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Born in Tbilisi, Georgia on June 6, 1903, Aram Khachaturian was fascinated by music but did not study music or learn to read it at first. In 1921, knowing no Russian, he went to Moscow to join his brother who was the stage director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Although Khachaturian had almost no musical education, he showed such great talent that he was admitted to the Gnessin Institute where he studied cello with Mikhail Gnessin and, in 1925, entered a composition class. In 1929, Khachaturian transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where he studied composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky and orchestration with Sergei Vasilenko, graduating in 1934.
In the 1930s, he married a fellow student, the composer Nina Makarova. In 1951, he became a professor at the Gnessin State Musical & Pedagogical Institute in Moscow and the Moscow Conservatory. He also held important posts at the Composers’ Union, which would later severely denounce some of his works as being “formalist” music, along with those of Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. These three composers became the so-called “titans” of Soviet music, enjoying worldwide reputation as some of the leading composers of the 20th century.
Khachaturian’s work includes concertos for violin, cello and piano. This was his first work to gain him recognition in the West. Additional work includes concerto-rhapsodies for violin, cello and piano, three symphonies and the ballets Spartacus and Gayane. The adagio from Spartacus was used in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: (A Space Odyssey). The final act of Gayane features the famous “Sabre Dance.” He also composed some film music and incidental music for plays such as the 1941 production of Mikhail Lermontov’s Masquerade. The cinematic quality of his music for Spartacus was clearly seen when it was used for a popular BBC drama series, The Onedin Line. Joel Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy also prominently featured music from both Spartacus and Gayane (including the “Sabre Dance”). The climax of Spartacus was also used in Ice Age: The Meltdown.
Khachaturian died in Moscow on May 1, 1978, just short of his 75th birthday. In 1998, he was honored by appearing on Armenian paper money (50 dram).