Aram Ilyich Khachaturian was born on 6 June 1903 in Tbilisi, Georgia, into a poor Armenian family. In 1921 he moved to Moscow, soon entering the Gnessin Institute as a cellist and, in 1925, beginning composition studies, transferring in 1929 to the Moscow Conservatory and Myaskovsky’s class.
From earliest years he was fascinated by Armenian folk-music, and ‘oriental’ sounds and melodies, graduating with a work in this style, the First Symphony (1934). Around the same time he married the composer Nina Makarova, a fellow student from Myaskovsky’s class. In 1936, his substantial and popular Piano Concerto included Georgian as well as Armenian elements within a lushly romantic framework. This was followed by a first ballet, Happiness (1939), set on a Soviet-Armenian collective farm. These three large-scale works established him as a leading Soviet composer and he was showered with honours.
1940 saw two key works: incidental music for a production of Lermontov’s Masquerade, from which he produced a charming suite evoking the aristocratic world of early 19th century St.Petersburg; and the brilliant and easily accessible Violin Concerto for David Oistrakh.
During World War II Happiness was reworked as the patriotic ballet Gayaneh, with its famous ‘Sabre dance’. In 1943 came the epic Second Symphony, a vivid chronicle of the struggles of war ending in a rousingly optimistic finale. The colourful Third Symphony that followed (Symphony-Poem, 1947, for orchestra, organ and 16 trumpets) did not save him from brutal criticism at the 1948 Composers’ Congress for crimes of ‘formalism’. He responded with patriotic works including Ode in Memory of Lenin (1949).
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khachaturian was active as a public figure, being among the first to press for a relaxation of the harsh musical and artistic conditions in the Soviet Union. He was also writing, teaching and travelling a great deal (in 1955 he met Sibelius), and working on his massive 4-act ballet, Spartacus (1956), set in ancient Rome but with plenty of exotic elements and lashings of orchestral colour in the music.
In his last years he wrote several more concertos, as well as chamber music, much of it still hardly known, even in Russia and Armenia. He died in Moscow on 1 May 1978.
Aram Khachaturian is published by Boosey & Hawkes
This biography can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with the following credit: Reprinted by kind permission of Gerard McBurney/Boosey & Hawkes