Saturday Morning Listening: Khachaturian Excerpts

Good morning, everyone, at least it was morning when I started writing.   I thought I would post a little weekend listening of a few non-piano pieces of Khachaturian.  Please enjoy at your leisure!  Would love to hear your thoughts.

1.  “Sabre Dance”  from his ballet “Gayane”   

Many of you will know this and I’m sure many circus performers and gymnasts do as well! I think it would make a great “tap along” piece for a student’s understanding of a VERY STEADY beat.

2.  “Masquerade Waltz”  from his ballet “Gayane”   

Perhaps one of the greatest waltzes of all time (at least in my humble opinion).  This piece always uplifts me when I hear it.  I need to place a conductor’s baton in my students’ hands and have them conduct this.  What a way to feel one beat per bar!

In 1941 Khachaturian was asked to write music for a production of the play, Masquerade, by Russian poet and playwright Mikhail Lermontov.  It is better known in the form of a five-movement suite.

And a lovely piano transcription here!

It’s available in THIS COLLECTION.  I immediately thought of how fun this would be as a piano duet.  Found one HERE on Sheet Music Plus.

3.  “Adagio”  from his third and final ballet “Spartacus”  

One of my all-time favorites.  His last internationally- acclaimed work completed in 1954.

Came across this passionate piano arrangement you must listen to….

What a discovery!  I found it available for purchase HERE!







Khachaturian “Adventures of Ivan” Piano Play-Along: Post Four (Nos. 5 and 6 Reaction)

Ivan’s adventures are becoming much more involved.  I found myself playing Nos. 5 and 6 many times this past week and with each playing I enjoyed new discoveries in sound color, rhythm, and texture.  How could anyone tire of these pieces?  They’re so captivating!

Quick scan thoughts:

  • No. 5 “Ivan is Very Busy” is filled with finger antics as it explores a multitude of staccato touches with repeated notes and repeated patterns, especially in the LH.  It’s constantly moving without a single rest until the penultimate measure.  Since it’s rapid and lightly textured, it should result in light, nimble sounds.  Interesting to notice that the hands are positioned closely together throughout
  • No. 6 “Ivan and Natasha” is a lush, Romantic texture especially compared to the previous movements.  The LH provides a good deal of rhythmic movement to propel the phrases.  Of course Khachaturian’s trademark chromaticism is evident with accidentals all over this score. It seems he couldn’t confine himself to any one key area for too long.

Thoughts while playing….

No. 5 –  “Ivan is Very Busy” (also seen as “Ivan is Busy” and “Etude” in other collections)

An excellent piece for repeated staccato-note playing and alternation between the hands.  I played this for a student this week to get his impression.  His reaction:  “I like that!”  It’s easy to hear why this piece would be motivating to a young student. It’s energetic and truly adventuresome in sound, rhythm, and range.

First impressions:

  • Stay alert about the accidentals.  They change rapidly.
  • Your LH will get a staccato workout and a quick forearm staccato would probably add a lighter effect than just a finger staccato.  Here’s a demo of the idea:

Fingering:  Measures18 & 19 – I found Mirovitch’s LH 4-2-3-2 pattern difficult to coordinate with the RH, so see my suggestion below.  It was much easier to process when playing both hands together at the fast tempo.


And this re-distribution for the top of p. 3 was also much easier to grab onto:


For the repeated notes in the LH of m. 39, I preferred the standard 3-2-1 repetition.  It felt lighter and it naturally sorted itself out in the latter measures as well.


Pedaling:   I would keep it light and dry where indicated, except for the C Major build-up at the end.

Such an invigorating piece!  Here’s a sample YouTube video.  There were several. but I had difficulty locating one where a performer truly played staccato in the LH.

No. 6 –  “Ivan and Natasha”

Words that came to mind as I played:  dreamy, exotic, luscious, mysterious….. And just who is this Natasha?  Sister, friend, girlfriend?  This piece should be better known.  It would be excellent preparation for Impressionistic repertoire.  So much of the harmonic color and texture reminded me of Debussy.

How many times do you see a falling augmented 5th like this one as the basis of a melody (soprano line)?  Khachaturian makes it sound like a good fit.


Khachaturian creates many beautifully-exotic harmonies in such a short piece and his use of chromaticism quite naturally provides the push-and-pull for the phrasing and climaxes.  Both hands are filled with melodic figuration.  I especially enjoyed this exquisite subito P color change after the climax in m. 17.


At this moment (top of second page), the harmonies descend quietly and melt into the return of the main theme in m. 22 (lovely!).   I often have students block the harmonies in sections like this one in order to hear how the harmonic progression guides the phrase to its destination.  Here’s an example in this video.

This piece will stretch a student’s expressive capabilities!  A well-crafted gem! Here’s a sensitive performance I discovered on YouTube.

Have you heard Nos. 5 or 6 before?  Taught them previously?  I would love to know about students’ reactions.  I’m keeping “Ivan and Natasha” on file for future use with late intermediate students.



Khachaturian “Adventures of Ivan” Piano Play-Along: Post Three (Nos. 3 and 4 Reaction)

These next two in the set were less familiar to me upon my reading.  How about you?

Quick scan thoughts:

  • Khachaturian seemed to like the idea of not including a keysignature and just filling a piece with accidentals.  Perhaps this is due to his frequent use of chromatic harmonies.  It does keep you on your toes during the reading process.
  • No. 3 looked quite s-l-o-w moving…

Thoughts while playing….

No. 3  –  Ivan is Ill (sometimes seen in other collections as “Ivan is Sick”)

Listening to all the unexpected dissonances made me think Ivan must have been quite queasy.   Nothing felt settled in this work, at least not until the end of the piece.

Three things went through my mind as I played (tempo at quarter = 58, which I thought offered a convincing “lento.”):

  1. Would any of my students find this piece too dissonant for their predictable ears?
  2. How could I convince a student to play a piece that moves this slowly?
  3. What about the control needed to spin out this slow-moving melodic line in the RH? including the voicing of the soprano?

This piece wouldn’t be an instant “sell” to a typical student.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t care for the piece.  I actually like it for all its quirkiness and find that it lends itself to the imagination quite well.  I would have to paint a real sound picture, through my own vivid performance, to entice a student to give it a try.  You never know.  Some students like pieces that are different from all the rest.

I would sell this piece on the fact that it sounds “queasy” and that Ivan may be feeling a stomach issue in progress, so to speak.  Young students can relate to that, right?  As I demonstrate the piece I would ask the student:  “What do you think could be happening here?” and continue with this type of questioning all the way to the end in order to create a story or scene.  With a picture in mind and the imagination activated, I think students then become far more interested and maybe inclined to illustrate an interesting picture like this one with colorful sounds.

A few details to keep in mind:

1. Notice the shift in the LH articulation from legato to tenuto (detached) in mm. 1-2 and 5-6.  The resulting effect is quite different.


Measures 1 and 2 


Measures 5 and 6

2.  Measure 11 – I’m convinced the the C-natural in the soprano is a typo.  I couldn’t embrace it.  C-flat sounds like the intention. Your thoughts?


Measure 11

3. The dynamics, especially the swells (hairpin cresc. and dim. marks – see Measures 1 and 2 above), help shape the long melodic phrases and give them direction.  I would ask the student to insert this type of “swell shaping” in all of the phrases, even where it’s not indicated, to prevent the piece from sounding flat and vertical.  Most of the phrases here are either 2 or 4 measures in length.

And what finally happened at the end?  —  I would ask the student to describe the scene. It gradually calms down. Perhaps Ivan was finally able to fall into some restful sleep after a tortured spell of nausea.  Poor guy.

No. 4  –  Ivan Goes to a Party (subtitled “Waltz” and sometimes referred to as “The Birthday” or “The Birthday Party” in other collections)

This piece falls into the category of “sounds harder than it plays” especially once you sort through all the accidentals and get it your fingers wrapped around it.  Both the MCA and Schirmer scores indicate the tempo of quarter note = 72, but surely they meant the dotted-half-note.  This waltz requires some lilt!  I enjoyed this bouncy, colorful waltz the more I played it.

How many pieces do you know in the standard piano repertoire that start on the leading tone and resolve downward (see RH below)?


Measure 4 – D# leading tone

Notice above how the editor is quite clear about the LH’s lightness (PP, staccato, and senza ped.) with beat 1 to receive some length and emphasis.

Unique features:  I especially enjoyed Khachaturian’s tasty harmonies throughout, but especially during places like the rit. in mm. 33-35.  Play these measures quite slowly a few times to notice how the chords change color and resolve to B-flat minor.  I would ask a student to “listen for” these color shifts while creating a smooth meltdown.

This “party” is  full of interesting twists and turns (or “characters” or “events”) which is why I think students would really enjoy it.  The unexpected hemiola in mm. 61 – 64 is refreshing (indicated through the use of accents).

I also enjoyed the back-and-forth from E Major to D-flat Major in the Coda (last 15 mm. of the piece.).  Party’s over.

What are some of the features you enjoyed?

I leave you with a YouTube video I found of a young pianist who has captured a good spirit for this piece.





Khachaturian “Adventures of Ivan” Piano Play-Along: Post Two (Nos. 1 and 2 Reaction)

Here’s the first reaction post for the Khachaturian Piano Play-Along! Don’t worry if you haven’t played through these first two pieces yet. You have all of August to read through the set.

Have you seen the entire Play-Along plan for August yet?  You can read it HERE.  Please be sure to express your own reactions here on the blog at the different posts or on the Facebook page.  I really do want to know your thoughts about these very intriguing pieces.

Quick scan thoughts:

In the preface of the MCA edition, the editor, Alfred Mirovitch, describes the set as such: “The refreshing originality of mood, harmonization and pianistic invention in these easy, amusing, but provocative compositions will act as a stimulus and challenge to alert all students and teachers.”   Well said.  I couldn’t agree more.  I found myself playing both No. 1 and especially No. 2 several times in order to fully absorb Khachaturian’s craftsmanship.  For me it was his harmonic choices and interesting chord progressions that immediately tickled my ear.  No. 1 is more predictable in its construction, but No. 2 was less so and I dug into that one more deeply for better understanding.

Thoughts while playing….

No. 1  –  Ivan Sings (subtitled “Andantino” in the MCA edition, but not in the Schirmer)

This piece’s popularity is understandable.  Khachaturian created a beautiful song without words by simple means.  The lovely, plaintive melody captures you from the beginning and compells you to continue.  The simple 3rds in the LH support the sweetness of character (I can’t imagine thick 3-note chords in the LH at all!),  and the descending bass line and chromatic harmonic movement evoke even more melancholy.

Khachaturian made a masterful move in m. 18 for the variation of the main theme.    He merely inverted the LH 3rds into 6ths, adjusted the range a bit, and added a simple touch of rhythmic syncopation for lilt.  Brilliant.  Now the theme sounds even more tender.  Note how he also inverted the RH in m. 18, compared to m.2.  The grace notes add playfulness.  I’ve had to remind students to play the grace notes quickly and quite lightly, before the beat.

The other aspect I address often with students is the LH repeated notes.  I tell them that they should play the repeated notes as sustained as possible to maintain a very smooth, unarticulated texture.  I ask that they use a gliding motion on the keys in order to accomplish this and to watch carefully to prevent the key from coming all the way up.  Here’s a student giving it a whirl:

Opening measures of LH (“gliding” somewhat exaggerated here due to slow tempo):

M. 18 LH (aiming to sustain the thumb and play it more lightly than the lower note):

Two other issues I often address:

  1. Tempo – students are often compelled to play this piece too fast and they have a tendency to rush the tempo during the variation of the theme in m. 18.
  2. Pedaling – they must be attentive to the syncopated pedaling and other changes as indicated (Mirovitch says that the pedaling is his, not Khachaturian’s.)

*I like the tempo indication of quarter note = 88.  It’s reasonable for the mood.

No. 2 – Ivan Can’t Go Out Today

At first glance this piece looks rather fleeting so I checked the metronome indication first.  Personally I feel that 66 to each measure seems too slow for an Allegro moderato, so I bumped it up a little (around 74-76 per measure) and it provided more direction to the phrases.   It also hastened the harmonic movement so I could hear the chord progressions and cadences more clearly.

Speaking of harmony, this piece was an unusual adventure in that respect.  The key center was hard to pin down at first due to all the chromaticism, but I settled on C natural minor, due to the frequent use of C minor triads, use of G leading to C, and then of course, the Picardy third at the end resulting in C Major.  Interesting how Khachaturian uses only accidentals and no keysignature.

Does the music reflect the title?

With title in mind, I played this adventure at the slightly faster tempo of 76 a few times. I imagined a child’s complaint or outcry in Measures 5 thru 12:


Mounting frustration in m. 37:


Flip-flopping moods in mm. 63 thru 77:


And finally the child’s resignation with the rit. and dim. at the end.  Lots of nervous energy throughout.  What do you hear?

Reading Schedule:

  • Introduction Post:  Monday, August 11
  • Khachaturian, Adventures of Ivan, Nos. 1 and 2 reaction:  Thursday, August 14
  • Nos. 3 and 4 reaction:  Monday, August 18
  • Nos. 5 and 6 reaction:  Monday, August 25
  • Nos. 7 and 8 reaction:  Wednesday, August 27


Khachaturian “Adventures of Ivan” Piano Play-Along: Post One (Introduction) 

Welcome to the Play-Along for Adventures of Ivan, by Aram Khachaturian.  For more information on this play-along, check out the entire schedule HERE.

Khachaturian’s eight intermediate-level pieces, Adventures of Ivan, offer a good glimpse into the beauty of his writing and the talents that confirmed his standing as one of the greatest Russian composers of the 20th century.  If you’ve heard his piano music before, you may have encountered the all-too-frequently-played Toccata and perhaps the brilliant Sonatina in A minor (1959), both of which still appear on competition lists from time to time and are popular with advancing students.

Khachaturian relied heavily on the folk music of his native Armenia to influence his approach.  He adored the songs and dances of his homeland and his compositions are filled with tuneful melodies that range from colorful and cheerful to quite plaintive or melancholic.  His pieces are brimming with strong character and humor portrayed often with propulsive and exciting rhythms.  Though he wrote only two volumes of  intermediate-level piano pieces (Adventures of Ivan and Ten Pieces for the Young Pianist), his small output at this level has a great deal to offer the piano student, and the piano teacher as well!

Some Background 

The one adventure with which you may be familiar is the first adventure in the set of 8 entitled “Ivan Sings” (or referred to as Andantino in some publications).  This particular piece appears in a few older piano anthologies (to be listed later) but not in the more current piano collections due to copyright restrictions.

Khachaturian composed the Ivan pieces over a period of years prior to their publication in 1948 by Leeds Music Corporation in the U.S.  “Ivan Sings” was composed in 1926.  Though it seems that Ivan’s Adventures should contain a narrative of some sort, they are simply snapshots of the life of a young boy.  The titles assist the player in finding a character, mood, or expression in the music (and thus the reference to the set as “character pieces.”)

My Copy

I’ll be playing from the Schirmer Edition for this Play-Along, shown here. It contains the complete set of 8 pieces.

Khachaturian album

I’ll compare it to the older MCA edition pictured here, which I found in my local library:

Adventures of Ivan

Please use any edition you may have on hand.  You may certainly grab a copy HERE if necessary, but try to support your local music store if you can.  NOTE:  After a Google search I found that a digital download is available on Scribd, but I encourage you to purchase a hard copy to have available for your students or just for yourself.

Remember to post your reactions for the selected pieces each week of August.   I look forward to what you have to say, whether or not you’ve taught or played the pieces before.

Along the way I’ll comment on some of the specifics I notice in both the Schirmer and MCA editions and offer some insights for teaching.

Post your comments and certainly ask questions in the Reply section below or on the FB group page HERE.  I’ll answer questions as quickly as I can.  And others may chime in on questions, too!

Enjoy learning more about this imaginative set!


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