The music of Aram Khachaturian is an acquired taste. This is especially so where his symphonies are concerned. Those persons coming to his symphonic output expecting a typical “European” sound of music will be surprised, disappointed, delighted or rendered speechless. It has been said that this composer’s style is a blend of traditional Russian and “Transcaucasian” elements – central Asian or oriental. This can be explained in terms of his personal background and music education.
Aram Khachaturian was born in 1903 in the multicultural city of Tiflis, the capital of Georgia. His family background was Armenia and he is generally regarded as a Soviet “Armenian” composer. He died in 1978 and is buried in Yerevan, Armenia – a country probably best known as the location of Mount Ararat, upon which, according to the biblical story of the flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest. So too, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity. An understanding of Khachaturian’s personal and music philosophy can be approached through an examination of his three symphonies, as well as his attractive concertos for violin and piano.
This article will focus on Khachaturian’s symphonic output.
Aram Khachaturian’s rather unconventional symphonies require an approach that is independent of a western European understanding and appreciation of the genre and, therefore, the listener’s musical mind should be open to a more aggressive and dynamic sound – a musical sound quite different to that of most of the well-known composers in the development of classical music. However, Khachaturian’s symphonies do contain echoes of his European counterparts, e.g. Gustav Mahler, as well as the more traditional Russian composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and one of his teachers at the Moscow Conservatoire, Miaskovsky). Whatever the case, the effervescent and emotionally arousing music of this composer provides enjoyable and satisfying listening – appreciation of which grows with repeated playing.
The Symphony No.1 (1934) is dedicated to the 15th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. The music contains traditional Russian elements but with a style that has been described as “Transcaucasian” (see above). The musicologist, Deryck Cooke, has described the first symphony as “impressionistic and quiet, barbaric and noisy, but absolutely fascinating”. The opening of the first movement indicates the direction the music will take.
The large symphony orchestra provides an energetic platform upon which to construct the movement, before what seems to be a delightful, and recognisably Russian, main theme is heard. There is also a suggestion of jaunty jazz music. The whole is built into a massive climax (one of many in this symphony). The slow movement is marked “Adagio Sostenuto”, but there is not a great deal of that which is “slow and sustained” in the music. Notwithstanding, the movement concludes with due dignity. The third movement contains elements of dance music, with themes initially heard in the first movement now combined with oriental strains. This is an attractive mix and carries the symphony to a bright and energetic conclusion.
By the time of the Symphony No.2, sub-titled “The Bell”, Khachaturian’s fame as a composer had become widespread – chiefly through the popularity of his concertos for piano (1936) and violin (1940), as well as his ballet music. The 2nd Symphony was a product of the Russian experience of WW2, commonly remembered in that country as the “Great Patriotic War”. It was certainly seen as such by Aram Khachaturian and the 2nd Symphony is probably his most profound, and best known, symphonic work. Its composition began as the Nazis invaded western Russia in 1940, and the symphony was premiered in 1943. In between those years, the agony of the Russian people evolved.
The Symphony No.2 has a higher level of dramatic expression and this is immediately evident in the symphony’s first movement. The “colourful instrumentation, passionate melodies, balletic rhythms, and instrumental virtuosity” of the second movement reflects the Asiatic elements in the composer’s background. The elegiac third movement contains echoes of the 13th century “Dies irae” chant, showing the religious flavouring of some aspects of Russian music. This movement contains massive musical climaxes and “The Bell”, the sub-title of this symphony, can be distinctively heard – the sound of alarm for the Russian people. The fourth and final movement of the 2nd Symphony is pregnant with optimism as it conveys the people’s triumph over oppression. The characteristic brass contribution to Khachaturian’s music is very much to the fore in this movement and, after a mountainous cascade of sound, the symphony ends in a sea of tranquillity.
Khachaturian’s Symphony No.3 (1947) was composed for the 30th Anniversary of the October Revolution. It is a symphonic cavalcade of triumph and rejoicing. Somewhat unique in the symphonic repertoire, it is a one movement composition that again uses a large orchestra, with an organ and a prominent part for an extra quota of trumpets. Despite an almost unrecognisable pedigree, the music has an irresistible energy and awesome power.
The work commences with a quiet organ solo and is gradually joined by the orchestra. The violins are prominent before the trumpets echo the main thematic material. All these elements are gradually combined until the force of their energies moulds a climax of strength and brilliance before offering a more tranquil conclusion. A mesmerising piece that one critic described as “an astounding creation, a vision of almost unstoppable energy and fierce muscular strength descending from afar, borne on a high wind, bursting upon us with shattering force.” Wow!
The music of Khachaturian is limited in its profusion of recordings and it has not enjoyed productions by the more popular recording studios. However, the ASV label has been faithful to this composer, as has the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Loris Tjeknavorian. However, there are few composers who express their loyalty and passion to the people and modern history of Russia (or Soviet Union when this nomenclature was appropriate) than Aram Khachaturian. Wearing its passion on its sleeve, the music of the composer – often noisy and violent, sometimes serene, but always reflective and loaded with expression and meaning – searches the soul of his nation.