Khachaturian Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia (piano arr.) Cyprien Katsaris, piano with sheet music
Spartacus ballet by Khachaturian
Spartacus, ballet in three acts by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, known for its lively rhythms and strong energy. Spartacus was premiered by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1956, and its revised form was debuted in 1968 by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.
Khachaturian later adapted what would become his most famous ballet as a group of suites for orchestra, and, although the ballet remained a part of the Bolshoi’s repertoire, the suites provide the more familiar version.
The program of Khachaturian’s ballet (libretto by Yuri Grigorovich) was derived from a book by Raffaello Giovagnolli that details events in a 1st-century-bce Roman slave revolt; its leader, Spartacus, was a Thracian warrior captured in battle. The rebellion’s high point—literally and figuratively—was its seizure of Mount Vesuvius as a stronghold.
After two years of unrest, the rebellion was finally put down by Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Spartacus fell in battle. The surviving rebels, numbering some 6,000, were crucified along the Appian Way.
Khachaturian’s original composition was based on a narrative sketch that had been prepared earlier for the Bolshoi. It was not a great success, perhaps as much because of the choreography and the story as the music.
The 1968 version, with its contrasting moods of vibrant energy and gentle lyricism, was such a hit in Moscow that the Bolshoi took it on the road to Covent Garden the following year. By that time, the composer had already arranged orchestral suites from the ballet music so that Spartacus could reach the broadest possible audience.
Although Soviet authorities approved of the ballet, apparently seeing it as an allegory of the Russian people throwing off their tsarist oppressors, it seems quite possible to interpret its message as referring to Russians under communism rebelling against their own oppressive Soviet leaders.
Khachaturian, after all, had spent much of his life under the watchful eye of Joseph Stalin, and he had seen friends and colleagues disappear into the night.
Spartacus is the dramatic story of the leader of a band of slaves uprising against cruel Roman rule.
The military machine of imperial Rome, led by the Roman consul, Crassus, wages a cruel campaign of conquest, destroying everything in its path. Among the chained prisoners doomed to slavery are Thracian king, Spartacus and his wife, Phrygia. Spartacus is in despair. Born a free man, he is now a slave in chains.
At the slave market, the men and women prisoners are separated for sale to rich Romans and Spartacus is parted from a grief-stricken Phrygia, who is destined to join Crassus’ harem.
At Crassus’ palace, mimes and courtesans entertain the guests, making fun of new slave, Phrygia. Drunk with wine and passion, Crassus demands a spectacle. Two gladiators are forced to fight to the death in helmets with closed visors. When the victor’s helmet is removed, it is Spartacus, and he has killed his friend, Hermes.
In despair, Spartacus decides he will no longer tolerate captivity and incites the gladiators to revolt.
Having broken out of their captivity, Spartacus’ followers call the local shepherds to join the uprising. Spartacus is proclaimed their leader, however he is haunted by the thought of Phrygia’s fate as a slave and he is drawn back to Crassus’ villa to find her.
Crassus is at his villa, celebrating his victories, however the festivities are cut short when Spartacus and his men break into the villa. Spartacus engages Crassus in combat and is at the point of killing him when, with a gesture of contempt, Spartacus lets Crassus go.
Crassus is tormented by his disgrace. Fanning his hurt pride, his concubine, Aegina calls on him to take revenge.
Spartacus and Phrygia are happy to be together. But suddenly his military commanders bring the news that Crassus is on the move with a large army. Spartacus decides to go into battle but, overcome by cowardice, some of his warriors desert their leader. Spartacus’ forces are surrounded by the Roman legions. Spartacus’s devoted friends perish in unequal combat. Spartacus fights on fearlessly but, closing in on the wounded hero, the Roman soldiers crucify him on their spears. Phrygia retrieves Spartacus’ body from the battle field. She mourns her beloved and appeals to the heavens that the memory of Spartacus lives forever.
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