The Spanish painter Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) was and is the world’s most recognizable surrealist artist. His visage, with its piercing, pop-eyed stare and bizarre double-rapier mustache, startled and mesmerized a public for over six decades. Probably known more for his eccentric looks and bizarre behavior than his art, Dalí indulged a passion for shocking and declared his love for “everything that is gilded and excessive.”
Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978) was a Soviet Armenian composer and conductor. Most consider him one of the Soviet Union’s leading composers, known for, among other works, the theme from the film, Spartacus. However, his best known and most beloved musical creation is the pounding, dazzling “Saber Dance.”
In one chapter of his book, Legends of Nevsky Prospyekt, writer Mikhail Veller recounts the time the two great contemporaries met. The meeting was … revealing.
The following is based on that chapter as well as accounts from “those who know.”
Aram Khachaturian had just finished a concert tour across Spain. The composer’s music was well known and much beloved in that country, and this concert had been boffo. The delighted concert organizers, eager to show their appreciation, asked what special hospitality they might offer the composer before he returned home. Was there some place Khachaturian wanted to visit? Other musicians/composers he’d like to meet …?
Khachaturian mused that, among its many gifts to art and culture, Spain had given birth to “the greatest artist of the 20th century,” that is, Salvador Dalí. Would a short audience with the master be possible? The Armenian wished to express in person his admiration for the great Spaniard, and hoped the painter would autograph one of the composer's most prized possessions—a leather album of Dalí’s works.
The hosts squirmed in their seats and looked down. They knew all too well of Dalí’s unpredictability and penchant for the weird. But Khachaturian had asked, and Spanish courtesy would try to comply. A call was made to the artist.
At first, the organizers breath a sigh of relief when they learned that the artist was far off in America.
But when Dalí heard that Khachaturian wanted to meet him, he called from the U.S., promising to drop everything and fly back to Spain that very night. How, he asked, could he, a humble, third-rate artist, refuse one of the world's greatest musical geniuses? He said that meeting the illustrious composer would bring him happiness for the rest of his days. Dalí insisted that Khachaturian visit his “modest home” the following day for a two p.m. meeting.
An artist's home ...
The next day at three minutes to two, a limousine carrying Khachaturian, his manager, a secretary, and an interpreter, arrives at the Dalí address. The so-called modest home is a Moorish castle complete with turrets, spires, battlements, and flags. A doorman and security guard, both in colorful livery, throw open the gates and announce that the master is expecting them.
But, they say, they regret that the master will not be welcoming Khachaturian's entourage. Señor Dalí, they explain, prefers a familial, intimate meeting alone with the composer. They say that Señora Dalí, the host’s wife, is Russian so no interpreter will be required. And the car need not wait since they will arrange for transportation back to the composer’s hotel.
The others shrug off the snub as another Dalí oddity, and so shake Khachaturian’s hand, bid him a good visit, and leave.
The composer then follows the doorman up a marble driveway to the castle porch where they are greeted by a man richly attired like a grand marshal or a major-domo. This person bows to Khachaturian and asks him to follow. The composer worries that he should have dressed more formally, perhaps a tuxedo.
The marshal-domo leads Khachaturian to a stately reception hall. The room glistens with rich decor, white moldings, parquet floors, and large mirrors. In addition to the entrance, there is a door at the far end of the hall. In the middle sits a luxurious couch embroidered with gold threads, in front of which is placed a Louis XV mosaic table. The table is stacked with Armenian brandy (a favorite of the composer), Spanish wines, fruits, and cigars. In the corner, Khachaturian spies a magnificent golden cage in which an iridescent peacock struts and cries out.
The marshal invites the composer to sit and announces in Spanish that Señor Dalí will soon arrive. The clock on the wall then strikes two, and the marshal bows and leaves.
A few minutes go by. Khachaturian remembers that the Spanish are not known to be slaves to punctuality, but he waits eagerly. He looks around, smooths his hair, and straightens his tie. He calms himself knowing that Dalí’s wife, Gala, will be there to translate. He prepares an introductory phrase and hones several subtle compliments.
The persistence of waiting
At ten past two, Khachaturian thinks he hears Dalí’s footsteps, but no. At a quarter past, he sits back and takes a cigar from the box. He lights it, inhales, blows billows of smoke, and crosses one leg over the other. He pours a glass of cognac.
At twenty past two, he’s getting annoyed, first a little then a lot. After all, the appointment was for two p.m. This is rude.
At two-thirty, He pours another glass of cognac then a glass of wine. He nibbles grapes and bites into an apple. Where is the man? He is breaking all bounds of etiquette. Khachaturian stands up, unbuttons his jacket, loosens his tie, stretches, puts his hands in his pocket, and paces around the room. He exchanges hard glances with the peacock, who is now screaming like a monkey.
By two-forty-five, Khachaturian is wishing that he had never come. He goes to the far door and turns the handle—maybe he’s been put in the wrong waiting hall. But the door is locked. Strange. Khachaturian decides he’ll wait until three p.m., and then the hell with everything. This is a humiliating mess.
At three on the dot, he crushes out his cigar, downs his drink, and heads for the entrance door. But--what? This door, too, is firmly locked.
He is furious. He swears loudly, tears off his tie, and stuffs it in his pocket. He spits at the peacock. He looks for a phone or a way to call the valet—even an alarm if there was one.
No sign of anything. He wonders if something happened to Dalì or if he mixed his days. He even questions if the invitation was ever given. And because he thought to dine with the painter, he hasn’t eaten, so he picks at the fruit and sips more brandy.
Khachaturian now feels nature’s call. He needs a toilet. But both doors are locked. This is ridiculous. He knocks on the door, at first gently and then bangs. No response. He tries to open a window but the castle windows have solid frames, and cannot be breached.
The pressure on his bladder is excruciating, and just before four o’clock, with all patience and self-control drained, his gaze turns to a podium between the windows where sits a collection of antique Moorish vases. To hell with their beautiful form, he thinks—more critical now is their possible function. And so, bursting on the inside, he rushes to the podium and does the necessary into one of the vases.
He barely has time to bask in his relief when the clock strikes four times. Without warning, a hidden speaker booms forth a deafening rendition of "Sabre Dance." The entrance door then swings open, and Salvador Dalí—naked as a plucked peacock—charges in riding a mop and waving a sword above his head!
He gallops and prances and waves his sword across the room to the opposite door, which quickly opens to let him pass through and just as quickly slams behind him. Once Dalí vanishes, the music stops. Suddenly, the grand marshal reappears to inform Khachaturian that the audience is over. He shows the stunned composer to the exit.
Khachaturian slowly pulls himself together, trying to cope with the shock of the encounter. and his now spattered trousers. He follows the marshal to the porch where he is handed his finely stitched album of Dalí’s works, now autographed by the painter “in touching memory of our unforgettable meeting.” Khachaturian is then put in a car and taken to his hotel.
Back in the lobby, his hosts, as well as a large group of admirers, are waiting, anxious to hear details of the epic meeting.
Khachaturian, ever polite—and not knowing what to say, anyhow—quietly alludes to general discussions about music and art and universal harmony.
However, later that day, the full details of the audience, as reported by Dalí, are supplied to the evening newspapers. In a sour version of events, Dali bemoans the crude manners of “these Russians” who eat and drink everything in sight then use a priceless 600-year-old vase as a chamber pot. The poor, hopeless rubes!
It is said that, whenever this story was brought to Khachaturian for confirmation, he just smiled evasively, looked away, and shook his head. So, take from that what you will.
Whatever the case, some of us count ourselves richer for having been introduced to a vision of the mustachioed, naked cavalier and fruitcake charging across the palace floor brandishing his blade and spurring forward his mop. It’s irresistible.
So, with such dreams in your head, I give you, “The Saber Dance”—two versions. The first, a delightful, traditional rendering by the Berliner Philharmoniker; the second a deliberately frenetic take by the group, Jelonek, which, to my mind, can truly be called, “Dalí-esque.”