The Sounds of Soviet Armenia

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturyan

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturyan

The culture of Soviet Armenia and the Soviet Caucasus was more than just a culture of film, literature, posters, and agitprop. It was also a culture of sound and music. The renown Aram Khachaturyan was Soviet Armenia’s most famous composer, sharing the position as one of the USSR’s top composers alongside Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. The recipient of many state honors and awards in the Soviet Union, Khachaturyan was famous for bringing together Armenian folk melodies with classical music. He is perhaps best known to Western audiences for his Sabre Dance. However, this is just one piece of a greater ballet masterpiece composed by Khachaturyan known as Gayane. The story behind the ballet is one of inter-ethnic love on a kolkhoz (collective farm) in Soviet Armenia. Notably, the title heroine falls for a Russian border guard and her brother for a Kurdish maiden.  Indeed, the great composer was far from a narrow nationalist (his own wife, Nina Markova, was an ethnic Russian).  The fact that he had such a universal outlook is a testament to his childhood in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia and the cosmopolitan “center” of the Caucasus. In the composer’s own words, as quoted in Victor Yuzefovich’s biographical work on him:

Khachaturyan Family Photo, Tbilisi, 1913.  Aram is in the center.

Khachaturyan Family Photo, Tbilisi, 1913.
Aram is in the center.

Tbilisi, they say, is a city that sings. This is really so. I always call it a surprising city of sounds, where life—and this is true of the present to a certain extent—was so much more open in the days of my youth than in our northern cities like Moscow and Leningrad. The sounds came at you from all sides; the city was saturated with music. The sounds of the tara and kemancha, the zurna and duduk, monophonic Armenian songs and polyphonic Georgian folk songs, small groups of musicians playing folk instruments, the street calls of the quince vendors—such were the sounds of my childhood… I can still see the fruit vendor carrying his tabahi—a huge wooden tray resting on his head on a towel twisted into a ring. He goes from yard to yard, singing melodic couplets which by themselves would be excellent material for a composer. Add to this the numerous family occasions where everyone sings, and the sad events which bring together many people and where there is also singing. And finally the folk singing and dancing, the traditions that greatly influenced me.

Aram Khachaturyan

Aram Khachaturyan

After World War II, Khachaturyan, like his colleagues, faced difficulties under Stalinism. Though condemned for his “formalist” music style and “Western” influences, the composer managed to survive. Following Stalin’s death, he continued to earn international praise and served as a teacher for a new generation of young and emerging musical talents in the Soviet Union. He encouraged them to think creatively and to be as unconventional as possible. His death in 1978 was a cause for international mourning, especially in his ethnic homeland Armenia, where he was buried.

Arno Babajanyan

Arno Babajanyan

Yet, Khachaturyan was not Armenia’s only great composer. There were also five more known as the “Armenian Mighty Handful.” They included Aleksandr Arutiunyan, Arno Babajanyan, Edvard Mirzoyan, Lazar Saryan, and Adam Khudoyan. Of these, Babajanyan was one of Armenia’s most popular composers. His melodies fused together native influences with contemporary jazz and pop. His music was also a staple of popular Soviet Armenian musical films, including the Khrushchev-era Song of the First Love and the 1975 cult classic Bride from the North, a musical satire of Armenian-Russian relations featuring the composer’s son Araik Babajanyan.  The composer also wrote the famous jazz score to the 1976 Soviet Armenian film adaptation of William Saroyan’s play My Heart’s in the Highlands.

The First Armenian Jazz Band, 1936

The first Armenian jazz band, Yerevan, 1936

Babajanyan’s forays into jazz were by no means the first Armenian exploration into the genre. Jazz arrived to the USSR during the NEP era in the 1920s and gradually found its way to radio stations in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.  Many Armenians soon fell in love with this strange, new music whose wild rhythms and improvisations reminded them of their traditional folk music. The first jazz band was formed in Soviet Armenia by Tsolak Vardazaryan in 1936 and Artemi Ayvazyan founded the Armenian State Jazz Orchestra in 1938. You can hear an early recording of one of his popular melodies, Jan Yerevan, here.

Ruben Hakhverdyan

Ruben Hakhverdyan

Soviet Armenia’s musical culture also had a decidedly dissident streak. Ruben Hakhverdyan was (and still is) Armenia’s national bard, the voice for a generation coming-of-age during the era of the Khrushchev Thaw. He is also considered “the man of Yerevan,” the poetic lyrics of his music being peppered with the irreverent slang and gritty character of the streets. A popular folk-guitarist and poet, he is to Armenians what Vladimir Vysotsky was to Russians and what Bob Dylan is to Americans.  Though an acoustic bard, Hakhverdyan’s own music passion has been and continues to be jazz, blues, and soul, especially the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown.  However, he did indeed find much inspiration in Vysotsky and another famous Soviet-era bard Bulat Okudzhava.  Speaking of Vysotsky, the Armenian singer once said that “it is unfortunate that I never had a chance to actually meet him.”  As for Dylan, when Hakhverdyan first heard his classic Blowin’ in the Wind, he recalled:

I think that song was about freedom — that song had made such a huge impression on me. I was impressed that freedom is sleeping on the wings of the wind and so on. And it was under that influence that I wrote that particular song [meaning Hakhverdyan’s 1960s song My White Dove].

Among other things, Hakhverdyan also composed the score for the famous Soviet Armenian animated short film Found Dream about a little girl who seeks to find her grandfather’s elusive dream.

Meschyan with the other members of the banned dissident rock group, The Apostles, 1976.

Meschyan with the other members of the banned dissident rock group, The Apostles, 1976.

Rock was also popular in Soviet Armenia. Arthur Meschyan is perhaps Armenia’s best-known rock musician and is considered one of the founding fathers of Armenian rock. He was a member of the 1960s underground rock group the Apostles (Առաքյալներ). Though the group quickly gained something of a following throughout Armenia, the authorities saw the group’s unconventional music style and nonconformist attitude as threatening to Soviet values and the “socialist way of life.” The band was banned by Moscow in 1976, the same year that, ironically, the psychedelic, avant-garde Czechoslovak band, Plastic People of the Universe, was banned in Prague. Notably, this latter incident famously prompted the playwright Václav Havel and other Czechoslovak activists to draft the famous Charter 77.

The Apostles were by no means the only major rock band in Soviet Armenia.  The more liberal attitude of Soviet Armenia’s Party boss, Karen Demirchyan, encouraged the growth of a vibrant rock scene, expressed both in terms of officially-sanctioned VIA groups and more openly creative underground rock.  The group known as Bambir, founded in 1977 by Jag Barseghyan in the city of Leninakan (Gyumri), was one of the more popular underground bands, not just in Armenia but throughout the entire USSR.  In fact, the underground rock scene thrived throughout much of northern Armenia, in the present-day provinces of Shirak, Tavush, and especially Lori and the city of Vanadzor.  Today, the original members of Bambir have been succeeded by their sons and the band is now the most internationally acclaimed Armenian rock group.

Viktor Tsoi

Viktor Tsoi, Soviet rock icon of perestroika.

In addition to the underground groups were the so-called VIA groups.  The acronym “VIA” (or “ВИА”) was short for “vocal-instrumental ensemble” in Russian (Вокально-инструментальный ансамбль) and was a widespread popular music style throughout the Soviet Union, especially from the late 1960s and into the late 1980s.  The VIA groups gradually declined with the rise of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies.  The liberalization of the arts led to underground rock becoming mainstream and gradually supplementing the politically correct VIA style.  At this time, Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino became the most recognizable face of the growing rock scene in the USSR and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was regarded as the unofficial “rock capital” of the country.  In some cases, VIA groups or groups the straddled the divide between “VIA” and “underground” evolved into full-fledged rock bands.  In Soviet Armenia, perestroika brought about the emergence of entirely new rock groups such as Vostan Hayots, founded in Yerevan. Despite a brief hiatus, Vostan Hayots remains active to this day.

Tatul Altunyan

Tatul Altunyan

Traditional folk music was also actively encouraged in Soviet Armenia. Founded in 1938 and still going strong today, the Tatul Altunyan Song and Dance Ensemble performed and recorded traditional Armenian folk music that earned popularity both in Armenia and throughout the Soviet Union. Altunyan himself was highly distinguished, earning the State Prize of the USSR in 1950 and People’s Artist of USSR in 1965. Examples of the ensemble’s Armenian folk music can be heard here, here, here, and here.

1921 Soviet poster in Russian and Georgian proclaiming: "Long live brotherhood of all Caucasus nations!"  Courtesy of the Sergo Grigorian Collection.

1921 Soviet poster proclaiming: “Long live brotherhood of all Caucasus nations!” Courtesy of the Sergo Grigorian Collection.

In addition to this, there were also Soviet-era popular melodies and propaganda songs that focused on Armenia and the Caucasus. Examples of this can be heard here, here, here, and here.

Additionally, there were also many other patriotic Soviet propaganda tunes that people throughout the USSR, including Armenia knew well. They include songs like the Aviamarch, March of the Enthusiasts, Wide is My Motherland, Hills of Manchuria, and Farewell to Slavianka, all still remembered fondly by many from the older generation of Armenians who feel great nostalgia for Soviet times.

Many also likely still remember the Soviet national anthem and also the anthem of Soviet Armenia, composed by none other than Aram Khachaturyan himself.

For more information on music in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia, see the highly informative website, Music of Armenia.

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