Aram Ilyich Khachaturian

1903 1978

Aram Ilyich Khachaturian

Composer • Conductor


Khachaturian was considered to be the central figure in 20th century Armenian culture and was one of the prolific names in the Soviet school of composition along withProkofiev and Shostakovich. He is responsible for influencing the development of composition not only in Armenia but stretching across Asia and Europe.

Khachaturian was born in the multicultural city of Tbilisi in 1903 to an Armenian family and his earliest musical influence was hearing folk music in Tbilisi. “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 and musicians."

 He studied at the Tbilisi Commercial College, "a school for aspiring merchants", between 1913 and 1920. It was in these years that he began to compose. He also played in an amateur wind band as a student. In 1921, at the age of 18, he became a student of biology at the university in Moscow and simultaneously began cello lessons at the Gnessin Institute with Glier and Gnesin. It was during this time that he composed incidental music for the Second Armenian Drama Studio, of which his brother was the director. Captivated by music and his musical life in Moscow, he soon dedicated himself to full-time musical study, enrolling at the Moscow Conservatory in 1929.

Khachaturian composed over 50 works in his youth, including Pesnya-poéma (‘Song-Poem’) for violin and piano (1929), Seven Fugues for piano (1928) and the brilliantToccata for piano (1932). On Prokofiev’s recommendation, his Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1932) was published and premiered in Paris. His graduation piece, the Armenian-influenced First Symphony, showed his developing originality and creativity, which is extensively imbued with Armenian folk elements.

It was the Piano Concerto (1936), however that first brought his name to fame both within and outside the Soviet Union. The concerto brought out the brilliance of colour, vitality, and the marriage of symphonic language and improvisatory elements that he would become renowned for in his later style. He went on to compose an award-winning violin concerto and a cello concerto and the three concertos can be considered a grand cycle.

He was accepted into the Composers’ Union in 1932, where he held important posts: deputy chairman in 1937 and the Deputy Chairman of the Organising Committee.

In 1939, Khachaturian made an extensive trip to his native Armenia to study Armenian music in detail, collecting folksongs and dance tunes. He dubbed it his “second conservatoire” as it opened up a whole world of inspiration and gave him unprecedented insights into the Armenian people. Khachaturian’s ballet, Happiness was premiered that same year.

In 1942, at the height of World War II, he reworked his Happiness into a new form and renamed it Gayane. The first production took place on 3 December 1942 staged by the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinksy Ballet) who were temporarily resident at Perm for the duration of the war. The most famous movement is theSabre Dance as well as the Adagio which featured strongly in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite limitations in theatre size, the effect was very profound, in the fact that a ballet company could not only exist through the harshest times, but also bring forth new innovative ballets. Khachaturian won the USSR State Prize forGayane.

In 1947, Khachaturian was denounced by the Communist Party as being a composer of formalist music. According to the Department of Agitation and propaganda, better known as Agitprop, his music was not without its “shortcomings” in the development of Soviet music. Khachaturian was sent to Armenia as a form of punishment for his supposedly politically incorrect music and his music began to be censored. By December 1948, he was "restored to favour later that year when he was praised for his film biography of Lenin".

In 1950, he began working on his third and last ballet, Spartacus, for which he later won the Lenin Prize. In the same year, Khachaturian began conducting and teaching and the Gnessin Institute. A year later, he began to teach at his other alma mater, the Moscow Conservatory, where he was extremely influential for the new generation of Soviet composers. He continuously emphasised the important role of folk music in the respective heritage of each student. "Music is a language created by the people. The people create international music forms which reveal at once his national elements of an art work."

Khachaturian died in Moscow and was buried in the Komitas Pantheon in Yerevan along with many other prominent Armenians.