Aram Khachaturian: Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia


Born in Tblisi, Georgia in 1903, Aram Khachaturian’s music is still performed regularly in concert halls today. Perhaps one of his most famous works is the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from his 1954 ballet: Spartacus. The ballet follows the trials and tribulations faced by Spartacus as the leader of the slave uprising against the Romans. Although most of the music from the ballet is not heard outside its context the Adagio is often used as a stand alone concert piece. Within the opera it appears in the second act, when the slave women are set free, and Spartacus and Phrygia celebrate.


The Music

Opening with a delicate syncopated rhythm from the upper strings, the flute embellishes the developing theme with a sequence of trills. The offbeat quaver movement in the string parts keeps a gentle rocking feel as various wind instruments begin to develop the opening theme of the piece. A slow ascending scale played by cellos moves us into the next section of the work, with the oboe finishing the top end of the scale and easing the music into the famous ‘love theme’ for the first time.

The oboe lyrically plays the love theme, with the accompaniment of the upper strings, who play the same offbeat quaver movement from the introduction. The harp is also playing here, and the delicate plucking of the strings to accentuate the scalic movement is effective and adds to the intense atmosphere. The lower strings begin to enter slowly to support the melodies above, and the cellos play small countermelodies every eight bars. The flute joins in with a more prominent countermelody to the oboe, with the two working together to represent Spartacus and Phrygia.

A slow rumble in the lower strings lets us know that the music is moving forward from this solo melody and accompaniment form. The atmosphere begins to intensify as the strings ascend into their upper registers for the first time. This small burst of colour here is such a release, and Khachaturian’s extended orchestrations here are what makes this section so impactful. There is an awash of sound from the upper strings, with the upper winds embellishing the melody once more. The lower strings are marked pizzicato, and the delicate plucking of the strings creates an interesting dichotomy between the full string melody and the sparse accompaniment.

As the intensity of the melody grows, so do the dynamics. This leads to the first climax of the piece, where the melody becomes slightly agitated and quickly flourishes into a top suspended chord just in the violins. This feeling of staticism and the rest of the orchestra stopping is like taking a very large musical breath, which in this case is rather effective. The melody moves around slowly in different forms, which acts as a transition into the next section of the work.

This next melodic section is slightly different in mood, however you can hear how it is being developed from the main love theme. The clarinet and oboe are utilised in this section, with both playing pivotal solos. There is a distinct feeling of call and response between the upper strings and each of the upper woodwinds. The cellos are notated in their upper register in this section, which creates an interesting timbre when mixed with the violas and lower winds in particular.

The upper strings lead into a brass fanfare, and this marks a significant change in the music, as up until this point the brass have not played a single note. The moody horn line compliments the staccato trumpet fanfare, which perhaps represents the links to war and the army within the ballet. The lower strings create a much more military feel in this section, with them playing in their lower registers – offering harmonic stability. The brass build tension with the use of dynamics and their distinct timbres, making this section a transition into the biggest climax of the piece.

The strings begin to tremolo and then build up the scale until they hit their highest registers. This explodes into a celebration of the love theme, which is now accentuated by a full orchestra. The trumpets have a different line to the rest of the orchestra, with them playing the same offbeat quaver movement that is heard at the start of the piece. This falls back into a woodwind transition, which takes us into the final section of the work. The violins repeat the love theme, but this time an octave down. The upper winds accentuate this melody with quaver movements that keep the tempo driving below the melody.

A solo violin then takes the melody, with the accompaniment of two clarinets. This offers a very different texture to what we have just heard, and it becomes rather poignant how Khachaturian uses the love theme in different ways. The piece ends with the strings unifying back in the home key and slowly dying away after one last swell together.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Jim C · 29th July 2017 at 12:00 am

Well stated. Thanks for the summary and analysis. This adagio may be the most romantic piece of music ever written.

Please note that Aram Khachaturian was Soviet Armenian

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