on Khachaturian. In 2003, a 83-minute-long documentary about Khachaturian with unique footage was directed by Peter Rosen and narrated by Eric Bogosian. The film won the Best Documentary at the 2003 Hollywood Film Festival. In 2004, TV Kultura, Russia's government-owned art channel, made a documentary on Khachaturian entitled Century of Aram Khachaturian (Век Арама Хачатуряна).
In 1993 the festival of symphonic music Aram Khachaturian-93 was held in Yerevan. The Aram Khachaturian International Competition (Արամ Խաչատրյանի անվան միջազգային մրցույթ) is held annually in Yerevan since 2003.
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