Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #16/50: The Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian

As a creator of artistic content, I always find it interesting to see how my work is received once I press the “Publish” button and send it out into the world. In the blogging world, I am definitely a small-timer but, I have had one post that has done very well in terms of “the numbers”. The post in question was one that I wrote several years ago, not long after the lead singer of The Tragically Hip. Gord Downie, had passed away. The featured song was “Long Time Running”. *(You can read that post here). In that post, I spoke about how we invite public figures into our private lives. I spoke about how the guys in The Hip turned out to be pretty much what we thought they were when all was said and done. They were a band of brothers who cared about each other and who all walked away when Gord said it was time. Their departure, while sad, was satisfying nonetheless. I contrasted the story of The Hip with that of Canadian Olympic darlings, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. While at the Olympics in South Korea, those two crafted a love story for the ages. We were all convinced that they would win Gold and then return to Canada, get married, have what amounted to a royal wedding and go on as Canada’s sweethearts for eternity. But as we all know, their relationship was not what it seemed. Unlike The Hip, Tessa and Scott were never in love. In fact, Scott had been dating another woman all throughout the glory days of their career. When that news broke, as a nation we felt let down and disappointed. So anyway, I wrote the post, said what I said and like all other posts, I hit the “Publish” button, sent it off to the world and expected around 30-50 people to see it and a handful to comment. That is what usually happens to my stories. And that is ok. But something unusual happened to the Long Time Running post…it caught on somewhere out there and has turned out to be my most popular post (in terms of views) of anything else I have ever published. In fact, the numbers for that post dwarf everything else I have done. Of the approximately 20,000 total page views my stories have had cumulatively over the years, Long Time Running accounts for almost one third of that total all by itself. It is as close to going viral as a guy like me can get. And yet, I can’t really explain why this post caught fire when so many other posts have gone by the wayside. But, it has.That’s one of the funny things about being a content creator, you can never be completely sure how your work will be received. You can have an idea as to whether or not your work has artistic merit but, as far as popularity goes, it is often just as surprising to us as it may be to you when something takes off and comes to define us in a way. The story I have just told is a much smaller version of what happened to today’s composer, Armenian-born Aram Khachaturian. Here is what happened to him as a result of him creating a dance called The Sabre Dance.

Khachaturian’s story is one that is best understood within the political context of his times. Khachaturian lived his entire life either in the shadow of Russia or else, in Russia itself. As you may know, Russia’s history is characterized by the constant ebb and flow of its territorial ambitions. The countries that exist in close geographic proximity to Mother Russia all have felt the impact of its presence over time. In some cases, that has meant Soviet occupation of their neighbours. In other cases, it has meant that Russia has allowed their neighbours to claim a sort of independence but, because of economic and military pressure, the reality is that Russia’s neighbours often end up operating as more of a branch plant than they do an independent state. Another aspect of Russian history that is undeniable is that the power structure within Russia has usually been that of an authoritarian dictatorship. Strongmen rule, from Stalin through to Putin. As a consequence, those on the outside of the inner circle of power tend to jockey for favour. It isn’t very often that anyone has the courage (or foolhardiness) to challenge Russian leadership from within. To do so has historically been akin to political and personal suicide.

Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.

So it was in this political and cultural environment that Aram Khachaturian became interested in music. Although born in Armenia, Khachaturian grew up with the hope of training in Moscow with the best Russian composers of the day such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. So, Kahachaturian moved to Russia and enrolled in the best music schools. Soon, he became known for his ability to compose scores for ballets. At that time, most ballets and theatre productions were not pure dramas based on whatever topic the creator desired. Instead, most creative productions adhered to the political parameters as set out by overseers in the Russian parliament. This was true of a ballet that Khachaturian scored that was called Gayene. Gayene was a ballet that told the story of a farming collective in which the heroes of the story displayed “proper Russian virtues” and the villains of the play did not. There is a love story in which the female lead (a woman who works on the farming collective) falls in love with the Russian district commander. Her husband, who plots against the collective and, by extension, against Russia, gets his comeuppance in the end. As Khachaturian was scoring the various scenes in this ballet, he did so as he always did…he created his best work for each scene so that at the end of the ballet, authorities would approve of his work and that he might be able to rise in the ranks of the Russian musical establishment. One of the scenes that he scored was a fight scene. In that scene, Khachaturian created a piece of music that has come to be known as “The Sabre Dance”. At the time of its creation, “The Sabre Dance” was merely another musical patch on a patchwork quilt that was the entire score of the ballet. However, just like me and my post, Long Time Running, upon its release, “The Sabre Dance” took on a life of its own. It was given an enthusiastic reception by audiences and by Russian leaders alike. Over the course of time, it has become known as Khachaturian’s signature composition despite the fact that it was never considered special by him nor was it even something that he was particularly proud of. But, as history has proven time and time again, content creators are not always in control of which works become popular and the extent to which this popularity may grow. The fiddler doesn’t always call the tune.

This is the sort of slapstick comedy that “The Sabre Dance” has come to be associated with, much to Cram Khachaturian’s chagrin. LOS ANGELES – SEPTEMBER 15: Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz and Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo in the I LOVE LUCY episode, “Job Switching.” Original air date is September 15, 1952.

Like so many of the compositions profiled on Keepin’ It Classy, I know that you have heard “The Sabre Dance” before. Its popularity has grown beyond the borders of the Russian sphere of influence and has become known all around the world. The tempo of “The Sabre Dance” is fast-paced, almost manic. It has been used in numerous movie scenes, as well as television shows. In almost every case, “The Sabre Dance” has been the soundtrack of a chase scene or a comedy scene. In fact, if you are familiar with the iconic TV scene from “I Love Lucy” in which she and her friend are working at the chocolate factory and are frantically trying to package the chocolates that are coming out on the conveyor belt faster and faster…well, that is the kind of slapstick scene where “The Sabre Dance” is used most often. The fact that his composition, which was never intended as being used for comedic purposes, has ended up being viewed in that regard around the world was, initially, a source of shame for Aram Khachaturian. He always considered himself a serious composer. In his career, Khachaturian composed the scores for dozens of ballets, as well as many pieces of stand-alone music in the classical genre. He went on to be promoted to the top cultural post for music in Russia for several decades. In his Armenian homeland, Khachaturian is considered the greatest composer in that country’s history. There are statues erected in his honour there. And yet…..the work that he is most known for is a throw-away score for a minor scene in a minor ballet.

A rather grand looking statue of Aram Khachaturian in Yerevan, Armenia.

In the end, Khachaturian came around a bit in his thinking with regard to the cultural impact of “The Sabre Dance”. As most creative types can agree, the process of creating something out of nothing is what motivates us. If that “something” can bring pleasure to others then, so much the better. Although Khachaturian always maintained that he created more impressive and substantial compositions, he came to appreciate the pleasure that “The Sabre Dance” brought to others and, in doing so, brought a measure of peace to his own mind. Popularity is a fickle mistress. But, as his career wound down, Khachaturian was content with his body of work and did not let the opinion of others define himself in his own mind. I have always maintained that being able to look back upon a lifetime of work and be proud of what you have achieved is all that one can truly wish for. To achieve such a thing is an accomplishment of immeasurable value.

The link to the video for the composition known as “The Sabre Dance” can be found here.

The link to an official website for Aram Khachaturian can be found here.

The link to the best classical radio station around…Classical 103.1 in my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada…can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

3 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #16/50: The Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian”

  1. Great post thanks. I was introduced to “The Sabre Dance” via the brilliant guitar adaptation by Dave Edmunds, first released by his band Love Sculpture in 1968.

    1. I am reading Nick Lowe’s biography as you read these words. He mentions Dave Edmunds multiple times, as you can imagine. As for The Sabre Dance, he mentions it in one line but it is a good line, just the same, “In the mid-1960s, he formed Love Sculpture and scored a hit with his interpretation of Aram Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, a dazzling instrumental that showcased his mastery of the instrument”. Thanks for the comment and the YouTube link. Dave Edmunds was really something. 👍

      1. That’s quite the coincidence! I have that book as well but have not got round to reading it. I recently saw Nick open for Elvis Costello at Massey Hall in Toronto. The man still sounds great!

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