Some of the most moving pieces of classical music are adagios (slow movements). Think: Rachmaninoff’s Adagio, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Mahler’s Adagietto, and so on. The performing arts too has their adagio moments, and Aram Khachaturian’s Adagio from the ballet Spartacus is a fine example.
Khachaturian (1903 – 1978) was just hitting his 50th birthday when he produced his music to Spartacus. It later became one of our favorite TV themes. The plot of the ballet had been around for some fifteen years and was suggested to him by a critic named Volkov. The composer finally got to work ‘with a feeling of enormous creative excitement’, but his preparation had been nothing if not extensive. He’d had a blast of a trip around Italy, visiting the very places at the centre of the famous story of a slave rebellion. Despite taking a fair few liberties with the plot, the ballet score won Khachaturian the Lenin Prize in 1954, and was premiered in St Petersburg, just two years later.
The most captivating moment comes in Act II when Spartacus manages to free his wife Phrygia and the lovers celebrate with the heart-rending Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia. It’s a popular moment, made more so with the tune’s starring role in the 1970s and 1980s television drama The Onedin Line, where its waves of pleasure resonated with the ocean’s waves.
The best recording of the Adagio is the following one by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra with Loris Tjeknavorian conducting. Listen out for the full orchestral crescendo from 6:16 to 6:50.