Today, the Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian is best known for the "Saber Dance" from his 1942 ballet Gayane, which is often used to accompany magic or vaudeville acts, particularly those involving the spinning of plates on sticks. But in the Soviet Union, Khachaturian was an official great composer, part of a troika that included Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. To be an official great composer was a mixed blessing, of course. It meant a comfortable living, wide acclaim and constant scrutiny by the party's Central Committee for signs of deviance. In 1948, all three composers were sent to esthetic jail, their work banned until further notice. Comrade Stalin may not have known much about music, but he knew what he liked...and didn't like.
He didn't like anything smacking of Western "decadence" -- dissonances, chromatic harmonies, jazzy rhythms. A composer should be "a writer of editorials," as music critic Virgil Thomson wrote at the time, mocking the propaganda machine called socialist realism. By all accounts, Shostakovich and Prokofiev got the worst of it. They're also the more interesting composers, arguably. But it's the Armenian saber-rattler who's the subject of Peter Rosen's PBS-ish documentary, Khachaturian. Why? Maybe because Shostakovich's and Prokofiev's stories have been told many times. Or maybe because there was so much archival footage lying around. We see Khachaturian composing. We see him conducting. We see him being denounced. We see him being celebrated. We see him lying in state. And via Eric Bogosian's I-am-Khachaturian narration, we hear what he thought about everything.
Or do we? Exactly how did Khachaturian feel when his career suddenly went up in smoke? And how did he feel when, several years after Stalin's death, he was suddenly readmitted into the pantheon? Soviet artists were caught in a bind -- loyalty to the party ideals they grew up with versus the reality of life under Stalin. Just how alienated was Khachaturian? Alas, the movie doesn't have a very clear answer to that question. It does suggest that Khachaturian's late-'50s ballet Spartacus, which put him back in the party's good graces (Marx had been a big fan of Spartacus), was less about Spartacus than about himself. He was the slave revolting against an evil empire. A nice theory, but Rosen doesn't provide many facts to back it up. Plus, just how brave was that? Defying authority while currying favor -- nice work if you can get it.