Thirty-five years after his death, Aram Khachaturian remains the most widely known Armenian classical composer of all times. His “Sabre Dance,” the electrifying dance of the final act of the ballet “Gayane,” made him known on a popular level worldwide. A few years ago, the first notes of the “Sabre Dance” were even the score for an advertisement of hair shampoo in American TV, while some music of his other world-famous ballet, “Spartacus,” appeared most recently in the animated film “Ice Age: The Meltdown.”
Khachaturian was born in Kojori, near Tiflis (Georgia), on June 6, 1903, the youngest of five children. Young Aram was admitted to the Commerce School in Tiflis in 1913, but he preferred music. He learned to play woodwind instruments and became a member of a woodwind orchestra.
His elder brother, Suren, who was the stage director of the Second Moscow Art Theatre, took him to Moscow in 1921, where he entered the Gnessin Musical College. The future composer did not even know how to read music at the time. He quickly showed his talent for composition and in 1925 Mikhail Gnessin suggested he join his newly-opened composition class. Four years later, Khachaturian transferred to the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated with highest grades and composed his first big work, the First Symphony, in 1934, after marrying his classmate, composer Nina Makarova, the year before. In 1937 he became deputy chairman of the Moscow branch of the Composers’ Union, and then was appointed chairman of the Organizing Committee of Soviet Composers in 1939. The first ballet also came out that year. It was initially called “Happiness,” but Khachaturian later reworked it into the ballet “Gayane.”
The years 1936-1947 were the most prolific in Khachaturian’s life. He wrote music for dramatic performances and movies, songs, and religious music, including the Concerto for Violin (1941), the Concerto for Cello (1943), the Second Symphony (1946), the Third Symphony (1946), and the Symphonic Poem, later entitled the Third Symphony (1947).
The composer joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1943. In 1944 he composed the music of the anthem of Soviet Armenia. However, he temporarily fell from official favor in 1948. The Symphonic Poem, ironically written as a tribute to communism, earned Khachaturian the wrath of the Party. Andrei Zhdanov, secretary of the party’s Central Committee, delivered the so-called Zhdanov decree in 1948. The decree condemned composers Dimitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and others as "formalist" and "anti-popular." The three named composers had already become established as the so-called "titans" of Soviet music, enjoying worldwide reputation as some of the leading composers of the 20th century. Nonetheless, all three were forced to apologize publicly.
Despite this episode, Khachaturian returned to official favor. He received numerous state awards both before and after the decree: for example, four Stalin prizes (1941, 1943, 1946 and 1950), one Lenin prize (1959), a USSR State Prize (1971), and the title of Hero of Socialist Labor (1973). Khachaturian went on to serve again as Secretary of the Board of the Composers' Union, starting in 1957 and was also a deputy in the fifth Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (1958–1962). In 1951 he became professor at the Gnessin State Musical and Pedagogical Institute (Moscow) and the Moscow Conservatory.
Although Khachaturian lived outside Armenia, he has been an iconic figure for generations of Armenian composers, and many important names, such as Arno Babajanian, Alexander Harutiunian, Edgar Hovhannisian, and Tigran Mansurian, among others, were particularly influence by him. Most of his works are saturated with centuries-old motifs of Armenian culture. Khachaturian encouraged young composers to experiment with new sounds and find their own voices. His colorful orchestration technique is still noted for its freshness and vitality.
Khachaturian’s ballet “Spartacus” premiered in December 1956, and its music was featured in various series and films in the West. His seventieth anniversary was officially celebrated in Moscow and Yerevan. He passed away in Moscow on May 1, 1978, and was buried in the “Gomidas” Pantheon in Yerevan, together with other great Armenian personalities.
The composer’s picture is featured on the 50 dram Armenian banknote, as well as in various Soviet, Armenian, and Russian stamps. Various streets in Armenia, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan are named after him. His house-museum was opened in Yerevan in 1982.