Aram Khachaturian has achieved a pretty widespread popularity in the last 50 years. The suites from his two most famous ballets are performed pretty regularly, and a movement from each of them often end up as encores or showpieces. His Violin Concerto is probably in the third tier of solo works for the instrument, alongside other regularly programmed solos like Elgar, Prokofiev, and Dvorak. His concerti for the cello and the piano pop up from time to time. He wrote the coolest waltz of all-time (ignore the first 35 seconds of this link, but enjoy the great Kiril Kondrashin rocking the shit).
Khachaturian’s life reads very similarly to that of Shostakovich, and they were contemporaries in many ways. Both were in and out of favor with the Soviet authorities; the two, along with Prokofiev, were called out by name in the Zhdanov decree and forced to apologize publicly, something that drove Khachaturian to contemplate quitting composition. Both have diverse compositional outputs that include some entertaining Soviet propaganda.
Khachaturian, however, placed a much greater emphasis on folk music, and his scores are littered with the rhythms of his homeland. The balance between Western classical structures and Eastern folk music is not unique to him, but Khachaturian walked the line better than any other composer of his day and in the process created a truly characteristic sound. His music is versatile, evidenced by the inclusion of music from his masterpiece Spartacus in both the kid-friendly Ice Age: The Meltdown and the not-even-borderline-pretty-much-full-on-pornographic Caligula (whose soundtrack features a disco version of the famous Adagio…the 1970’s everybody!).
Khachaturian’s symphonies mostly just lay around unnoticed, though. His Third Symphony has parts for organ and fifteen additional trumpets, so you know it had something to do with Communism. His First is arguably his most nuanced, an impressive catch-all of many of the features of his greatest works, including his kick-ass orchestration ability.
But we’re here today to talk about The Bell! The Symphony no. 2 was composed in 1943 and revised in 1944 (for comparison’s sake, this puts it in the same time frame as Shostakovich 8). It gets its name from the fact that he wrote one symphony before it. It is a work of great energy and intensity, but not without the trademark wit that we tend to associate with Khachaturian (look no further than the end of the second movement for these two facets of his style butting heads with one another).
The Bell (by the way, it’s actually a reference to the motive that begins and ends the work), more than anything else, is bombastic, and I mean that in the best possible way. A work like Shostakovich 12, for example, gets dismissed because its finale is unapologetically trying to destroy your cochlea, even though it’s doing it in a totally bad ass way. Khachaturian in many ways out-Shostakoviches Shostakovich in this symphony, building huge layers of sound on top of other, only slightly less huge layers of sound. There is, frankly, not much room for saccharine beauty in the score, only temporary respite from the assault of momentum and tension. The Bell is 50 minutes of unrelenting power, and those moments when you think it’s relenting are simply chances for Khachaturian to reload the IS-3 tank that is his orchestra. If you like Shostakovich’s War Symphonies, the chances of you liking this are reasonably high.
As an aside, if you’ve caught on the fact that I enjoy calling it The Bell, I salute you and suggest we meet at The Other Bell for a Nachos (The) Bell Grande.
Below is a recording of Khachaturian himself conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra from 1950 or so. The sound quality isn’t amazing, but a) it’s still intense, and b) it’s free. Listen to it and go buy a giant fucking bell, the better to alert the neighbors that you’re going to fight them if they give you any more shit about the leaves piling up or other Soviet-type problems.