Aram Il’yich Khachaturian (/ˈærəm ˌkɑːtʃəˈtʊəriən/; Russian: Арам Ильич Хачатурян; Armenian: Արամ Խաչատրյան, Aram Xačatryan;[A] Armenian pronunciation: [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.”
During most of his career, Khachaturian was 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. After 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 music, 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”.
Denunciation and restoration (1948)
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” 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.”
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).