A Very Unhappy Dance: The story behind Khachaturian’s “Masquerade Suite”

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I had the pleasure to perform a composition by Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian titled “The Masquerade Suite” and based on a play by Russian author Mikhail Lermontov. I was so enchanted with this lush and often mournful work of art that I made it my business to do some investigation of the story that inspires it.

The Masquerade depicts the tragedy of a woman who is killed by her husband over a false accusation of infidelity. The story begins with a grand masquerade ball where the Baroness Schtral, who is secretly in love with the Prince, grants him a bracelet as a token of her affection. As the Baroness is disguised by her mask, the Prince does not know who she is, prompting him to confide in his acquaintance, Arbenin, that he will search until he finds the mystery woman who gave the gift. Things however get complicated when Arbenin comes home and notices his own wife, Nina, is missing a bracelet that suspiciously resembles the one the Prince possessed. Assuring her husband that she most likely lost the bracelet carelessly at the masquerade, Nina visits the baroness’ home in search of her misplaced jewelry. Unfortunately she meets the prince instead and in a grand misunderstanding the Prince is convinced that she gave him the bracelet. Gossip of Nina’s “flirtations” spread around the community and eventually reaches a furious Arbenin. Enraged that his wife would cheat on him he begins to plan jealous revenge on his unfaithful wife. Meanwhile, the Baroness hears of the whole mess and confesses to the prince that it was she who gave him the bracelet and that Nina is innocent after all. At the next ball the Prince returns the bracelet to Nina and warns her of the extent of her husbands anger and distrust. Of course Nina does not take him seriously. Later in the evening when Nina suddenly falls gravely ill her husband reveals that he poisoned the ice cream he gave her earlier and that she will surely die. In desperation Nina tries to convince her husband that she is innocent and that it is all a misunderstanding but ultimately it is too late, she dies. Only after wards does Arbenin cool down enough to realize the mistake he has made. To add salt to the wound the prince himself arrives to confirm that there was no affair between Nina and himself and he gives Arbenin a letter from the Baroness which explains everything. Opps…

Below is a recording of the lovely “Waltz” from “Masquerade Suite” by Aram Khachaturian
You don’t need to know the story to hear that it is not a happy dance:

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