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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

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Armenia has had a strong tradition of folk-music and folk-song, harmonically interesting. The most prominent 20th-century Armenian composer has been Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978) whose colourful music, infused with the harmonies and melodies of his native folk-music, achieved international prominence. Michael Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935, see under former U.S.S.R.), though not an Armenian, also incorporated a number of Armenian folk-songs and influences in his music, notably in the Caucasian Sketches and the Armenian Rhapsody. Alexander Arutyunian (born 1920) absorbed Armenian folk-music into his idiom, and his best-known work is probably the innocuous Trumpet Concerto (1949).




KHATCHATURIAN Aram Ilich (also spelt Khachaturian)

born 6th June 1903 at Tiflis

died 1st May 1978 at Moscow


All the talents of Aram Khatchaturian suggest that if he had been born in America rather than the U.S.S.R., he would, with his penchant for bright colours, traditional harmonies and bold tunes, have made a consummate composer in the heyday of that Capitalist counterpart to Soviet Socialist Realism, the Hollywood epic. Indeed, a large proportion of his output was for Soviet films. As it was, one aspect of his art in particular has marked him out from the run of Soviet Socialist composers, and brought a handful of his works an international popularity. His harmonies are coloured by the inflections of Armenian music, and in particular the interval of the minor second and the minor seventh, reflecting Armenian rather than traditional Western scales. This, with his sense of vivid colour and melodious flow, gives his music a touch of exotic piquancy, but it must be said that once one has heard one of Khatchaturian's works one has, to all intents and purposes, heard them all, as a quick comparison with the better-known passages of the ballet Spartacus and the opening of his graduation work, the Symphony No.1 (1933-1934) of two decades earlier, will show.

That symphony, though marred by academic passages that betray Khatchaturian's inexperience, is an attractive and characteristic work, with folk inflections, syncopated rhythms and colourful orchestration. Cheerfully bombastic at times, it also has moments of delicate Romantic lyricism, the impulse of the dance, and an exotic third movement. It was followed by a colourful and technically more assured Piano Concerto (1936), in the grand Romantic virtuoso tradition, saturated with Armenian folk influence, with a memorable use of the flexatone (musical saw) in the lovely slow movement, full of a hushed delight and wonder, and with energy in the outer movements. The Violin Concerto (1940) sounds much too much like the Piano Concerto for comfort, depending on which one has heard first, but is equally as attractive and felicitous, and of the two this is the finer work: the musical argument is tauter, and the lyrical tone of the violin better suits Khachaturian's idiom. It also exists in a version for flute, the Flute Concerto, transcribed by the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal at the composer's suggestion. The Cello Concerto (1946) follows similar lines, but is less inspired in its colours and its material. He later produced three Concerto-Rhapsodies, for violin (1961-1962), cello (1963) and piano (1965). The Symphony No.2 (1943, revised 1944) is a huge, epic wartime symphony, known in Russia as the Bell Symphony after the bell motive that runs through the work, though not named as such by the composer. All colour, sonority and effect, it has something of a stirring immediacy, a noble bombast, and is full of sincere fervour. That bombastic element then was given full blown and hideous sway in the Symphony No.3 (1947, originally titled Symphony-Poem) for orchestra, organ and 16 extra trumpets, which is best forgotten; if in such a mood the second symphony will answer one's needs, and indeed is stirring accompaniment in a drive through the mountains.

The summit of Khatchaturian's output is to be found in the ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus, and both have reached a wider audience through other media, the former from the spare, haunted, monochromatic landscape music used in the film 2001, the latter from the use in the British television series The Onedin Line. Both also have complex histories. Some of the music for Gayaneh (1940-1941) originated in an earlier ballet, Happiness (1936); the new ballet was set on an Armenian collective farm, telling the story of Gayaneh, her malicious traitor of a husband, and her love for a Russian officer. In 1957 a new version appeared, to a completely different story of a man racked with guilt for a crime, with considerable additional music. Both contained the justly famous Sabre Dance, a tour-de-force of orchestral rhythmic energy and colour. The first version is more likely to be encountered, and Khatchaturian drew three suites from the ballet. Spartacus, based on the uprising of the slaves against the Romans led by Spartacus, exists in an original version of 1956, a version of 1957 with the story heavily altered, and another version, with more alterations, of 1958, but the music is most likely to be encountered in the orchestral suite. The beautiful `Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia', with its surge of upward excitement, grand tune, and epic orchestration, is unforgettable; its association with the sea in The Onedin Line seemed descriptively so appropriate that it will be difficult for many to imagine it in its original stage context.

Of his other works, the early Piano Trio (1932) is an effective work, while the waltz from the suite Masquerade, based on incidental music to Lermontov's play, is occasionally heard. One of the songs from the film score of Pepo (1936), in the style of Armenian folk song, became so popular that when the composer heard some vineyard workers singing it, and enquired what it was, he was told it was a very old folk song.

Khatchaturian never quite fulfilled the early promise of the Symphony No.1 and the Piano Concerto, but his handful of major works are vivid, undemanding, and entertaining, and seem destined to remain in the popular repertoire. He taught in Moscow from 1950, and became an accomplished conductor of his own music. His wife, Nina Makarova (1907-1976), was also a composer, as is his nephew, Karen Khatchaturian (born 1920).


works include:

- 3 symphonies

- cello concerto; piano concerto; violin concerto ; 3 Concerto-Rhapsodies for cello and orch., piano and orch. and violin and orch.

- Dance Suite and suite Masquerade for orch.

- violin sonata; trio for clarinet, violin and piano; string quartet

- piano sonata and other piano works

- Ode to Joy for mezzo-soprano, chorus, 40 violins, 10 harps and orch.

- ballets Gayaneh, Happiness and Spartacus


recommended works:

ballet Gayaneh (1939-1942 rev.1952 rev.1957)

Piano Concerto (1936)

ballet suite Spartacus (1954)

Violin Concerto (1940)




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