1. He was a Late Starter
Born in Georgia to a family of Armenian craftsmen, Aram Khachaturian was not destined for a musical career. It was not until the age of 22 that his musical training flourished and he joined the composition class at the Gnessine Musical Institute, whilst continuing his scientific studies at university. He quickly became the best student and one of the few admitted to the Moscow Conservatory where he learnt composition under Nicholas Myakovsky. Sergei Prokofiev was so impressed by Khachaturian that he sent Khachaturian’s Trio for Clarinet with his son to be performed in Paris!
2. He was inspired by folklore
Khachaturian is widely known for his use of folk music in his compositions. Deeply attached to national cultures, he was inspired by the folklore of all the republics of the Soviet Union, especially Armenia and Georgia. His melodies are characterised by improvisations, variations and the imitation of oriental timbres. They permeate the majority of his compositions, like the Toccata or his ballet Gayane (1942), which features the famous “Sabre Dance.”
3. He was Denounced!
Like Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Khachaturian was a representative of the USSR abroad. He composed the Song of Stalin and the Ode to the Memory of Lenin. Yet in 1948, despite a public apology, he was denounced alongside Shostakovich and Prokofiev for an excess of formalism in his music and sent to Armenia to be “re-educated”. This condemnation ended at the death of Stalin, and when he returned to Moscow he did not change his compositional style, composing Spartacus, a world-renowned ballet.
Occasionally one to make a scene, Khachaturian once stormed out of the Yerevan Opera during a performance of Spartacus because the conductor had cut four bars of his music!
A mural of Khachaturian painted by Robert Nikoghosyan near the Yerevan Vernissage in July 2015
The music of my works are beautiful in their own right, not great, not small, but simply beautiful, open, fulfilled and joyful. There is too much ugliness and despair in the world to let them invade our art.
Khachaturian developed a great scenic sensibility, composing for ballets, dramatic plays (Masquerade de Lermontov), as well as many films like Pepo or Zangezour.
Despite a prolific career and national fame, many of Khachaturian’s works still go largely unrecognised. Some tunes from Gayane and Spartacus have nevertheless been quoted in popular culture, through films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Snatch, video games and sports anthems–even cartoons!