Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)
Aram Khachturian is generally celebrated as the foremost Armenian composer of the 20th century synthesizing European “classical” art music with striking elements of Eastern Eurasian folk music in a vivid nationalism that reflects multiple cultures under the sprawling aegis of Soviet Union. An outstanding conductor and teacher as well, Khachturian is remembered today primarily for his orchestral music comprising symphonies, concerti, ballet and film music, his most popular “hit” being the Sabre Dance from the Gayane suite. He was born and raised in Tbilisi, Georgia (then part of the Russian empire) where he was initially inspired by numerous folk music traditions from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Georgia. A young, provincial seventeen-year old Khachturian moved to Moscow to pursue a higher education, first in biology, then cello performance, and finally composition. Following years of study and practice, Khachturian would achieve an international reputation drawing praise from Prokofiev and Shostakovich (his nearly exact contemporary), who, like Khachturian himself, won awards as well as withering censure from the Soviet state.
Although he wrote very little for intimate ensemble (a handful of duo character pieces, a violin sonata and a fugue for string quartet), in 1932, at the age of 29, still a student, Khachturian composed a marvelous three-movement trio for clarinet, violin and piano. Though it dates from his school years in Moscow, it is masterful and unique, a perfect showcase for Khachaturian’s blend of classical and exotic folk elements particularly emphasized by the colorful instrumentation. The arguably more famous clarinet trios from Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann (Bruch and Zemlinsky) are all scored for clarinet with piano and viola or cello. Stravinsky, Bartók and Khachaturian chose the violin. With Khachaturian’s trio in particular, the pairing of the closely matched clarinet and violin creates a fascinating blend, a complex but seemingly spontaneous polyphonic unity of twin voices so characteristic of numerous Eastern European and Asian folk traditions.
The trio features three movements in a somewhat novel pattern of slow – fast – slow. The first movement rhapsody marked “with sorrow and great expression” immediately conjures an exotic sound world with a mesmerizing combination of repetition, variation and decorative elaboration in a signature eastern rhythm in 5/4. Here and throughout the trio, you hear the distinctive duo of undulating, decorative elaborations evoking a highly emotive, improvisational cantillation. Modal and chromatic scales swirl from the richly expressive voice of the clarinet and the rustic fiddling of the violin in a rich duet anchored by the piano’s rhythm, harmony and imitation. The second movement celebrates dance and a scherzo impulse with alternating slow and fast sections featuring that brisk motoric drive that sounds at once like both early modernism and ancient folk music. The more moderate finale is a theme and variations based on an Uzbek folk melody giving Khachturian an ample vehicle for demonstrating the riches of this ensemble supremely suited to his unique style. Melody and descant, call and response, haunting unisons and evocative intervals flow through a river of shifting tempi, mood and instrumental color that eventually grows soft and sorrowful until it flickers and fades into a deeply charged silence.