“To the respectable Emma. With good memories. From Aram Khachaturian, with thankfulness towards her. June 12, 1956 Moscow.”
My eyes widened as my mother translated these words for me from the original loopy Russian handwriting penned by Aram Khachaturian. Captivated by the maestro’s note of gratitude to my tatik, I began researching their musical relationship.
My great-grandmother Emma Tsaturyan was a renowned Soviet-era conductor, musician, professor and artistic director. She was the co-founder and president of the Armenian Music Company, which currently bears her memorial plaque. She also was the artistic director of the Armenian Folk Song and Dance Ensemble of Tatul Altunyan and the Aram Ter-Hovhannisyan Choir, as well as the conductor of the State Choir of Armenia. In 1982, she was awarded the title of People’s Artist of the Armenian SSR, the highest national title of Soviet Armenia.
Tsaturyan’s contributions to Armenian society and folk music are plentiful, and because she was a Dilijan native, the town proudly named a street in her honor several years ago. Naturally, she worked closely with composers such as Arno Babajanyan, Alexander Dolukhanyan and Edgar Hovhannisyan. Her relationship with Khatchaturian was one of her many close ties.
“I was very very close with Aram Khachaturian,” said Tsaturyan during a television interview for After Hayk Nahapet.
Indeed, Khachaturian and Tsaturyan worked on several projects together throughout the course of their careers. In 1974, they both served as jury members of the Republic Choir Competition along with opera singer Tatevik Sazandaryan.
In 1956, Tsaturyan assisted Khachaturian with adapting the words of poet Gegham Saryan to a musical composition for an upcoming concert he had organized. Because Khachaturian didn’t know Armenian well and Saryan was not a lyricist, Tsaturyan helped him cohesively combine the text and music. I discovered that this was the source of Khachaturian’s letter to my tatik.
Tsaturyan and Saryan worked for two days on the lyrics, and “Aram Khachaturian accepted the work with satisfaction,” as documented by Knarik Grigoryan in Tsaturyan’s 1987 biography. The concert turned out to be a great success.
“It was very moving,” said Tsaturyan while discussing the concert. “Aram Khachaturian was waiting outside to greet us, [as] we were exiting the concert. They were standing in front of the theater. He approached me with a signed photo. Through that [the signed photo], you will be able to conclude his attitude towards me.” Khachaturian penned the note of gratitude behind a photo.
Tsaturyan was always a mythical figure to me growing up. She was this famous, powerful woman of whose musical talent I only garnered a fraction. She was strict and stoic with the voice of an angel that would softly lull my mother to sleep when she was a child.
As for Khachaturian, he was a symbol of Armenian greatness and a man who left an indelible mark on the world of music. His influence even managed to weave its way into American pop culture with “Sabre Dance.” I feel grateful to have uncovered Khachaturian’s musical connection and friendship with my great-grandmother.
Today marks the 119th birth anniversary of Maestro Khachaturian.
Forty-nine years ago, in 1973, Tsaturyan honored her friend and conducted her choir during his 70th birthday celebration. Khachaturian would later send Tsaturyan another letter, one of his last before his death in 1978.
“Heartfelt and warm greetings to the Armenian Choir Company and the lovely Emma Tsaturyan for taking part in my organized concert and for the wonderful performance. Your choir is a talented group and is of high quality professionalism. I wish you new and greater successes. Your friend, Aram Khachaturian.”
For some, these written letters would be considered historical artifacts that were once authored by one of the greatest composers in Soviet history, but for Tsaturyan, they’re merely letters from Aram.
Editor’s Note, June 8, 2022: This article has been edited to amend the date on the photo of Tatevik Sazandaryan, Emma Tsaturyan and Aram Khachaturian. Upon the initial publication of this article on Khachaturian’s birth anniversary, the photographer of that photo—Vartik Baloyan—reached out to the Weekly and provided the historically accurate information.