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

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.

Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the Most Memorable Classical Compositions of All-Time…Composition #8/50: 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In the 1960s, when I was a child, we only had two TV channels that we could access. They were both from our taxpayer-funded national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; one channel was CBC in English and the other channel was the CBC in French. As the 1970s dawned, we thought we had moved into the big time because a private broadcasting company called CTV became available. Suddenly there was a wider variety of programming including shows that originated in the United States. A decade or so later, the television universe expanded again with the introduction of something called cable TV. With the advent of cable, a dozen new channels became available at the push of a button on a huge converter box that sat on our coffee table in the living room. The real draw to cable TV was that about half of the new channels that became available actually were American channels. Growing up in Nova Scotia meant that the American channels that we accessed via cable TV all broadcast out of Bangor, Maine (which was the closest US city with its own television stations). Because Maine was considered to be part of the “New England” states, the focus of much of the US cultural coverage on TV from there was centered on Boston. So, I grew up watching the Boston Red Sox baseball team, the Bruins hockey team and the New England Patriots football team as much as I ever did my own Canadian teams (which, at the time, revolved around Toronto and Montreal). Because I was able to immerse myself in the cultural traditions of two different nations, many aspects of American history and culture became very familiar to me and, as such, became part of the fabric of my own identity to a certain degree. This brings me to the Canadian and American national holidays which are celebrated on July 1st and July 4th, respectively. For me, those two holidays became one long weekend of festivities. There were the actual events I attended in my hometown on Canada Day, and then those were bookended by the July 4th celebrations we would watch on cable TV. Not surprisingly, the July 4th evening concert by The Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of conductor Arthur Fiedler always seemed to serve as the finale for that long weekend of festivities. The finale of that concert was always the “1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Thus, the booming of sixteen real cannons is something I have always associated with my childhood and with my relationship to America.

Childhood is a safe haven for more innocent memories and times. In those days, politics was not part of my thought process. I was proud to be a Canadian citizen. I believed that my country was one of the nice guys on the world stage. I viewed America as being our friends and Americans as being basically good people. There was never any thought of the fact that both countries were built upon foundations of colonization and oppression of indigenous cultures. Back then, it was all hot dogs and fireworks. Good times if you were a wide-eyed, well-behaved white teenage boy like I was.

However, the passing of time has revealed that much of what I believed to be true as a child was, in fact, not true at all. One of the simplest examples comes in the form of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Until very recently, I always regarded this composition as being an American patriotic tune. It is not. I believed that this composition was about The War of 1812 and that the reason it is played on the Fourth of July is because of the importance of that war to America and Canada solidifying their status as independent countries, apart from England. I was wrong to believe that, too. The final pinprick into the heart of my nostalgic bubble came in the form of the realization that this most famous of compositions by Tchaikovsky was one that he wrote under duress and always hated because of the crass showiness of how it plays out. So, if the composer hated it and it has nothing to do with America or the Fourth of July, how did the “1812 Overture” become such an integral part of American culture, and by osmosis, my own cultural upbringing? Let’s find out.

Napoleon invades Russia in 1812.

Believe it or not, the “1812 Overture” is actually a composition that chronicles a famous military victory for Russia against Napoleon Bonaparte. Way back in the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte had a reputation as being a cunning military strategist. Without going into the entire geo-political history of Europe at the time, let me tell you that in 1812, Russia found itself the target of an invasion by Napoleon and the mighty French Army. Like many nations who have tried to conquer Russia, France made great headway at first. Not far from Leningrad, a fierce battle was fought. This battle was called The Battle of Borodino. Napoleon’s army eventually prevailed but at the cost of two thirds of its soldiers. Russia then played a trick on Napoleon. They abandoned Moscow. Napoleon mustered the remaining troops at his disposal and marched into Moscow with the complete expectation that he would be greeted as a conquering hero and that terms of surrender would be discussed at that time. However, when French troops arrived, they found Moscow deserted. After a few weeks, Cossack resistance fighters burned Moscow to the ground, leaving Napoleon’s army trapped in a barren, deserted city, far from their supply lines. No Russian emissary ever came to negotiate with Napoleon. Eventually his troops began to starve and became dispirited. With health and morale plummeting, Napoleon made the tactical decision to withdraw from Moscow. However, the French retreat was plagued with hardships brought on by the cruel Russian winter, as well as by guerilla war tactics from what was left of the Russian army. By the time Napoleon made it to the Russian/Polish border, only 20,000 French troops remained from an invasion force that totalled almost half a million when the campaign began. Although Napoleon won all of the major battles his army fought, he ended up losing the war. Three years later, Napoleon would meet his Waterloo at the hands of The Duke of Wellington. Shortly thereafter, exile to the Island of Elba would seal his fate.

Historical fiction is a time-honoured literary genre. In the 1880s, a Russian writer named Leo Tolstoy wrote a novel that you may have heard of called War and Peace. As part of the storyline to this book, Tolstoy recounted the mighty victory enjoyed by Russia over Napoleon and the mighty French army. The publication of “War and Peace” sparked renewed interest in this aspect of Russian history. As the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Borodino approached, the Tsar called for commemorative celebrations to be held. These celebrations were to include parades and concerts. As part of this call to the Arts community, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to create a patriotic piece of music for the Tsar. He was told that it needed to be more loud than quiet, more forceful than subtle. He was told that the Tsar, himself, was expecting Tchaikovsky’s most rousing anthem to date. The piece that Tchaikovsky ended up writing was called The Year 1812, Solemn Overture, Op. 49. As noted earlier, Tchaikovsky hated it. He thought it was loud and crude but it was what was demanded of him by the Tsar who, in turn, thought the “1812 Overture” was perfect.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The “1812 Overture” clocks in between 12-15 minutes, depending on the orchestra performing it. In that time, Tchaikovsky created a complete timeline of the military campaign. There are periods where Russian music dominates the composition. At other times, the French national anthem is woven into the score to show how Napoleon’s advance into Russia threatened their nation. In the end, the piece concludes with celebratory cannon blasts to signifying the exultation felt all across Russia because of this great victory over a mighty foe.

History is a murky business. This post will be published on July the 4th. No doubt, as the day draws to a close, orchestras all across America will strike up the band and play a Russian military song, while Americans revel in their own patriotism, believing the music to be about them. I have no doubt that many people in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, will tune their televisions to their local cable PBS channel and will watch the concert from the comfort of their Canadian living rooms. As for me, I will participate in Canada Day, and to a lesser extent, July 4th, by wearing an orange shirt dedicated to the memory of those Indigenous children whose bones were ground and mixed together to help create the foundation upon which these two countries were built. Like my boy, Tchaikovsky, I am sure I will think the overt celebratory nature of the day is just a tad too much.

The link to the video for the composition, “The 1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky can be found here. ***Note: the composition begins at the 2:00 mark.

The link to the official website for Classical 103.1…the classical music radio station located in my town of Cobourg, Ontario, can be found here.

The link to the report of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here.

My daughter and I picking strawberries on July 1st.

***Many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island are recommending that Canadians spend July 1st in sombre reflection with regard to the true nature of how Canada came to be a country and the price paid by Indigenous Peoples as part of that process.

Fireworks or thoughtfulness? I will leave that decision up to you.

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