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Khachaturian (1903-78) - Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia

Aram Khachaturian originally intended to become a biologist but, as luck would have it, got sidetracked into a musical career. A staunch Armenian, virtually all his music celebrates the Armenian national culture, replete with exotic colours and vibrant, sometimes almost brutal rhythms. His melodic devices are frequently Mugam-derived, often inciting toccata-like passage-work which can, occasionally, seem maddening to western ears. Khachaturian's music is not intellectual; in fact it can often sound brash to the point of luridness. 

The four-act ballet Spartacus was produced in Leningrad in 1956 (so it's roughly contemporary with West Side Story, though there all similarity ends). Huge expanses of its spectacular action are accompanied by propulsive, bruisingly rhythmic “toccata-like passage-work”. Thus the Adagio, when it arrives, sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, as the most memorable (if not quite the only) tune in the ballet. But, what a magnificently full-blooded tune! Even if you think the opening of Bax's Tintagel would have been more apt, you can understand the use of this music, with its refulgently aspiring melodic line, for the seafaring TV saga The Onedin Line (dammit - I promised myself I wasn't going to mention that!).

© Paul Serotsky
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