About this Recording
8.573389 - KHACHATURIAN, A.: Othello Suite / The Battle of Stalingrad Suite (Slovak Radio Symphony, Adriano)

Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978)
Battle of Stalingrad • Othello


Khachaturian’s contribution to cinema began as early as 1934 with his music for Pepo, the very first sound picture produced by the Armenian State Film Company. It was well received in Moscow and eventually helped the 31 year old composer, known at that time for his Song-Poem (1929), his Trio (1932) and his Dance Suite (1933), to an introduction to Mosfilm Productions. In 1938, after the great Moscow success of his First Symphony (1934) and the international fame he won with his Piano Concerto (1936), Khachaturian was invited by Amo Bek-Nazarov, the director of Pepo, to provide a score for another Armenian film, a historic-revolutionary picture called Zangezur. From then on until 1960, the date, it seems, of his last film score, Men and Animals (a coproduction between the Soviet Union and East Germany), he provided music for some fifteen more films, principally for Mosfilm. Among these we find six pictures directed by Mikhail Romm, Man No. 217, The Russian Question, Secret Mission, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin—this produced in 1948, the source of the composer’s Ode in Memory of Lenin—and the two-part epic Admiral Ushakov and Ships storming the Bastions written in 1953, the source of a later concert suite.

Within the Soviet Union Khachaturian’s film music always enjoyed considerable success after the publication of arrangements for band, voice, piano or chorus of more popular elements of the score. Pepo’s Song and the Zanzegur March became an accepted part of folk tradition, eventually to be eclipsed in popularity by the Sabre Dance from Gayaneh. Meanwhile the composer’s interest in Armenian folklore had increased considerably, leading him to undertake a large scale ballet, the first version of which, in 1939, had the title Happiness, which became Gayaneh three years later.

Battle of Stalingrad

For Vladimir Petrov, a prolific director in both the Stalin and Khrushchev eras, Khachaturian composed two film scores, Battle of Stalingrad (1948–50) and The Duel (1957). On his work for Battle of Stalingrad, a two-part epic lasting some 220 minutes, he wrote: To fill two hours with battle music alone! Nothing that I had done hitherto could be compared with that task—just as the battle itself surpassed in scope everything known to history until then. My task was, therefore, to compose battle music with the barest minimum of contrasting episodes to set off the dominant mood. This film needed no lyricism, no songs and no digression from the main subject. A high degree of tension was the only thing needed.

Contrary to what might generally have been expected in such a work, Khachaturian avoided any musical glorification of Stalin (played in the film by Alexis Diki) and concentrated on a dramatic emphasis of the tragic events shown on the screen, the struggle and suffering of the people rather than the position of the supreme commander. His own arrangement of Battle of Stalingrad into an eight-part concert suite gives the impression of a monumental symphonic fresco of tonal and thematic unity. As a theme to be associated with the city taking up its desperate defence against the German war-machine, Khachaturian quotes There is a Cliff on the Volga, a majestic folk song, heard after the opening main theme. The German aggressors, on the other hand, are defined shortly afterwards by the German Christmas carol O Tannenbaum, transformed into a grotesque march, similar to the Merry Widow theme in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, if not so incessantly repeated.

The most original movement of the suite is certainly the short Eternal Glory to the Heroes, in which Khachaturian builds up a tense climax by a funeral march-like theme, surging from and dissolving itself again into a visionary dirge of alternating chords. The Enemy is Doomed, another lyrical movement containing longer sections for strings alone, interrupted by an echo-like quotation of the Nazi motif, is a typical example of the composer’s skill in producing dramatic effect by minimal musical means.

Khachaturian himself, as a conductor of the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra, can be heard on an impressive Melodiya recording of Battle of Stalingrad, issued in 1952. The suite was arranged in 1969 for large band by Grigory Kalinkovich and issued on record in 1974. In 1976 the Art Ensemble of the Hungarian People’s Army commissioned a further arrangement by the composer as an oratorio for soprano, male chorus and orchestra. Poems by Gabor Garai were inserted between the movements, to be read by a narrator. This arrangement was given the new title In Memory of the Heroes and a recording was issued by Hungaroton in 1978.

Battle of Stalingrad can be compared with The Fall of Berlin, a score by Shostakovich for a picture by Mikhail Ciaureli, realised in 1949, the same year as the first part of Battle of Stalingrad. Both films are, in the final analysis, mere glorifications of Stalin and today only their sound tracks are worthy of revival. The orchestration of Battle of Stalingrad includes piccolo, double woodwind, cor anglais, a third clarinet in E flat, bass clarinet, four horns and four trumpets, three percussion players and the usual strings.


Three Russian films inspired by Shakespeare, and using the famous translations by Boris Pasternak, Othello (1955), Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1970), won international fame also for their music, written by Khachaturian and by Shostakovich. In the early 1950s, after the so-called Stalin era, a new period in Soviet cinema began that allowed more varied and artistically valid forms of expression, but still under the directives of Socialist Realism. Othello, a colour film by Sergey Yutkevich, with script collaboration by Mikhail Romm, featuring Sergey Bondarchuk as Othello, Irina Skobtseyeva as Desdemona and Andrey Popov as Iago, and is one of the first notable and successful productions of the period. Stage music to Macbeth (1934) and King Lear (1958) complete the scores by Khachaturian inspired by Shakespeare.

The film-score of Othello, composed in 1955–56, between Spartacus and Ode to Joy, is available today in the form of an eleven-part suite, perhaps posthumously edited, differing from a shorter version arranged for piano by Emin Khachaturian and published by Sovetskaya Muzyka in 1956. The latter included Desdemona’s Arioso, Willow Song and lago’s Soldier’s Song, the last two of which were regrettably omitted from the suite at a later date. In 1960 three symphonic movements, Nos. 1, 3 and 4 of the present suite, and later, in 1967, an additional dance number, also missing, were released on LP by Melodiya, conducted by Grigoriy Hamburg and Gennady Katz. It is not known whether printed scores had already been made available at that time. On the other hand the three vocal numbers with piano mentioned above were again made separately available in 1986 in Volume 24 of the collected works of Khachaturian, together with nine other vocal items from other film scores, with no indication as to whether these were still the adaptations of Emin Khachaturian or the work of the composer.

After having received the score of this ‘official’ version of the suite, the movements of which do not follow the chronological order of events in the film, I was disappointed by the absence of the remaining cues, including the figure pieces for organ, Othello’s marriage, the murder scene and the fanfares and dance numbers, the last including parts for mandolin. It would have been preferable to have recorded this work in its complete form, but no manuscript was forthcoming from the Russian archives.

The original title of the opening movement [6] was Prologue – Othello’s Narrative. It is the longest piece in the suite and unlike all the others contains a middle section not included in the final edited version of the film. Its lyrical violin solo is the leitmotif of Othello’s noble and loving character; the following section accompanies an evocation of naval battle scenes and the recapitulation is intended as the apotheosis of love. Some of the musical cues of the sound track occur twice. Venice [9], a beautiful nocturne, can be heard once with oboe and once as a violin solo. Vineyards [8] is played first at break-neck speed during a drinking orgy, a central, darker, more rubato episode with saxophone suggesting a state of drunkenness, and later in the Allegro giocoso section of the movement, as Cassio introduces himself to Desdemona in the Vineyards scene. The first strophe of the Arioso (actually a Vocalise) follows in the same scene, when Iago starts drawing Othello’s attention to his wife’s apparent interest in Cassio, and is heard later on in the film, when her blindly jealous husband sees Desdemona in the distance, sailing on a boat.

Venice and Othello’s Despair [11] contain a typical Armenian motif, similar to the famous Love Duet from Gayaneh. The two short chorus sections recorded here [15][16] are actually the only ones heard on the film’s soundtrack. In the finale of the film Khachaturian avoids a vulgar Hollywood style of climax. The bodies of Othello and Desdemona are brought by ship to Venice, while the initial D minor love motif is played again by the solo violin, the sound gradually dying away.

Othello is scored for a large symphony orchestra, including piccolo, double woodwind, cor anglais, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, a larger percussion section, harp and vibraphone, with the usual strings. There are, in addition, two shorter sections for mixed chorus and one for soprano solo.

In 1959 Khachaturian had the intention of composing a ballet on the subject of Othello, but he abandoned the project when he heard that the Georgian composer Alexey Machavariani had earlier completed his own ballet of the same title.


Edited by Keith Anderson

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