Aram Khatchaturian


6 June 1903 – 1 May 1978

How come there was no celebration of Aram Khatchaturian’s birthday on June the 6th?
I myself was at fault, because of other preoccupations last week ending that day with my attending a memoriam held out of town to honor a dear family friend.

No further excuses, and let me cut to the chase on a personal note: During my participation as India’s sole representative in the First Franz Liszt International Piano Competition in 1956, held in Budapest, all the competitors drawn from around the globe – 55 participants, no less! – were invited after the preliminaries to that famous idyllic spit of land in the Danube lying between Buda and Pest – Margit-sziget, or Margaret Island! Margaret IslandThe serene setting was a far cry from the restless hustle and bustle of the city, and our visit was clearly bent on providing us with some light relief from the previous week’s rigors of the elimination contest on terra firma.

The black-tie event opened up to a foreigner’s eye the past and present of social life in the Hungarian capital at that time: Soviet-style gritty grey grimness on the one hand, Western-style bonhomie full of vibrant color and cuisine on the other. What awaited us was a plethora of decadent, enticing hors d’oeuvres atop linen-covered tables in the intimate reception room, to which spread we were effusively welcomed by the grey-haired
maître d’hôtel to partake at our leisure while awaiting the arrival of the Guests of Honor, who according to him, were never on time.

When they did finally arrive, it turned out that they were mainly senior members of the ruling Communist party uniformly dressed in black (men and women) but also –  quite distinctively – all the Jury Members of the Competition as well as two world-renowned composers: the Hungarian Zoltán Kodály (who was the President of the Competition) and the Armenian Aram Khatchaturian (who was the honored guest.)

KadosaPál  Kadosa (1903-1983)
I should not fail to mention Mr. Kodály’s composition student, Pál Kadosa, who was also there – not only as a member of the international jury, but as an already famous pianist, composer and teacher. His own most prominent student was György Ligeti.
I came to admire Mr. Kadosa’s works and still treasure a volume of them that he gave me. They include some really individualistic – if ascetic and somewhat austere – pieces, which have grown on me over the years.

I eventually got to see Messrs. Kodály and Khatchaturian, and through an interpreter was able to ascertain after formal introductions were over that I would have time between my sessions on the concert stage to meet them one-on-one at the Radio Station in downtown Budapest. Not only that, a music critic from the BBC, London, would be on hand to record the back-and-forth interview.

What transpired was, for me, an unforgettable moment in my young musical life. There was I in a studio with two of my Western Music idols – one  classical, the other (perhaps) neo-classical, but both influenced by folk music – who were gracious and unhurried in their responses to my questions. Surprisingly, Mr. Khatchaturian was more forthcoming in his replies unlike Mr. Kodály’s, and by hindsight, come to think of it, just a few days later Soviet tanks rumbled into the city and blew up the Radio Station to prevent word of the invasion from leaking to the outside world  as to what was happening on the ground. So I must conjecture, to this day, that there was something up in the tense, torrid political air that made Mr. Kodály more circumspect during our meeting in framing his deliberate answers to my flurry of questions.

For the record, and looking back, Aram Khachaturian was the most renowned Armenian composer of the 20th century and the author of the first Armenian ballet music, symphony, concerto, and film score.  While following the established musical traditions of Russia, he broadly used Armenian and to a lesser extent, Caucasian, Eastern & Central European, and Middle Eastern peoples’ folk music in his works. He is highly regarded in Armenia, where he is considered to be a “national treasure.”

Without doubt, the Saber Dance from his ballet Gayane is his single most celebrated piece. Watch here the first 2’50” of the performance by Mariinsky (a historic theatre of opera and ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia) on YouTube:  Saber Dance. Not to be outdone, his Piano Concerto, written 80 years ago, is one of the most recognizable in the contemporary concert repertory, and his Toccata for piano enjoys great popularity among the younger fry of budding musicians in Western conservatories: no wonder – I can tell you it’s great fun to play! This YouTube video will illustrate my point: Toccata for piano.

kodalyZoltán Kodály  (1886-1967)
As for Mr. Kodály, he was a master in conveying the spirit of that inherent Hungarian folk dance, the Czardas, in the intermezzo movement of his famous Hary Janos suite: it consists of a slow section called “lassu” alternating with a rapid one, “friss.” Here is an attractive and colorful rendition on YouTube: Intermezzo from Hary Janos.

We all got so fired up, that Mr. Kodály asked us, including his BBC guest-cum-rapporteur, to repair to his renowned school nearby, where he personally squired us around the various studios brimful of young musicians in the making. They were being taught the Kodály Method that later swept many conservatories of music in the West as a novel, yet effective way of teaching music to even the youngest of enrolled students.

And so it goes in the continuum that exists today between Western music and music education around the world…….

Before leaving his school, I turned to Mr. Kodály and asked him what he thought of Liszt as a Hungarian composer. He flushed slightly, then barked out in English (it was the first and only time I heard him speak English during my two weeks in Budapest): “Hungarian?! He couldn’t even speak the language!!”

Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas

6 thoughts on “Aram Khatchaturian

    1. I’m glad you liked it. I’ve collected six months of my writings as “Azim Lewis Mayadas Blog [January – June 2015]: some of my thoughts, written down – vol. 1” with Dark Green Cover that is now available via Amazon at a modest price.
      PS: An earlier unformatted version of the 106-page book with Light Green Cover was supposed to have been deleted by Amazon end-June, but it still carries it despite my complaint last week, causing some confusion. I’ve since been assured that the faulty issue has been removed, but I felt it was important that my disclaimer should be made public, especially to those who have commented favorably on my blogs so as to avoid any untoward purchase of the earlier version – thanks!
      PPS: The forthcoming Volume 2 (July – December 2015) will I hope not suffer from the glitch that the release of Volume 1 suffered from at the time of rollout last month.

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