Friday, April 6, 2012

The Don's Deeds, Part 1: I'M Spartacus!

Aram Khachaturian
This month’s Masterworks Concert features “musical portraits” of three famous characters – two were actual “real” people and the other is one of the great literary creations of Western literature.

The concerts are Saturday, April 14th at 8pm and Sunday, April 15th at 3pm at the Forum.

Stuart Malina and I recently had a chance to chat about each of these pieces.

The program is called “The Don’s Deeds” for Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, but the two “living legends” are Billy the Kid, the famous American bad guy of the Wild West, and our first pod-cast topic, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, Spartacus.

You can listen to the "Spartacus" podcast here. (The other works will be covered in additional posts.)

As we talk about the role of “musical depiction” and whether one needs to understand the story or not, no – you don’t have to know Spartacus’ history to appreciate the music and you don’t even have to know the plot to enjoy the music Aram Khachaturian wrote for his ballet about him.

(For those of you looking at that name and wondering – it’s pronounced Ah-rahm’ catch-uh-TOOR-yun in the standard American mispronunciation: officially in Russian, the accent would be on the last syllable, catch-uh-toor-YAHN.)

Khachaturian was a leading composer of the Soviet Union, largely overshadowed by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. Born of Armenian descent in the Caucasus region of what was then the Russian Empire, he was seventeen when the area became a Soviet republic. He went to Moscow the following year and though he had no musical training – just exhibiting what could be an innate musical talent – he entered the Gnessin Academy, essentially Moscow’s answer to, say, the Curtis School of Music, first taking cello lessons and then, at 22, composition lessons.

Incidentally, a more recent student at the Gnessin was Igor Zubkovsky who started his studies as a cellist, there, and played the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto with the Minsk Symphony when he was 12. He’s currently the Harrisburg Symphony’s assistant principal cellist. His stand partner, Fiona Thompson, will be the featured soloist for Strauss’ Don Quixote on this program.

So, anyway, by the 1930s Khachaturian had become a recognized composer both at home and abroad. His ballet Gayane became an international success largely because of one short excerpt, the “Sabre Dance.”

In 1950, Khachaturian toured Italy as a guest-conductor and came back with the idea of writing a ballet about Spartacus. He completed it in 1954 and it was premiered the following year.

While Gayane’s “Sabre Dance” is his most familiar work, the beautiful Adagio from Spartacus is perhaps his “second-most famous” piece – as Stuart calls it in the pod-cast, “one of those guilty pleasures.” Once you get beyond the usual suspects – Pachelbel's Canon, the 1812 Overture, Ravel's Bolero – it was one of the most frequently requested pieces on my "Requests Nights" when I worked as a public radio announcer.

Inspired by the story of the slave who led a revolt against the Roman Republic around 70 BC, the ballet follows the “gist” of the conflict with lots of opportunities for Khachaturian’s lyrical voice as well as his exotic colorings, mostly from his Armenian heritage. There are dances for Greek and Egyptian slaves, scenes set in a market-place with merchants from around the Mediterranean, and even a dance for a bunch of pirates, including another Saber Dance for some Thracian soldiers (the lezginka, a common dance from the Caucasus Mountains, performed with swords – hence the more generic idea of “Sabre Dance,” not just the one from Gayaneh). In the midst of the political turmoil and all these rowdy and colorful scenes to expand on the story’s setting, there is this gorgeous love-duet between Spartacus and his wife, Phrygia. (In ballet, the term “adagio” refers less to tempo than to an extended sequence of “slow,” lyrical dancing.) Here is the scene from the Bolshoi Ballet’s production: 
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As is typical with many composers who want to salvage some of their best efforts for a work that can only be appreciated in a more limited setting – an opera house or a ballet theater – Khachaturian crafted three different suites of excerpts from the complete ballet so they can be enjoyed in the concert hall. The second of these suites opens with the famous Adagio: it forms about half the entire suite, followed by a market-place scene with a dance for the merchants, a Roman courtesan, a “general” dance for people in the market, which then is interrupted by Spartacus’ entrance, a quarrel, something labeled the “treachery of Harmodius” before concluding with a “Dance of the Pirates.”

To be honest, I’ve just read a three-page plot synopsis of the complete ballet and nowhere did it mention Harmodius or anything that would even resemble a market-place scene! Since there was a drastic revision of the original 1950s production involving a revised scenario and some new music presented in 1968, perhaps these scenes were removed from the ballet in the new version.

At my pre-concert talk (an hour before each concert), I’ll be getting more into the historical background of the ballet in Khachaturian’s life. I’ll be posting that information at a later date.

Incidentally, most people in the United States would be more familiar with Spartacus from a variety of “gladiator flicks” which may (or may not) use the original Spartacus’s story as a starting point. To many Americans “of a certain age,” Spartacus means Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas as the leader of the slave rebellion, Laurence Olivier as the Roman Crassus, and Tony Curtis as a fellow slave.

The most famous scene, however, is this one when the Roman general offers to give the just-captured slaves their lives (rather than crucifying them as was the standard punishment for many criminal offenses in those days) on the condition they identify their leader, Spartacus.

As Kirk Douglas goes to stand up, Tony Curtis, seated beside him, stands up first and shouts out, “I’M Spartacus!” He’s quickly joined by other slaves until the entire valley is ringing with shouts of "I'M Spartacus!" This selfless solidarity has become one of the great iconic scenes in Hollywood history.

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 - Dick Strawser

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