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ClassicsOnline Home » KHACHATURIAN, A.I.: Spartacus, Suite No. 4 / Masquerade / Circus
Aram Il'yich Khachaturian (1903-1978)
Spartacus: Suite No. 4 • Masquerade: Suite
Circus: Ballet Music • Dance Suite
The Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian was born in Tbilisi in 1903 and had his musical training at the Gnesin Music Academy in Moscow, entering in 1929 the Moscow Conservatory, where he was a pupil of Prokofiev's friend and mentor, Myaskovsky. He established himself as a composer during the 1930s and held official positions in the Union of Soviet Composers, although he was included in the condemnation of formalism, together with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, in 1948. Nevertheless his style of composition, with the use of regional elements from Armenia and elsewhere in the southern areas of the Soviet Union, in the end ensured his continuing reputation, enhanced once more, after the death of Stalin in 1953, by his ballet Spartacus, a work that combined spectacle in its crowd scenes and attention to individual virtuosity in its solos, with a plot that could not but satisfy the ideals of the regime. Writing in a tonal idiom with richly coloured orchestration, Khachaturian was opposed to modern experiment in composition and in spite of the condemnation of 1948 held publicly that Soviet composers enjoyed a creative freedom impossible in the West, with its modernising fashions, to which subservience was obligatory. During his life-time he received many honours, including in 1954 the title People's Artist. He died in 1978.
The ballet Spartacus, the score of which was completed in 1954, deals with the slave rebellion led by the hero of that name against Roman domination. The historical Spartacus himself was Thracian by birth, a shepherd who became a robber. He was taken prisoner and sold to a trainer of gladiators in Capua, but in 73 BC he escaped, with other prisoners, and led a rebellion during the course of which he defeated the Roman armies and caused devastation throughout Italy. He was eventually defeated by Crassus, a general well known for his wealth, and put to death by crucifixion, together with his followers. It should be added that to Karl Marx Spartacus was the first great proletarian hero, a champion of the people, while the ultimate fate of Crassus, killed in 53 BC during the course of a campaign that had taken him to Armenia, might have had a particular significance for Khachaturian.
Spartacus was first produced at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad in 1956, with choreography by Leonid Jacobson, and was re-staged at the Bolshoi in Moscow two years later, with choreography by Igor Moiseyev. The relative failure of these productions was followed by what must be seen as the definitive version at the Bolshoi in 1968, with choreography and a revised libretto by Yuri Grigorovich, Vladimir Vasilyev as Spartacus and Ekaterina Maximova as Phrygia.
The ballet opens in Rome, where Crassus is buying Thracian prisoners, including Spartacus and his wife Phrygia. Spartacus will not accept his fate. In the second scene the slaves are sold, below the walls of the Capitol, and Phrygia, separated now from her husband, laments her uncertain fate. She has been bought by Crassus and in his villa his mistress Aegina mocks her fears: she herself cares only for power, money and dissolute living. In an orgy two blindfold slaves trained as gladiators are brought in and made to fight each other to the death. One of them wins and reveals himself as Spartacus, dismayed now at having killed a fellow-slave. He wonders what his fate will be. The scene changes to the barracks of the gladiators, where Spartacus urges his fellow-slaves to fight for freedom. They swear to follow him.
The second of the three acts of the final version opens with a shepherd dance. Runaway slaves arrive and urge them to join the revolt, with Spartacus as their leader. He resolves to find and set free his wife Phrygia. Crassus celebrates his triumph and Spartacus now learns of Phrygia's fate. During a banquet given by Crassus, Spartacus escapes with Phrygia. Aegina does her best to gain her ends by dominating Crassus, who himself has grandiose political ambitions: he uses force and she uses her wits, but both have similar aims. At his villa the guests of Crassus celebrate, but news is brought that Spartacus and his men have surrounded the place. Crassus, Aegina and the nobles make their escape, leaving the slaves in charge of the villa. Spartacus realises that Roman strength lies in its armies and in the subservience of the people: in fact the Romans are cowards. In the fourth scene of the act Crassus is defeated and brought before Spartacus, who insists on single combat, rather than putting his enemy to death. Crassus loses, but is spared by Spartacus, who sends him contemptuously away.
The third act brings a conspiracy against Spartacus. Crassus is urged by Aegina to seek revenge and raises an army for the purpose. Aegina has time to give vent to her hatred of Spartacus and in the following scene enters the slave camp by night. Phrygia is uneasy and Spartacus tries to calm her. A messenger brings news of the advance of the Roman legions, against which Spartacus has a daring plan, to which his immediate supporters object. Aegina, meanwhile, with the help of the traitor Harmodius, is still intent on revenge. This she accomplishes as the slaves wait for their leader's battle signal. She now plies them with wine and brings women to corrupt and weaken them, leading to their defeat by Crassus and her own reward. Crassus is determined that they shall die. In a final battle Spartacus is surrounded and captured, to be raised up on legionary spears. Phrygia comes to seek him, and is left mourning over his dead body.
The first three suites from the ballet were arranged by the composer between 1955 and 1957, with a fourth suite in 1967, before the revision of the score for the Bolshoi in 1968. Music in the suites is taken from various scenes in the ballet, forming coherent musical sequences that do not necessarily follow the order of dramatic events in the original ballet.
The colourful incidental music for a production in 1941 of Lermontov's Masquerade serves its purpose admirably. The drama itself has, over the years, attracted a number of Russian composers, from Kolesnikov in the 1890s to operas by Mosolov, Denbsky, Bunin, Zeidman, Nersesov and Artamanov, a ballet by Lamputin and incidental music by Glazunov, Shebalin and Khachaturian. Lermontov's hero, Evgeny Arbenin, is bored with the world, despising the decadent society of St. Petersburg in which he moves, moody and suspicious. In a plot that follows the story of Othello, Arbenin is jealous of his wife, Nina, an innocent woman whom he poisons. The play is bitter in its criticism of contemporary society and was banned for some thirty years. Its appeal to more recent audiences is clear enough. Khachaturian's music for Masquerade, like Tchaikovsky's for some of the scenes in his opera based on Pushkin's Evgeny Onyegin, gives a glittering picture of social life, a contrast to the reality beneath.
The ballet music by Khachaturian for Circus is characteristic in its energetic style, typical of a form of composition which found particular favour with the contemporary musical establishment, as did that of his nephew, Karen Khachaturian, whose ballet Cippolino was awarded the Stalin Prize. It opens dramatically, proceeding with the brash and vivid energy that might be expected from the composer of the famous Sabre Dance, with a following series of episodes offering the necessary degree of excitement and tension, at times even with a suggestion of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Nevertheless the general musical idiom is firmly within the bounds of current official Soviet taste, aptly serving its practical function and ending, as it began, in a cinematic triumph that would not have disgraced Hollywood in its heyday.
Khachaturian's Dance Suite was his first major work for full orchestra, written in 1933, while he was a student at Moscow Conservatory in the composition class of Myaskovsky. He later explained how he had made use of Uzbek and Armenian melodic material, treating these melodies with some rhythmic freedom and adding motifs of his own. The first movement, Trans-Caucasian Dance makes use of folk-songs popular in Armenia and in Azerbaijan, Chem-Chem and Shalakho, while the second, the Armenian Dance, uses a well known Armenian dance-tune. The Uzbek Dance Tune has, as its second theme, the melody Kora soch, that Khachaturian also uses in the finale of his Clarinet Trio, while the fourth movement, Uzbek March, proclaims its source in its title. Khachaturian took particular pleasure in the final Ukrainian Lezghinka, which he preferred to his later version of the dance in the ballet Gayane. The first four movements enjoyed additional popularity in arrangements for wind-band, in celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Red Army.
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