Aram Khachaturian

[H. Joseph Ware]

The musical project of Aram Khachaturian is an excellent example of what Eric Hobsbawm calls “the invention of tradition” (Hobsbawm, 14). As a composer, he worked in the officially created style of Socialist Realism in order to create Soviet nationalism in

Aram KhachaturianArmenia, to prepare Armenia to be a truly Communist nation. During his lifetime, which overlapped much of that of the Soviet Union, he was greatly respected for this work. But the ideological conditions that created the possibility for his work collapsed soon after his death. Thus, he serves as a unique case study on the persistence, or lack thereof, of invented tradition, or even the subsuming of one invented tradition by another.

Born on June 6, 1903 in Tbilisi, Georgia, Aram Khachaturian was the son of Armenian parents (Yuzefovich, 2, 5). He was exposed to significant amounts of Armenian music and culture as a child, and would go with his mother on Sundays to the Armenian Orthodox Church (ibid., 7). He did not receive much formal musical training in his youth, although he became known as a formidable improviser. His older brother, Suren, was early involved in the Soviet national theater for Armenia, and it was through his efforts that Aram went to Moscow to study composition in 1921 (ibid., 14, 15). In Moscow, he succeeded in establishing himself, not only as an Armenian composer, but as a Soviet composer. Indeed, during the 30s and 40s, he became, with Dmitrii Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, one of the most prominent practitioners of Soviet composition; in fact, he was the only composer to emerge from the Soviet nationalist project to “attain world renown” (Frolova-Walker, 362). In the early 1940s, he wrote the ballet Gayane, using much folk music material from Armenia. It was a rewrite of his own Schast’e, the first Armenian national ballet (Steyn, 11, Robinson, 432). The Sabre Dance from this ballet was to become one of his most famous compositions. Gayane also established him as a Hollywood composer, with sections from this work used in films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Throughout his career, Khachaturian wrote in many forms, but always made reference to the ethnic music of Armenia. He died in 1978.

Many make much of the fact that Khachaturian was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and did most of his work in Moscow, yet is regarded as the premier representative of Armenian classical music (see Forlova-Walker, 371 for an example of this). Although true, this glosses over the more complicated aspects of Soviet art policy. Because of their understanding of history as a series of phases, one of which was nationalism, through which all societies must pass in order to arrive at a stateless, utopian Communism, the Soviets believed that it was their responsibility to accelerate this process in the nations and ethnicities which were being incorporated into the Soviet Union. The method by which this was to be accomplished was that of Soviet nationalism, which was to be, in Stalin’s words, “national in form…, socialist in content” (Frolova-Walker, 334). The Soviets embarked on a project of nationalizing groups like the Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, a project that included the making of national arts for these groups.

This nationalizing project followed a particular script that seems to have been written in consultation with assumptions about culture and civilization readily available from Western Europe, which gives it the appearance of cultural imperialism at times. Groups that were to be fully nationalized were tasked with building opera houses, to give one example, and writing a national repertory to be performed in it (ibid., 335). For the Armenians, Khachaturian was to act in this capacity, using folk songs, which were elevated to a high status as both nationalist and revolutionary art, as the raw material for the forging of a national art that could unite and inspire the Armenians (ibid., 333). Nationalities without such representatives as Khachaturian were assigned composers to write national musics for them, however these composers conceived this task (ibid., 335).

The aesthetic of these new national arts was defined by Moscow, and, as we have noted, included the promotion of folk music (ibid., 338). After 1932, this aesthetic became known as Socialist Realism, which Carol Steyn has described in the following way: “it espoused revolutionary aims in the socio-political sphere while adopting a conservative canon of aesthetic values” (Steyn, 15). As this aesthetic was developed for each nationality deemed worthy by the Soviets of a national art, its results “were consistently presented as authentic indigenous developments” (Frolova-Walker, 338).

Khachaturian could be seen to have been tasked with handing down a culture to the passive Armenians, who would have not, for some time, been able to do so on their own, at least in the eyes of the Soviets.  Is he therefore a collaborator in the subversion of the culture of his native land?

A quick deconstruction of this complicates this reduction. In the first place, it seems very likely that, without heavy-handed Soviet policy, Armenia would still have developed a musical language tied to uniquely Armenian conceptions of nation identity. Before the revolution, the process was already under way under the direction of Spendiarov, who died in 1928 and wrote the first Armenian national opera in 1918, which was part of the accepted route for the musical art of ethnicities seeking national recognition in the tradition of romantic nationalism (Frolova-Walker, 340, Hakobian, 22). One can only speculate, but it seems likely that the Armenian genocide under the Turks would also have served as a unifying factor, and that the social field would have been ripe for the emergence of a nationalist composer like Khachaturian, without impetus from the Soviets.

But the nationalist discourse is a totalizing one, and, once the Soviets turned it to the purpose of socialism, there was little room in the discourse for base nationalism. It would be interesting to explore the non-totalizing discourses that developed in opposition to Soviet Nationalism in Armenia, but that is beyond the scope of this piece. In light of this understanding of discourse, it seems appropriate to think of Khachaturian’s position as a compromise represented by a set of questions: What does it mean to write Soviet music? What does it mean to write Armenian music? And, what is the overlap between these two?

It is clear that Khachaturian was seen and saw himself as a Soviet composer: “I am not an Armenian composer; I am a Soviet composer” (ibid., 257). The official stance, represented by his most recent Soviet biographer, Yuzefovich, was that his “position was to extol Soviet reality” (Yuzefovich, 191). Khachaturian, with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, are consistently seen as the most important figures in Soviet music (Robinson, 429). He joined the Communist Party in 1943, years before his compatriot Shostakovich, who was not associated with any particular national music project (Yuzefovich, 124, Fay, 216). And, also unlike Shostakovich, who is famous for his irony and doubt, Khachaturian seems to have truly thought himself a Soviet Communist (Frolova-Walker, 362).

But Khachaturian also constructed himself, and was seen, as an Armenian composer. Writing in the late Soviet era, Pancho Vladegerov noted that Khachaturian “has brought Armenian music world fame. His compositions have made this world dear and understandable to the peoples of the whole world” (Yuzefovich, vii). While a student, he worked in the Moscow House of Culture of Soviet Armenia (ibid., 34). He made an extensive trip to Armenia in the late 30s and early 40s to collect material for his nationalist ballet, Stasch’e (Happiness), which was to become Gayane (Steyn, 11). Later, in the forties, Khachaturian perceived that there was no popular music in Armenia anymore and took it upon himself to write some folk tunes for popular consumption. He reported that someone had mistaken his songs for real folk tunes, illustrating the real pride that he felt about creating an Armenian identity (Yuzefovich, 192).

But this treats these two categories as if they are mutually exclusive, which they are not. And examining the collisions of the two will help to understand both the effect Khachaturian had on Armenian culture and how one should view that effect. Khachaturian was not spared in the infamous 1948 crackdown on formalism in Soviet music, and in his apology, he “blamed his own temporary deviation from socialist realism on the noxious influence of critics and musicologists who had urged him to overcome the limitations of his strict Armenian national style” (Maes, 312). He was to write the music of Socialist Realism through Armenian means. Ideally, the two were to be melded into one. It is interesting to note that the favored position that Khachaturian held in the canon of Soviet music is specifically related to his success as the creator of a Soviet, Armenian music (Frolova-Walker, 362).

In the melding of these, one is wise to acknowledge that Soviet won out more than Armenian. This might be expected when the Soviet ideological position was that truly Armenian identity and Soviet identity were the same. Khachaturian’s position on this was that, “We will most likely arrive at the culture of communism in an historically short time. Why do I think so? Because of the experience of building national cultures in the Soviet Union” (Yuzefovich, 1). The musicologist Carol Steyn has documented how the Soviet music project exploited the perceived oriental aspects of composers like Khachaturian, but Frolova-Walker goes a step further to note that Khachaturian himself never challenged the Orientalist assumptions under which he was  expected to write; in fact, he seems sincerely dedicated to them (Steyn, 13, Frolova-Walker, 362). Khachaturian remarked that he was seeking to write European Armenian music, not Asian Armenian music, which is the task of the ultimate Orientalist (Yuzefovich, 257). Perhaps Prokofiev was not far from the point when, in his criticism of Gayane, he noted that Khachaturian relied excessively on Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, both exquisitely Orientalist composers, for methods of treating the folk material (ibid., 147).

Aram Khachaturian died in 1978, and the current government of Armenia declared itself independent thirteen years later, in 1991. Not only is he but a memory, but the project of Soviet nationalism that he spent his life on is as well. During the late Soviet era, there were several buildings opened in Yerevan to honor his memory. As a testament to the strength of this, they remain dedicated to him, in spite of efforts to rid Armenia of Soviet influences. In 1982, The Aram Khachaturian Museum was opened in Yerevan, which remains open. It serves as a site for the commemoration of Khachaturian, as well as an important performance venue (Steyn, 17, 18).  The museum website presents a hagiographic portrait of him as a composer, which appears to have been written in Soviet times and not updated since the end of the USSR (Life and Creative Work). The Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra plays in the Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall (ibid.). In addition, at the mausoleum for the victims of the Turkish genocide, his and Komitas’ music is played constantly (Steyn, 18).

However, while the official status of his memory exists, his Soviet-ness ensures that ideological stratagems must be employed to incorporate him into the post-Soviet national project. Robinson has suggested that the ease with which his major works, such as Spartacus, can be reinterpreted to fit distinctly Armenian national needs boosts his continued acceptance in Armenian culture (Robinson, 437). It also seems that his prominence in the national discourse is also actively diminished, as exemplified by the official Armenian tourism website listing Khachaturian last in a list of its prominent musicians and composers (About Armenia: the Culture).

When one moves outside of the realms of official discourse the picture becomes even more complicated. There is in Armenia, like the rest of Russia’s periphery, a sense that the cultural heritage of Russia’s forced acculturation project is somehow tainted and that these artworks are best left to dusty  corners (Frolova-Walker, 331-2). Corollary to this, Armenians have thrown themselves into positive projects to discover a music truly Armenian in identity, described by Adriaans as “unrestrained nationalist euphoria” (Adriaans, 3). But Khachaturian, the physical embodiment of the policies Armenians are so disenchanted with, survives. One practitioner of Rabiz, an Armenian ethno-pop music that has Turkish roots, invoked his name in a probably invented tale to justify his art (ibid., 67). And Khachaturian still remains “a national treasure” (Frolova-Walker, 371).

Most references to Khachaturian in the official discourse of Armenia occur in the context of the performance of the world system of Western Classical music (the Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall, the performances of his work in concerts in which works by other “classical” composers are played). This suggests another way to understand the memory of Aram Khachaturian in Armenia—as a response to his lingering presence in the cultural memory of non-Armenian consumers of Western classical music and, to a lesser extent, film—memories that themselves have much to owe to Soviet presentation of Khachaturian to the West as a success story of Soviet art. Today, Armenians hold him up as their ticket to inclusion in this world system while rewriting Khachaturian as a success story of Armenia. Thus, we arrive at a final irony: Khachaturian, whom the Soviets saw as facilitating the transition of Armenia into the Communist age, becomes, in the lingering traces of his memory, a ticket for the inclusion of Armenia in the new global order.


Works cited:

  • E. J.Hobsbawm, and T. O. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press, (1983).
  • Viktor Aronovich Yuzefovich, Aram Khachaturyan, New York: Sphinx Press, (1985).
  • Marina Frolova-Walker, “”National in Form, Socialist in Content”: Musical Nation-Building in the Soviet Republics”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 51 (2): 331-371, (1998.
  • Carol Steyn, “Khachaturyan in Armenia today : his presence in Armenian music, art and architecture, rooted in Socialist Realism”, South African Journal of Art History, 24 (3): 9-23, (2009).
  • H. Robinson, “The Caucasian Connection: National Identity in the Ballets of Aram Khachaturian”, Nationalities Papers, 35 (3): 429-438, (2007).
  • Levon Hakobian, Music of the Soviet age, 1917-1987, Stockholm, Sweden: Melos Music Literature, (1998).
  • Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: a life, New York: Oxford University Press (2000).
  • Francis Maes, A history of Russian music: from Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar, Berkeley: University of California Press, (2002).
  • Virtual Museum of Aram Khachaturian, “Life and Creative Work,” Accessed April 6, 2012.
  • Armenian Tourism Development Agency, “About Armenia: the Culture,” Accessed April 6, 2012.
  • Rik Adriaans, “Sonorous Borders: National Cosmology & The Mediation of Collective Memory in Armenian Ethnopop Music,” (accessed April 6, 2012).