Alexander Arutiunian

1920 2012

Alexander Arutiunian



Alexander Arutiunian was one of the most important 20th century Armenian composers and became internationally recognised particularly for his concertos, of which he wrote one for each member of the brass family.

Arutiunian was born in Yerevan in 1920 and enjoyed music from a young age. He showed great promise on the piano when he was just a boy and entered the Komitas Conservatory in Yerevan while just a teenager. There he studied piano with O. Babasyan and composition with both Barkhoudaryan and Varkes Tal’yan. By the time he had graduated from the conservatory in 1941, he had already joined the USSR’s Union of Composers (1939) and written his first major composition, the Piano Concerto (1940). Despite the concerto’s great promise, it lacked success, most likely because the more well-known and established Khachaturian had also just recently released a brilliant piano concerto in 1936.

Arutiunian’s education was disrupted by the war, after which he resumed studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1946. In Moscow he studied composition with Ilya Litinsky, Nikolai Ivanovich Peyko and Viktor Zuckermann. He graduated in 1948 with his patriotic cantata,Cantata on the Homeland (1948) for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra. For this work he also received a USSR State Prize, the Stalin Prize. The cantata was premiered by the USSR Radio Choir and Orchestra in 1948.

A dualism between Classical and Romantic aspects is present in Arutiunian’s work beginning in the late 1940s. Improvisatory elements also prevail, in addition to energetic rhythms and a nationalist style. The works of the 1940s and 1950s in particular tend to be larger in structure and very emotional, such as the Festive Overture (1949), Symphony (1957) and Concertino for piano (1951). These works seem to follow in the footsteps of Khachaturian. Arutiunian also treasured elements of the Baroque and Classical eras such as the forms and genres, in addition to contrasting movements.

Though the coming years were difficult for composers in the USSR, as they were required to write patriotic and stylistically conservative music, Arutiunian managed to compose a variety of very successful works, including one of his most successful works, the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (1950) written for the Soviet trumpet virtuoso Timofei Dokshitser and the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1951). In 1950 Arutiunian also collaborated with a much lesser-known composer, Arno Babadjanyan; together they created theArmenian Rhapsody for two pianos (1950). At the end of the decade he also composed his symphony (1957), a well-crafted, though unadventurous work.

The Trumpet Concerto established Arutiunian’s international reputation and has led to the long endurance of his music. The work is frequently performed world-wide and often used as an audition piece for conservatories and at competitions. It has become one of the most well-known concertos for trumpet, after the Haydn and Hummel. Timofei Dokshitser’s recording of the work with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra is one of the most famous recordings. The piece was introduced in the United States by Dokshitser who brought the works with him when he immigrated. More recently it has been recorded by French virtuoso Maurice André along with other artists such as Jouko Harjanne, Alison Balsom and Sergei Nakariakov.

In the 1960s and 70s, Arutiunian’s music became much less dramatic and began to favour more harmonic clarity and the Classical forms. Further, the tradition of ashug (folk minstrel; Armenian equivalent of meistersinger) became very pronounced in his works, notably in his operaSayat-Nova (1967) This style, based on freely varied development is quite distinct in the opera, which is considered one of his greatest works. In addition to this magnificent opera, are many works in a conservative neo-classical style as represented by the sinfonietta (1966), Horn Concerto (1962) and the Variations for trumpet and orchestra (1973).

A synthesis of his styles prevails in his late works from the 1980s and 1990s. Works exhibiting this fusion include the concertos for trombone (1990), tuba (1992) and violin. The Violin Concerto ‘Armenia-88’ is often considered his masterpiece. The concerto employs a unique combination of a Baroque style with Classical form and Romantic harmonies and was inspired by the Spitak earthquake that killed thousands of people that year. The concerto was praised by composer Joseph Horowitz as being a piece that ‘overflows with graceful melodic invention, rhythmic vitality, deeply felt emotional intensity and dionysiac exuberance’. Other works from this period include his brass quintetArmenian Scenes(1984), Dance for four trombones (1989), Rhapsody for trumpet and pops band (1990) and Suite for oboe, horn and piano (1998).

Arutiunian held the post of artistic director of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra from 1954 to 1990. He managed to remain on good terms with the government during the post-Stalin era and even received a commendation from the government in 1960, being named People’s Artist of Armenia. He also became an active teacher from 1965, when he joined the faculty of his alma mater, the Yerevan Conservatory, to teach compositions. He later also received a professorship at the Yerevan Academy. Arutiunian was also active as a film composer and was a member of the Union of Armenian Cinematographers from 1975 on. His film music includesNahapet (Life Triumphs) (1977), Zac has do rassveta (An Hour Before the Dawn) (1973),Sirtn e yergum (The Heart Sings) (1957) and two others. His Concerto for trombone and orchestra can be heard in the Italian TV episodeAleph, lectures contades (2000). In addition to composing, Arutiunian appeared as an actor inLavari vorskane (Lalvar Hunter) (1967).

In 1990, he retired as artistic director from the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, though he still managed to compose more works in his last years including theElegy for trumpet and string orchestra (2000) and Children’s Album for piano (2004). His final work was the Flute Concerto (2011).

After a successful career of more than 60 years, Arutiunian died at the age of 91 in his hometown of Yerevan.