Khachaturian's 'Masquerade Suite' Will Drive You Insane (In A Good Way)

Image: iClassical Com

Back in December (remember December? I don’t), longtime friend of the column and Brooklyn-based filmmaker and writer Caroline von Golum sent me an email with some listening recommendations, including but not limited to Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite. Do you know Khachaturian? You almost certainly do, because it’s likely that at one point in time, your middle school/high school/local pops orchestra/an old film/childhood cartoons/something else subjected you to Sabre Dance. “Ohhhhh,” you’re saying now, but don’t feel bad, because that was my only reference point for Khachaturian for far too long.

Aram Khachaturian was born in 1903 in present-day Georgia to an Armenian family. He’s the most famous and widely celebrated Armenian composer, though he did almost all of his work in the Soviet Union and is largely acknowledged as one of the most prominent Soviet composers, along with our two old friends Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Khachaturian was also regularly praised by the Soviet government, and he held the position of the Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers until his death in 1978. (“Hmmmmmm, is this a good or bad thing?” I asked myself while reading, and I still do not know the answer to the question.)

As I said above, the work in question this week is his Masquerade Suite for which I’m referencing this recording by the R.C.A. Victor Symphony Orchestra in 1958. No Bernstein? No, shut up. This is one of the best recordings of this suite. So, sorry, anyway: the Masquerade Suite was written to correspond with a play by the same name by Mikhail Lermontov, which, for lack of a better metaphor, is basically like the Russian version of Othello. A rebellious spirit in high society who winds up murdering his wife for a bad reason. Damn, I love when violence against women is a major plot point in a character’s self-discovery. 🙂

Anyway, a frame of knowledge of the play version of Masquerade isn’t too necessary beyond the first movement of the suite, the Waltz. The Waltz is most often played on its own from this suite because, well, as you’ll grasp from the opening seconds, it really stands for itself. It’s weighty, boisterous, and energetic; it’s a heavy and borderline militaristic waltz. There’s a line in the play from Nina, the soon-to-be murdered wife, when she hears this waltz: “How beautiful the new waltz is! … something between sorrow and joy gripped my heart.” Which was a challenge to hear and conceptualize, you can imagine, if you’re a creative type. You have to write something that corresponds to a line that you’ve created a new and brilliant thing, as if the stakes aren’t already high enough. What we do get, in fact, is something that does waffle between sorrow and joy. We know it’s a waltz, obviously, from name alone and the sound of it, but it isn’t a free-spirited or particularly joyful dance. I’m loosely reminded of the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony here, which boldly combines folk music with a slightly more modern energy.

Its following movement, Nocturne, dips into the serene, featuring a prominent violin solo. This is an all-around beautiful piece of music: wistful and pristine, with a clear and rich melody. Listen around the 1:54 mark when the French horn backs the violin providing colorful support to the core theme. Nocturnes, at large, of course, are inspired by night (“Fucking duh,” you’re hissing at me; look, I know), and this movement of the suite serves as the most soothing as it edges into dusk.

Nice try, though, if you think you’re heading into something else calm and composed because then we have the Mazurka. A mazurka is a Polish folk dance in a triple meter with strong accents placed either on the second or third beats. What this means, in layman’s terms, is, okay, bear with me: A waltz is a dance in a triple meter with the accent placed on the first beat. OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah, in vaguest terms, is what a waltz sounds like. If you’ve forgotten, just go back to the first movement here and you’ll catch it. So a mazurka puts those heavy accents on a different beat: oom-PAH-pah or oom-pah-PAH. What the hell? Correct. Think of a mazurka as kind of a deranged waltz, and well, then you’ve got this third movement in the Masquerade Suite.

Not unlike Copland’s Rodeo Suite — a five-movement piece of music that alternates between dances and slower pieces — Masquerade Suite’s fourth movement is a Romance. And what a romance it is for me, mainly, because there’s a gorgeous melody from the cellos around the 40-second mark that I just love. The Romance feels as if though it has a bit higher stakes to this movement than, say, the Nocturne, peaceful and slow. This has the drama to it — the wailing strings, the pleading woodwinds. He kills his wife in the play, remember? Okay, that’s enough.

And then, Masquerade Suite and Khachaturian have the sheer fucking audacity to go out on a Galop, a dance named for — I bet you can guess without me telling you but — a gallop. I’ll be honest: I got to this movement and I immediately burst out laughing and restarted it over. It’s so jarring and strange and unhinged. What???? Is this??? I was like, oh, of course this guy wrote Sabre Dance. Everything of his has that tinge of madness clearly present in Sabre Dance. If you’ve listened to this whole suite wondering where some really wild brass parts have been, let me tell you, this is your movement. It’s a wooden rollercoaster of a piece. A rodeo clown. So deliberately funny and wild. Imagine some clapping emojis here: listen to those crash cymbals. I love it! And then midway through, it all disappears as the clarinet and then the flute creep through for one final refrain before the melody bursts back in again. It’s the kind of suite I want to shove in the face of someone who still manages to pretend classical music is dull. Every part of the Masquerade Suite is as wild and evocative as music ought to be.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.