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RT.com / RT projects / Russiapedia / Prominent Russians / Music / Mikael Tariverdiev

Prominent Russians: Mikael Tariverdiev

August 15, 1931 – June 24, 1996

Mikael Tariverdiev was a prominent Soviet composer of Armenian descent, who wrote the music for over a hundred well-known and loved Soviet films. People may not have known what Mikael Tariverdiev looked like, but there were very few who didn’t hum or whistle his melodies. And what more could a composer want?

Georgian childhood

Mikael Tariverdiev was born in Tbilisi on August  15, 1931. His family was well-regarded in the city – Mikael’s grandfather Grisho Akopov was a well-known landowner. The future composer’s family was considered quite well-off – they lived in a three-storey brick mansion, owned a magnificent large orchard by the river, and were engaged in trade. Grisho had a big family – he was the father of six girls, one of them being Mikael’s mother Sato, who married young and soon gave birth to Mikael.

After the baby was born, Sato immediately gave up everything else, dedicating all her time and energy to Mikael - the longed-for only child in the family. The boy’s early days were happy – his mother’s kindness combined with the strict upbringing of his father and grandfather formed Mikael’s character, making him smart, industrious and kind-hearted. He inherited Sato’s good looks and in time, turned from a charming boy into a handsome young man. Mikael would write later, “I learned everything that is good about me from my mother.”

At a very early age, Mikael went to kindergarten, where he fell desperately in love with his teacher. The feeling was so strong that after the little boy learned that his ladylove was getting married, he flatly refused to ever set foot in the kindergarten again.

Mikael Tariversiev in childhood Mikael Tariverdiev in childhood

Mikael adored horses and often visited the racetrack, where he was given riding lessons. At first, Sato was surprised at the sight of the empty sugar bowls in her kitchen, when she remembered filling them the day before! It did not make her happy – so little Mikael stopped feeding the horses, and the mysterious sugar disappearances stopped.

Mikael was an athletic boy. Horses and riding were not his only passion, and a little after the sugar incidents, he became interested in boxing and swimming. He soon became a strong swimmer, and for some time was even a member of the Georgian national swimming team. This hobby helped him throughout his life whenever he needed to recharge and regain balance. Aside from sports, the boy took an interest in literature and photography.

At the age of six, Mikael started school but couldn’t boast having many friends. His only companion was Sergey Gasparyan, who recalled children didn’t like Tariverdiev much and avoided playing with him. The reason for this was probably Mikael’s reluctance to join his classmates’ soccer games. His classmates thought of a nickname that suited Mikael best from their point of view – “Bottle.” He was thin and tall with wide shoulders, and did in fact resemble a wine bottle. Tariverdiev never took offence. He was too wrapped up in his music, and didn’t seem to mind being lonely.

Adolescence

While still at school, Mikael wrote a tune that was considered ideal as the school’s anthem. It is still sung at the school reunions by graduates of all ages. Following this successful debut, Mikael started to be spoken about with admiration and respect.

A year before graduation, Mikael saw the headmaster hit a classmate, the son of a teacher, so hard the boy lost his hearing. Tariverdiev couldn’t ignore what he had seen, and the next day he rushed to speak at a Komsomol meeting and report the headmaster. The latter was furious that a boy had dared to confront him, and demanded that Mikael leave the school. Tariverdiev left, and had to finish his last year at an evening school, though neither he nor his family regretted the act - everyone sided with the boy, believing he did the right thing.

After school Mikael entered the Tbilisi Academy of Music and graduated just a year later.

In 1949, Mikael’s father, head of the Central Bank of Georgia at the time, was arrested and his son and wife had to go into hiding. For several months, they moved from one apartment to another and literally starved for days. Mikael didn’t lose heart and gave private music lessons, earning a little money and trying to cheer up Sato.

These dark times were oddly enough quite fruitful for Mikael – he wrote two short ballets that were staged by the Tbilisi Opera House. This was the first true success for young Tariverdiev. Upon receiving his fee, the composer bought a hat – the first treat in his life which he had earned himself.

Tariverdiev decided to enter the Yerevan Conservatory, but a year and a half later he ran away, both from the Conservatory and the city. Though Mikael tried his best to put down roots there and even learned the Armenian language, Yerevan “never accepted him”, as he would later write in his autobiography.

Gnessin College

By 1952 Mikael Tariverdiev was in Moscow, and already a student of the famous Gnessin Musical College. In a letter to his father, who was still at a concentration camp, Mikael wrote that despite the enrolment competition that was extremely difficult, he was accepted to the college receiving the only excellent mark among all applicants.

In college, Mikael was well-liked by everyone – they admired his talent, and even those who saw him as a rival, treated him with much respect. 

The young composer was extremely handsome – an imposing man, who loved and knew how to dress beautifully, how to speak convincingly and how to impress people easily. But beneath the comeliness, there was credulity and a desire to please.

The title of a talented composer was never enough for Tariverdiev – he had many other hobbies, including a huge photographic collection of his own.

The years of university were happy and fruitful for Tariverdiev, even though his living conditions were poor: to support himself, he had to unload cars at railway stations at night. Yet he was happy writing music, meeting new and interesting people, working and studying.

Cinematography

Tariverdiev became acquainted with cinema early and quite by chance. Cinematography Institute students Mikael had always been on friendly terms with, were desperate to find a young composer ready to help them with coursework. No one agreed – it was the time of end-of-semester exams and future musicians-to-be were studying hard. But Tariverdiev leapt at the proposal, thus composing his first film soundtrack for “Man Overboard.”

The film was a success, and Mikael made friends with many young actors and film-makers. Michael Kalik stood apart among the numerous acquaintances – he became Tariverdiev’s close friend, and the two men started working together.

This first job was very soon followed by others. Tariverdiev was braver than many of his fellow students, and wasn’t afraid to travel with production units to far-flung shooting locations. Mikael loved the whole process and spent hours talking to directors, discussing the script, editing music recordings, sidelight, looping and more, though all this wasn’t actually his direct area of expertise.

The third trend

It was with the help of cinema that Tariverdiev developed what he called the “third trend” in his work. This was a blend of song and old Russian romance, set to fine poetry. Mikael was the first composer to turn to the verse of Bella Akhmadulina, Andrey Voznesensky and Evgeny Yevtushenko, thus creating many songs, loved and sung by virtually all of Russia.

Alla Pugacheva, probably the best-known Soviet songstress, who was in her prime in the 1970s and 1980s, says it was Tariverdiev who helped her discover her talent. She recalls listening to the radio as a child, hearing one of Tariverdiev’s songs and immediately falling in love with it. The future prima donna decided she wanted to sing: thus, Mikael indirectly inspired the young girl to embark on her professional singing career.

Friends and lady-friends

Close connections to cinema inevitably resulted in many friends and acquaintances for Tariverdiev. Many such acquaintances turned into close true friendships, which Tariverdiev cherished greatly and devoted his every spare moment to. 

Mikael said he loved each and every one of his friends, saying that even when they misunderstood each other, argued or had to live in different cities or countries for long periods, they still remained close and never broke up their relationship.

Women always played a very important role in Mikael’s life. He treated them differently as he grew older and his character changed - he worshipped them, then despised and hated them, but couldn’t live without them. Tariverdiev seemed to depend on them.

Mikael was married several times, but none of the alliances were long-lasting. He used to repeat he was desperate to find a safe haven at last, but then he would soon understand he had made a mistake, and find a new woman.

Tariverdiev called his last wife Vera the love of his life. They met in 1983 at a music festival, and Mikael says thereafter, he forgot all about other women, he was not even sure if they had ever existed in his life. Vera was with Tariverdiev until his last day.

Mikael always remained a gentleman, if not a true knight. Once, when he was having an affair with the actress Lyudmila Maksakova, the couple went for a weekend in the country. On the way back Lyudmila was driving, it was quite dark, and the woman didn’t notice a man who, it seems, jumped out on the road right in front of the car. When Tariverdiev understood what had happened, he immediately changed places with Lyudmila. When the police arrived, Mikael said he was to blame for the accident. The poor man who had so unfortunately jumped out onto the road, died soon after the accident. Tariverdiev was arrested and spent two years in prison while the case was investigated. Maksakova wasn’t present at the hearing – Tariverdiev decided they should separate, though it was immensely hard for him to make the decision. Mikael was pardoned, and the episode was considered forgotten.

Tariverdiev though never forgot it – he saw death face to face, and this changed his world greatly. Many of his friends did not want to have anything in common with him after that. He became lonely, shut himself off from the world, and the world returned the attitude. And though Tariverdiev began to fear women, he still loved them, and was in constant search of the one who would make him truly happy.

The happy 70s

The 70s were the happiest and most fruitful years in Mikael’s life. The two most famous films for which Tariverdiev wrote music appeared during this period – “Seventeen Moments of Spring” and“The Irony of Fate.”

The opening night of “Seventeen Moments of Spring” took place in September 1973 and was a great success - the composer took a considerable part of the film’s fantastic popularity. Tariverdiev was welcome everywhere, there was hardly a person who didn’t dream of having the famous composer’s autograph. Mikael’s popularity was so great that even when he parked his car in Red Square, no one dared say a word. Tariverdiev was ecstatic.

But the dream did not last long. One day, a telegram was sent to the Union of Soviet Composers signed by Francis Lai, a French composer noted for his film scores. It claimed Tariverdiev had stolen his tunes. At first, Mikael did not pay much attention to the paper, believing it was a silly and mean joke. Of course he was right, but the contents of the telegram had already been made public – discussed on every street corner. Radio stations and, later, TV channels started to ban Tariverdiev’s music.

The incident greatly changed Tariverdiev’s attitude toward his colleagues and the world in general. He was deeply hurt that the people for whom he had worked and written, were ready to believe he had stolen his music.

Chernobyl

In 1986 Tariverdiev went to Ukraine, and visited the city of Chernobyl. There, he performed in front of the workers who still remained at the site of the Chernobyl power plant that was not yet closed. Mikael did not intend to write anything dedicated to the visit, but half a year after the harrowing trip, he wrote a symphony for the organ, which he entitled simply “Chernobyl.”

Tariverdiev’s thoughts turned to the trip over and over again. “As we approached the village, we saw small white wooden cottages, the windows were open and everything was unusually quiet. The silence was somehow sinister and abnormal – the birds did not sing, the grasshoppers did not chirr. Only then did we finally notice the plastic white notices saying ‘Danger! Radioactivity!”

Last days

The final stage of Mikael Tariverdiev’s life opened on 31 May 1990. On that day, he underwent surgery in London – the aortic valve in his heart was replaced by an artificial one. Despite the gravity of his condition, Mikael never stopped joking: “I’m a man with an iron heart. Guaranteed for 40 years!”

Tariverdiev’s last opus was created in 1994 in Yalta – a small seaside town in Crimea that charmed Mikael and his wife when the couple stayed there for a month.

Tariverdiev grew so attached to the Black Sea that he decided to spend the summer of 1996 there as well, but this time in the city of Sochi. July was rainy and dull; there were fewer tourists on the shore than usual. Late at night on 24 July, Mikael and Vera sat on the balcony and watched the sky suddenly clear and millions of stars begin to shine. The next morning the couple was to return to Moscow – they already had their tickets. But when Vera woke up on 25 July, she found her husband dead on the balcony – his heart hadn’t been able to cope.

Awards

During his lifetime Tariverdiev received eighteen major prizes, including the USSR State Prize in 1977, and the prize of the American Music Academy in 1975. Mikael was also made a People's Artist of Russia in 1986. He won three Nika Awards for Best Composer in the 1990s.

The Best Music prize at the largest Russian national film festival Kinotavr is named after Tariverdiev. After his death, a group of admirers organized the Mikael Tariverdiev Charity Foundation and the Tariverdiev Annual International Organ Competition, which still runs today.

Written by Anna Yudina, RT

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