Aram Khachaturian's picture graced the walls of Russia's conservatories, alongside his compatriots Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, as one of the country's three greatest composers this century. Interestingly, his works - from favorites like the Masquerade incidental music and the ballets Gayane and Spartacus to his less-familiar, but no less engaging, symphonies and concertos - do not enjoy the international reputation that those of his two more familiar compatriots do. Perhaps this is because of Khachaturian's relatively limited output - only three symphonies compared to Prokofiev's seven and Shostakovich's fifteen, for example - but his works, for the most part, lack the 20th-century edge that gives the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich its more contemporary and challenging feel. But that's why he was a Soviet musical hero, especially after he publicly renounced formalism when criticized by the government in 1948 - his music overflows with melody and vitality, its languorous moments alternating with sections of overwhelming rhythmic dynamism. As an ethnic Armenian born in a suburb of Tiflis, Georgia, Khachaturian became a manifestation of one of the cornerstones of Soviet arts policy - the combination of the folk heritage of the various Socialist Republics with Russia's artistic traditions, embodied in music by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Like Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian composed three ballets. His second, Gayane (1942, with its three suites arranged in 1943) reworked much of the material from his first ballet, Happiness (1939). The story takes place on a collective farm on the Georgian border in 1941, the year the Germans invaded the Soviet Union during World War II. The lives of its residents, their conflicts, and their allegiances offer an object lesson in how to be a loyal Soviet citizen and the rewards of a life devoted to the state, and Khachaturian's music narrates the story and its intermittent set pieces with style and directness in the best Russian tradition. Favorites from the ballet include the raucous Sabre Dance, with its percussion (especially the xylophone) playing at break-neck speed.
Spartacus was Khachaturian's third ballet, premiered by the Kirov company in Leningrad in 1956 and revised for its 1968 production at the Bolshoi in Moscow. This tale of a Roman slave revolt offered obvious possibilities for political messages about the nobility and obligations of revolutionary struggle. The lush Adagio opens with languid expressions of the love between Spartacus and Phrygia, but then develops more martial intimations of revolutionary rather than romantic fervor. It ends where it began, but with the tenderness undercut by ominous hints of the trouble to come.