The work that truly launched Khachaturian’s international reputation had a far from auspicious start. Composed in 1936, his Piano Concerto was an ambitious attempt to blend the trans-Caucasian folk music of his hometown, Tiflis (today the Georgian capital, and known as Tbilisi), with the dramatic virtuosity of a Liszt concerto.
For its first public outing the soloist was Lev Oborin, winner of the first Warsaw International Chopin Piano Competition of 1927. However, the performance was held on an open-air stage in Sokolniki, a Moscow ‘park of culture and leisure’. Oborin had to play on an upright, and Khachaturian’s ambitious orchestral score, including within its soulful slow movement a part for flexatone (a ‘singing’ percussive instrument also used by Arnold Schoenberg), was entrusted to an ad hoc group of musicians of varying skill, who had just one rehearsal before the performance on 12 July 1937.
During the performance, a strong wind blew away the spectacles of the conductor, Lev Steinberg, who continued as best he could, even though he could no longer see the score in front of him. All this was too much for the composer. After the performance Khachaturian was eventually found, as Oborin recalled, ‘deep inside the park, crying bitterly, with his arms around a birch tree’.
It was an experience that might have upset a more experienced composer. For Khachaturian, deliberately nurtured by the Soviet State as representative of the newly budding Armenian national style, and of whom much was expected, this first exposure outside the relatively safe confines of the Moscow Conservatory was both humiliating and traumatic, as became evident from his subsequent touchiness about how his music was to be performed.
Yet the Concerto’s premiere, despite all appearances, was officially deemed a success, and professional performances followed that autumn, both in Moscow (conducted by Alexander Gauk) and in Leningrad (by Yevgeny Mravinsky). Khachaturian was soon spoken of in the same breath as his distinguished colleagues Shostakovich and Prokofiev. He not only became a leading Soviet composer, but from 1939 held a key position in the Composer’s Union: as vice chairman of its organising committee – in effect the executive head – Khachaturian oversaw the setting up of a central music fund to commission and publish works by Soviet composers. He also personally organised the creation of rural ‘houses of rest and creativity’, such as Ivanovo, where composers could work in quiet surroundings. That he threw himself into this work with such energy and enthusiasm was perhaps his way of thanking the system that had so prodigiously recognised his talents.
Born to a humble Armenian family, Khachaturian had received no formal musical training in his youth, though he taught himself piano on a battered upright acquired by his parents; by the time Georgia fell to the Red Army, early in 1921, he was good enough to work as a pianist aboard a Bolshevik propaganda train running between Tiflis and the Armenian capital Yerevan; his job was to attract a crowd by playing popular songs and marches at every stop.
But it was almost entirely the unique opportunities afforded by Soviet rule that enabled Khachaturian to develop from a musically illiterate teenager to one of the world’s most popular composers of the last century. The new Soviet state was determined to demonstrate its beneficial effect on precisely those non-Russian ethnic groups which had been neglected under tsarist rule. One person to benefit from this policy was Khachaturian’s older brother, the theatre director Suren Khachaturov (he had removed the Armenian-style ending to his surname when he first moved to tsarist Moscow in 1910).
When Tiflis fell into Soviet hands, Suren obtained an official mandate to recruit promising young musicians and artists from his home town to be trained at his Armenian drama studio in Moscow. Khachaturian, seizing his opportunity to improve his education, joined Suren’s newly-recruited troupe aboard a freight train to Moscow. Within months of his arrival, his talent was recognised and he enrolled at the Gnessin Institute, a music college run by the formidable Yelena Gnessina. He initially studied cello, but when he hurt his hand, either through over-zealous practice or from hauling crates in a wine cellar (to earn necessary income while studying), he was persuaded to study composition instead with Gnessina’s brother, Mikhail Gnessin.
Gnessin was then involved in developing a Jewish folk style in music, and naturally encouraged his pupil to develop his ‘Armenian’ style from the trans-Caucasian folk and urban songs and dances he knew from childhood in Tiflis. Khachaturian’s earliest compositions – charming miniatures for piano, spiced with dissonances typical of Tiflis street musicians – also show his admiration of Ravel’s music.