The work that truly launched Khachaturian’s international reputation had a far from auspicious start. Composed in 1936, his Piano Concerto was an ambitious attempt to blend the trans-Caucasian folk music of his hometown, Tiflis (today the Georgian capital, and known as Tbilisi), with the dramatic virtuosity of a Liszt concerto.
For its first public outing the soloist was Lev Oborin, winner of the first Warsaw International Chopin Piano Competition of 1927. However, the performance was held on an open-air stage in Sokolniki, a Moscow ‘park of culture and leisure’. Oborin had to play on an upright, and Khachaturian’s ambitious orchestral score, including within its soulful slow movement a part for flexatone (a ‘singing’ percussive instrument also used by Arnold Schoenberg), was entrusted to an ad hoc group of musicians of varying skill, who had just one rehearsal before the performance on 12 July 1937.
During the performance, a strong wind blew away the spectacles of the conductor, Lev Steinberg, who continued as best he could, even though he could no longer see the score in front of him. All this was too much for the composer. After the performance Khachaturian was eventually found, as Oborin recalled, ‘deep inside the park, crying bitterly, with his arms around a birch tree’.
It was an experience that might have upset a more experienced composer. For Khachaturian, deliberately nurtured by the Soviet State as representative of the newly budding Armenian national style, and of whom much was expected, this first exposure outside the relatively safe confines of the Moscow Conservatory was both humiliating and traumatic, as became evident from his subsequent touchiness about how his music was to be performed.
Yet the Concerto’s premiere, despite all appearances, was officially deemed a success, and professional performances followed that autumn, both in Moscow (conducted by Alexander Gauk) and in Leningrad (by Yevgeny Mravinsky). Khachaturian was soon spoken of in the same breath as his distinguished colleagues Shostakovich and Prokofiev. He not only became a leading Soviet composer, but from 1939 held a key position in the Composer’s Union: as vice chairman of its organising committee – in effect the executive head – Khachaturian oversaw the setting up of a central music fund to commission and publish works by Soviet composers. He also personally organised the creation of rural ‘houses of rest and creativity’, such as Ivanovo, where composers could work in quiet surroundings. That he threw himself into this work with such energy and enthusiasm was perhaps his way of thanking the system that had so prodigiously recognised his talents.
Born to a humble Armenian family, Khachaturian had received no formal musical training in his youth, though he taught himself piano on a battered upright acquired by his parents; by the time Georgia fell to the Red Army, early in 1921, he was good enough to work as a pianist aboard a Bolshevik propaganda train running between Tiflis and the Armenian capital Yerevan; his job was to attract a crowd by playing popular songs and marches at every stop.
But it was almost entirely the unique opportunities afforded by Soviet rule that enabled Khachaturian to develop from a musically illiterate teenager to one of the world’s most popular composers of the last century. The new Soviet state was determined to demonstrate its beneficial effect on precisely those non-Russian ethnic groups which had been neglected under tsarist rule. One person to benefit from this policy was Khachaturian’s older brother, the theatre director Suren Khachaturov (he had removed the Armenian-style ending to his surname when he first moved to tsarist Moscow in 1910).
When Tiflis fell into Soviet hands, Suren obtained an official mandate to recruit promising young musicians and artists from his home town to be trained at his Armenian drama studio in Moscow. Khachaturian, seizing his opportunity to improve his education, joined Suren’s newly-recruited troupe aboard a freight train to Moscow. Within months of his arrival, his talent was recognised and he enrolled at the Gnessin Institute, a music college run by the formidable Yelena Gnessina. He initially studied cello, but when he hurt his hand, either through over-zealous practice or from hauling crates in a wine cellar (to earn necessary income while studying), he was persuaded to study composition instead with Gnessina’s brother, Mikhail Gnessin.
Gnessin was then involved in developing a Jewish folk style in music, and naturally encouraged his pupil to develop his ‘Armenian’ style from the trans-Caucasian folk and urban songs and dances he knew from childhood in Tiflis. Khachaturian’s earliest compositions – charming miniatures for piano, spiced with dissonances typical of Tiflis street musicians – also show his admiration of Ravel’s music.
Yet almost from the start he had grander ambitions. Hearing the pianist Nikolay Orlov playing Chopin and Liszt, he became determined to develop a similarly virtuosic style. He transferred to the Moscow Conservatory, where he became a pupil of Myaskovsky, and his technique began to match his ambition – witness his Toccata for piano (1932).
His orchestral mastery was demonstrated in the brilliantly coloured and atmospheric First Symphony (1934). Then came the Piano Concerto, which decisively raised Khachaturian’s international profile when it was introduced to London by Moura Lympany in 1940, followed three years later by William Kapell giving its US premiere. Khachaturian’s Concerto soon rivalled even Tchaikovsky’s First in popularity.
And yet, for Khachaturian, the price of his rapid rise was a persistent insecurity: his naturally gregarious and generous nature was often cut through by a touchiness and over-sensitivity, and he suffered recurring ill health associated with stomach ulcers. One should not over-exaggerate the relative shallowness of Khachaturian’s compositional training – Poulenc, for example, did not get beyond harmonising Bach chorales, whereas Khachaturian studied fugue, and even published several examples of his own – but there is little doubt that his creativity often rode on the not-always-certain wings of inspiration rather than on long-seasoned craft and know-how.
The cruellest blow of his career fell in 1948 when he, alongside other leading Soviet composers, including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, was accused by Stalin’s cultural apparatchik, Andrei Zhdanov, of writing ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘formalist’ music. He lost his official post, and was replaced by the much-disliked Tikhon Khrennikov. Profoundly hurt by this manifestly unfair attack, for a while it seemed Khachaturian had lost much of his desire to compose.
There followed a dismal series of scores for Stalin-approved films, and incidental music for a play, Ilya Golovin, about a composer guilty of writing formalist music praised only by the decadent West.
Then, in 1950, Khachaturian was saved by his alma mater, the Gnessin Institute, as Yelena invited him to teach composition there. He was now able to devote himself to his final magnum opus, the ballet Spartacus; written during his summer holidays, it was finally ‘completed’ in 1954. Spartacus then went through the mill of three productions, all of which, to Khachaturian’s increasing irritation, involved revisions to the score and the story line. His 1943 ballet Gayane likewise suffered from endless revisions; by the late 1950s, its original story, of a Red Army hero rescuing an Armenian heroine (the title role) from a brutal husband determined to destroy the local collective cotton farm, seemed too much a product of Stalin’s time. All this may have prevented Khachaturian from being as productive as he had been pre-1948. Yet his final decades include some gems – composed, perhaps significantly, for children – such as the Sonatina (1958) and the Children’s Pieces (1964). And one remains grateful for those works of exuberance and emotional candour that he composed in the 1930s and ’40s, the years when he was at the height of his inspiration.