Aram Khachaturian

Composers, 1903-1978

One of the most prominent composers of the 20th century music, the founder of the new Armenian school of composition, Aram Khachaturian is frequently spoken of as being a Russian composer. It is not quite wrong, but tends to give a false picture of his music. Many Russian composers couldn't resist temptation to look south-eastwards for colorful melodies, harmonies and instrumental timbres. The great difference between them and Khachaturian is that he himself comes from Caucasus.

His whole background is imbued with its folk-music and folk-lore. What to a Russian would appear exotic was to him a normal part of every day life; and when he began to study Western music he in turn found this exotic, being particularly attracted by the colorful music of the French impressionists who had much the same fascination for him as the orient does for us.

Khachaturian was an Armenian, the son of a workman. In his youth he was greatly interested in music he heard around him, not only that of Armenia, but also of Georgia. Despite his interest, he did not study music or even learn to read it; and apart from listening, his sole experience of it was playing of simple bass parts on the tuba in his school band. Gradually, he became convinced that he was cut out to be a musician, and eventually turned up in Moscow seeking admission to the Gnessin School of Music. That he had to move and set up in Moscow for this purpose in no way deterred him, given the fact, that his older brother, an established producer in theatrical circles by that time, was able to support him. Nor did the face that he was a late starter with no technical knowledge. At the same age as Khachaturian learnt a crochet from a quaver, Prokofiev and Shostakovich had important compositions to their credit and ones that are still very much in the repertoire today.

How little Khachaturian knew about his chosen subject can be well illustrated. When asked what types of music he wished to take up he was unable to answer as he had not considered the point. After doing so he decided to become a cellist.

Only after three years on this instrument did he entered a composition class. But now progress was fast and within a year his first composition was printed. Now he entered the Conservatoire, where he continued to study under Nikolai Miaskovski. By the time he had completed his studies in 1933, he was thirty.

Khachaturian's period of study in Moscow in no way changed his nationality as a composer, and almost everything he has since written reveals his Armenian background. It has not been a question of deliberate fostering or even of borrowing tunes. As the composer has put it simply "being an Armenian I cannot help writing Armenian music." One particular aspect of Armenian music is worthy of special note and does much to explain the colorful nature of so much of Khachaturian's music; to the Armenian peasant and folk musician certain seventh chords are concords while the normal major or minor triad is a discord. When Khachaturian brought the harmonic sense of the untaught Armenian into "art" music he added a new element and approach. The composer's first large scale work employing a full orchestra was his First Symphony (1934). At that time this was highly praised, but later works have shown it to be somewhat immature. Khachaturian's international reputation really began with his Piano Concerto of 1937, and it was cemented by the Violin Concerto of 1940, written for and frequently performed by David Oistrakh.