Khachaturian is perhaps the archetypal Soviet composer: in mixing Russian traditions with local folklorism he represents the Soviet ideal of socialist realism in the arts.
The ballet Gayene, one of his most famous works, was written in 1942. Based on a previous ballet, Happiness, it is set on an Armenian collective farm and deals with the treachery of Gayene's husband Ghiko. Gayene, ever the good communist, denounces Ghiko and remarries with much rejoincing.
The ballet includes the famous Sabre Dance in addition to music with much charm and folk influences. Khachaturian later extracted three orchestral suites from the ballet, helping it to gain popularity in the concert hall.
Born in Tbilisi, Khachaturian played the horn as a young boy and taught himself to play the piano. Moving to Moscow in 1921 he persuaded the Gnesin Music Academy to overlook his lack of formal training and accept him as a student. He began there in 1922 as a cellist, taking composition from 1925. After a few well-received chamber works, he gained entry to the Moscow Conservatoire, studying under Miaskovsky and others from 1929 until the end of his postgraduate studies in 1937. Prokofiev had championed his 1932 Trio for clarinet, violin and piano in Paris, and in keeping with the political mood of the time he dedicated his First Symphony (1935) to the 15th anniversary of the Soviet Armenian Republic. A Piano Concerto (1936) and Violin Concerto (1940) confirmed his reputation abroad and his Pesnya Stalina (Song of Stalin, 1937) temporarily served to stand him in good stead with the authorities.
From 1939 Khachaturian acted as head of the Union of Soviet Composers, constantly in fear of the repercussions were he or his charges not to follow the party line. Although his works of the 1940's were not especially confrontational or experimentational, as head of an organisation which represented Prokofiev and Dimitry Shostakovich, he too was seen as guilty of the nebulous crime of 'formalism', receiving severe censure in 1948. Prior to this he had written some of his most accessible works, such as Gayane (1942), from which comes the famous Sabre Dance.
From 1950 he began to conduct and to teach composition at the institutions he had previously attended. After Stalin's death in 1953 it became safer for him to champion other composers' artistic freedom, although he himself remained essentially conservative in outlook. The ballet Spartacus (1956) was among his later successes and during the 1960's he attempted to redesign the traditional concerto form. The Soviet authorities became increasingly lenient towards Khachaturian, perhaps realising that in him they had their ideal composer; a writer of popular, emotive, folkloric music. He died in 1978.