About this Recording
8.554054 - KHACHATURIAN, A.I.: Ballet Music
English 

Aram Il'yich Khachaturian (1903-1978)
Gayane (Highlights)
Spartacus (Highlights)
Masquerade (Highlights)

While exercising firm political control over the diverse regions of its vast empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics also followed a policy of encouraging arts that had their source in the culture of the people, harnessed to the ends of Socialist Realism. In spite of occasional brushes with the authorities, the music of Aram Khachaturian remained firmly rooted in the cultural traditions of Armenia and of the Caucasus. Born in Tbilisi in 1903 and of Armenian extraction, he enjoyed earlier study, from the age of nineteen, at the Gnesin Institute, followed, seven years later, by entry to the Moscow Conservatory, where his composition teacher was Miaskovsky in a protracted course of study that continued until 1937. He had by this time won very wide acclaim for his Piano Concerto and a first symphony celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the foundation of the Soviet Armenian Republic. A specifically Armenian element remained of importance in his work, although there were occasions when, under the pressure of official condemnation, he excused perceived tendencies to formalism by claiming that critics had urged him to avoid what might have appeared a national limitation to his reputation and creativity. In 1948, together with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others, he was criticized for deviation from the proper path for Soviet music. He had no need to take this official disapproval too seriously. Essentially his music had proved satisfactory in its use of Armenian material and in its popular appeal: formalism was not a charge that could be proved against him.

The Great Patriotic War had provided Khachaturian with an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the principles of communism chiefly in his ballet Gayane and a second symphony. It was the third symphony, a symphonic poem in garish celebration of victory, that misfired, to earn Zhdanov's official censure. Thereafter Khachaturian turned his immediate attention to film-scores, disregarding Khrennikov's warning that this was not to be used as a means of escape from justified Soviet criticism. After the death of Stalin in 1953, he was able to speak openly in favour of greater freedom for artists. His plea was controversial, condemning, as it did, the official direction of composition practised under Stalin in recent years and the resulting mediocrity. It was in the years immediately following that he won some success with his score for the ballet Spartacus, based on the exploits of a hero who had appealed to Karl Marx as representative of the proletariat of the ancient Roman world. The score was awarded a Lenin Prize in 1959, but proved more generally acceptable on the stage in a revised version of 1968.

Khachaturian's career after the war was, after 1953, generally successful. He exploited his gifts as a conductor, particularly of his own compositions, and continued to write music that was imbued with the spirit of Armenia that he had inherited by birth, so that this element in his work becomes more than mere superficial exoticism. Whatever views he may have been compelled to express on "technicism" in the Composers' Union meetings of 1948, he possessed a technical command of musical resources, deft in orchestration and felicitous in melodic invention and in the use of melodies of ethnic origin. He continued composing even into his final years, during which he wrote unaccompanied sonatas for cello, for violin and for viola, completing the last of these in 1977, the year before his death.

Gayane was conceived as a ballet in four acts and six scenes. Based, in its original version, on a libretto by Konstantin Derzhavin, it was first staged in December 1942 in Perm, where the Kirov Ballet had been evacuated. Choreography was by

Anasimova and decor by Natan Altman. It was restaged in Leningrad in 1945 by the Kirov and in 1957 in another version by the Moscow Bolshoy. The composer was awarded the Stalin Prize for his work in 1943. The ballet was based on an earlier work, Happiness, first produced in Yerevan in 1939, and Khachaturian re-used this music for his new score.

The action of Gayane takes place on a collective farm near Kolkhoz in Southern Armenia in the early days of the Great Patriotic War. Gayane, a cotton-picker, is married to the disreputable Giko, a drunkard and a coward. She denounces him, but he sets fire to bales of cotton and takes their child hostage. Gayane is injured by her husband but saved from his further threats by the arrival of the Red Army Border Patrol and its heroic leader. Giko is sent to imprisonment, leaving Gayane free to marry the leader of the Border Patrol, with whom she has fallen in love. Their marriage gives an opportunity for celebratory dances from Armenia, Georgia and the Ukraine, with the famous Kurdish Sabre Dance. Other characters in the story include Armen, Gayane's brother, and the girl with whom he is in love, although both characters and events of the sub-plot differ in the various versions of the ballet.

The ballet Spartacus, the score of which was completed in 1954, deals with the slave rebellion led by the hero of that name against Roman domination. The historical Spartacus himself was Thracian by birth, a shepherd who became a robber. He was taken prisoner and sold to a trainer of gladiators in Capua, but in 73 B.C. he escaped, with other prisoners, and led a rebellion during the course of which he defeated the Roman armies and caused devastation throughout Italy. He was eventually defeated by Crassus, a general well known for his wealth, and put to death by crucifixion, together with his followers. It should be added that to Karl Marx Spartacus was the first great proletarian hero, a champion of the people, while the ultimate fate of Crassus, killed in 53 B.C. during the course of a campaign that had taken him to Armenia, might have had a particular significance for Khachaturian.

Spartacus was first produced at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad in 1956, with choreography by Leonid Jacobson, and was re-staged at the Bolshoy in Moscow two years later, with choreography by Igor Moiseyev. The relative failure of these productions was followed by what must be seen as the definitive version at the Bolshoy in 1968, with choreography and a revised libretto by Yuri Grigorovich, Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus and Ekaterina Maximova as Phrygia.

The colourful incidental music for a production in 1941 of Lermontov's Masquerade serves its purpose admirably. The drama itself has, over the years, attracted a number of Russian composers, from Kolesnikov in the 1890s to operas by Mosolov, Denbsky, Bunin, Zeidman, Nersesov and Artamanov, a ballet by Lamputin and incidental music by Glazunov, Shebalin and Khachaturian. Lermontov's hero, Evgeny Arbenin, is bored with the world, despising the decadent society of St Petersburg in which he moves, moody and suspicious. In a plot that follows the story of Othello, Arbenin is jealous of his wife, Nina, an innocent woman whom he poisons. The play is bitter in its criticism of contemporary society and was banned for some thirty years. Its appeal to more recent audiences is clear enough. Khachaturian's music for Masquerade, like Tchaikovsky's for some of the scenes in his opera based on Pushkin's Evgeny Onyegin, gives a glittering picture of social life, a contrast to the reality beneath.


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