Arno Babadjanian: Piano Trio in F-sharp Minor

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, August 4, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Arno Babadjanian was born in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1921 and was an admired pianist and composer during the Soviet era. (His name also appears in English as “Babajanian” or “Babadzhanyan,” among other variants.) He studied at the Yerevan Conservatory before moving on to Moscow, then returned to Yerevan where he taught piano and continued to compose and perform. He wrote the Piano Trio in F-sharp Minor in 1952, the year before Stalin’s death, and premiered it in Moscow alongside David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, luminaries of the violin and cello, respectively.

From the 1940s to the early 1950s, artistic expression was severely limited in the Soviet Union. In 1948, Dmitri Shostakovich was denounced for a second time, alongside Serge Prokofiev and the leading Armenian composer of the day, Aram Khachaturian. Any music deemed “formalist,” or without a social purpose in line with Soviet goals, was forbidden. The most restrictive ideology, called beskonfliktnost (conflictless-ness) by its later critics, proclaimed Soviet society to be so advanced that “bad” and “good” were no longer operative concepts: there was only “good” and “best.” For a time, this meant that any sense of tension, conflict, or despair was discouraged in music. There were few ways for a composer to write anything expressively complex or emotionally truthful under such constraints.

One acceptable way to cultivate an individual voice, however, was to draw from regional musical traditions. This was considered acceptable given Stalin’s idea that “the development of cultures national in form and socialist in content is necessary for their ultimate fusion into one General Culture, socialist in form and content.” In other words, nationalistic music in familiar local styles was permissible as an interim step toward a later homogenous society.

Whether or not any composer seriously embraced this idea, it provided cover for some degree of stylistic variety. It especially benefited composers from the outer Soviet republics, including Babadjanian, whose Piano Trio evokes Armenian folk music within an aching, late-Romantic style reminiscent of Rachmaninoff. The three movements progress from a nostalgic Largo that blossoms into an impassioned Maestoso, to an elegiac Andante that floats a violin melody (joined later by the cello) over tolling piano chords, to the delightfully rugged Allegro vivace.

The piece was enthusiastically received at its premiere, and Babadjanian was named a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1971. His small catalogue of works and primary occupation as a pianist likely helped him avoid scrutiny during his lifetime, but have also left him with a modest legacy. The Piano Trio, however, is a magnificent work ready for rediscovery.