Wednesday 26 June 2019

The path to greatness for Armenia's national composer

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

City of sounds: Khachaturian was born in Tibilisi but his family was Armenian
City of sounds: Khachaturian was born in Tibilisi but his family was Armenian

George Hamilton

It's amazing what association with a successful television show can do for a tune. Almost 50 years ago now, the BBC set sail with a series about a shipping company in Liverpool, and the lives and loves of the family who ran it.

The Onedin Line ran for 10 years. You might struggle to remember any of the detail, or indeed the names of any of the cast, but you will most certainly be familiar with the music that was used to open and close the programme.

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It's one of the most popular pieces, frequently requested by listeners to classical music stations, and yet its roots don't go beyond the middle of the 20th century.

It was around Christmas time in 1956 when it was first heard, as part of a ballet score written by an Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.

The ballet tells the story of Spartacus, a gladiator in the ancient Roman empire who led a slaves' revolt and, in the process, rescued his wife from the clutches of the Consul.

It doesn't end well for Spartacus, though. There's a further battle, and eventually the Romans get their man.

On the way to its tragic conclusion, there is the moment when husband and wife are together again, and it's the music that accompanies this that became such a hit because of the TV series.

The Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia (his wife) is certainly a Khachaturian trademark piece, but it is by no means the only one.

For a composer who came late to music, he managed to hit the jackpot several times.

His family was Armenian, but he was actually born in Tbilisi in Georgia, which he recalled as a city of sounds.

Though he had a talent, there weren't the funds for a formal musical education. He taught himself piano, and somehow ended up playing the tuba in his school band.

It was only after he'd arrived in Moscow, where he went to study to become a biologist, that he had his first lessons.

Curiously, it was the cello that he started to learn, proving for certain that, in terms of instruments, there was more than one string to his bow.

It was almost inevitable that he would end up with a place in the conservatory, but by the time he did, he was 26.

He joined the composition class, and he was off, producing a dance suite, followed by his first effort at a symphony.

His Piano Concerto, first heard in 1936, was the work that got him noticed outside the Soviet Union. It quickly became a staple.

Next, there was a ballet, the one that would eventually take the name of its heroine, Gayane. This gave us the first of Khachaturian's greatest hits, the Sabre Dance.

Soon after, he produced the incidental music for a satirical play called Masquerade.

A line from the heroine - "How beautiful the new waltz is. Something between sorrow and joy gripped my heart" - inspired the creation of another Khachaturian gem, an achingly beautiful piece in ¾ time, which is now the opening movement of what the composer turned into a symphonic suite.

Armenia is probably best known as the home of Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark came to rest after the great flood.

Khachaturian never lost sight of the fact that his roots were there. Its rhythms and melodies provided the creative spark for much of what he wrote.

As well as what might be termed his classical output, he found his style well suited to the newly emerging world of the film score.

He wrote around 20 of these, mostly for patriotic movies in the heroic Soviet style.

Though the body of his work is relatively compact compared to others around him, his was a distinctive and enduring voice.

Aram Khachaturian, who lived from 1903 to 1978, is revered in Armenia as their national composer.

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