Aram Ilyich Khacaturyan (1903 - 1978)
A central figure in the history of Soviet music, Khachaturyan composed some of the best-loved and most accessible music to come out of Soviet Russia. His career spanned almost the entire period of Communist rule: he began his studies five years after the establishment of the Soviet Union and died twelve years before its eventual collapse. As with all successful Soviet composers, he managed to tread a fine line between kowtowing to the demands of the state and producing music of high enough quality to earn critical acclaim and gain a popular following.
Khachaturian was one of the "Big Three", as the leading composers of the Soviet Union were known. Along with the other two, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he was the only Soviet composer to succeed in making a substantial name for himself on an international level. Though the three men are often bracketed together, the similarities linking their music are little more than superficial.
Born in Tbilisi, the capital of the ancient Caucasian nation of Georgia, Khachaturyan was descended from a working-class family of Armenian origin. His father, a bookbinder, gave no special encouragement to his son's musical skills. Instead, he provided a traditional upbringing in which the folk music of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan provided a rich backdrop to many social occasions. Khachaturian learned the tenor horn and piano at school, but not until he moved to Moscow in 1921 was his exceptional talent was discovered.
The overwhelming musical influence on Khachaturyan during his formative years was the folk music that surrounded him. This influence proved vital to the creation of the musical language which he developed over many years of study in Moscow. Earlier Russian composers, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, had used pseudo-Oriental melodies to invoke the atmosphere of the lands east and south of Russia. These tunes were far from authentic, bearing only a passing resemblance to their models.
Khachaturian, on the other hand, spent his youth surrounded by just the sort of Asiatic melodies and rhythms that these composers had attempted to emulate. As a result his music provides a far more convincing evocation of the folk music of the Caucasus than that of any other composer of his stature. Vivid, temperamental and deeply emotional, it is clothed in rich and sensuous orchestral textures. A particular feature of his music is the frequent and prominent use of tuned percussion instruments, in particular the xylophone.
In addition to his grounding in folk music, Khachaturian assimilated elements of the music of Ravel and Gershwin during his training. From Ravel he derived his shimmering orchestration and rich, shifting harmonies; Gershwin provided a model for his more jazz-inflected and percussive scores. He also picked up a rigorous compositional discipline from the teachings of Rimsky-Korsakov.
A sworn enemy of modernism, Khachaturian is at his best when providing a musical counterpart to pictorial or dramatic subjects. His music for ballet and theatre contains much of his best-loved creations. The demonic Sabre Dance from Gayaneh is justly famous, while the suites from Masquerade and Spartacus are among his most often-performed works. He also produced over 25 highly accomplished film scores.
In the Soviet Union, as in many totalitarian states, the arts had to play their part in supporting the aims of the government. Soon after the Russian Revolution, all music was brought under strict state control. Those who could not submit to the censorship and prescriptive demands of the party fled the country. Among this group numbered such stellar figures as Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and, for a while, Prokofiev. Those who remained tried to retain their individual compositional voices - while composing the required swathes of mass songs, pieces praising communist leaders and film scores (typically about Soviet military victories and the splendour of collective farms).
Because the USSR was made up of fifteen republics containing diverse cultures and languages, it became a central tenet of Soviet music policy to clothe the folk songs and dances of each region in brightly-coloured orchestral garb in the Russian tradition. Khachaturian was perhaps the most successful composer to make this the cornerstone of his work.
His music has been characterised as 'socialist realism at its best', which can be interpreted as meaning that he produced music that pleased the cultural commissars while retaining its quality and individuality. This tendency to conform suggests that his censure in 1948 - as part of a crackdown on artistic liberty - was more a matter of form than a measured criticism of his work. In later life he used his favoured position to fight for greater creative freedom for composers.