Paradise hills: the star-studded history and uncertain future of Armenia’s legendary Soviet-era composers’ retreat

The Armenian Composers’ Union once offered a luxurious Soviet-era resort for visiting artists. But while the venue once hosted the leading musicians of the 20th century, today the modernist complex is fighting for survival.

7 February 2022

Scattered across a wooded hillside above the Armenian town of Dilijan are a cluster of cube-shaped “cottages” tiled in pink tufa with views up to the looming, snow-covered peaks of the Lesser Caucasus. Together with a modernist concert hall, restaurant, and outdoor swimming pool, these cottages were part of a luxurious Soviet-era resort for composers visited by some of the leading musicians of the 20th century: from Dmitry Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten to Aram Khachaturyan. In his diary, English tenor Peter Pears described the resort as a “a summer colony of about a dozen houses in a lovely, lonely valley of thick woods under high grassy hills.” Each cottage has its own grand piano, but is secluded enough to ensure that working composers do not disturb their neighbours.

The area around Dilijan is known as “Armenia’s Switzerland” and its natural beauty meant the resort easily eclipsed other, similar, retreats for Soviet composers in neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan. It became a premier musical destination, helping to foster an Armenian musical renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s. “It was a sort of laboratory for us,” recalled Georgian composer Felix Ghlonti, who was a regular visitor. “We met up and discussed creative, aesthetic, philosophical, and artistic issues. And this interaction enriched us all.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the resort slipped quickly into obscurity and disrepair. While it continues to operate, it’s a shadow of its former self. On a recent visit, many of the buildings were dilapidated, and several abandoned.

The idea for the resort belonged to influential Armenian composer Edvard Mirzoyan, the then-head of the Armenian Composers’ Union, who was striving to put Armenia on the Soviet music map. He may also have wanted to emulate the Lake Sevan Writers’ Resort, built nearby in the 1930s, which hosted authors including Osip Mandelstam, Vasily Grossman, and Simone de Beauvoir. Either way, Mirzoyan began scouting for locations soon after being appointed in 1956, dismissing several sites because they were too exposed, too remote or too plagued by mosquitoes. When officials offered him Dilijan, he agreed immediately. While the official opening took place in 1963, it did not signal an end to building work: Mirzoyan pressed ahead, adding more cottages, a swimming pool, a 19-room boarding house and, eventually, a concert hall.

As the resort grew, it attracted composers from all over the Soviet Union. The most famous was Shostakovich, one of the most celebrated classical composers of the 20th Century. Despite a complicated relationship with the Soviet authorities, Shostakovich was widely acclaimed in his lifetime, producing a series of masterpieces that are still regularly performed all over the world. By the time he came to Dilijan in the 1960s, he was at the height of powers and fame; his reputation well established.

Over the course of four stays in Dilijan’s Cottage No. 8, Shostakovich completed two string quartets and the music for a film version of Hamlet. Fellow guests remembered Shostakovich’s punishing work ethic, and his fascination with the unpredictable, high-altitude weather. “Dmitry Dmitriyevich stood on his balcony for the duration of a thunderstorm as if at one with the elements,” recalled Armenian painter Martiros Saryan. But it was not all nature-watching: Shostakovich also infected others with his passion for football. “We had two football teams. I was one captain, the other was [Armenian composer] Arno Babajanian,” remembered composer Rodion Shchedrin. “Shostakovich took great pleasure in being the referee. The pitch was small, and close to an apple orchard. When the ball hit a tree, some apples fell to the ground and our formidable referee gave a long blow on his whistle: one more strike on the fruit trees and he would disqualify both teams.”

Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, invited English composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, to Dilijan in 1965. It was here that Britten composed his song cycle The Poet’s Echo, which was premiered in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. But the group was more focused on having fun, with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya pulling strings to make sure the foreign guests were well looked after. “Only when we got home after three hours, did we realise just how much vodka we had got through,” Pears wrote in his diary after one picnic. “Today we ache: Slava [Rostropovich] is feverish and his legs and arms are on fire; Madame’s nose is scarlet; one of Ben’s [Britten] toes is raw and in Elastoplast, and my knee, which was not good when I left London, is now very not good. However, it was a heavenly day.”

The English couple were impressed by the hospitality (in nearby Dilijan, the mayor gifted them a 5000-year-old Greek amphorae), but the visit was not entirely without hitches. When Britten’s shoes got a hole, there was a panic about how to find replacements in the deficit-stricken Soviet Union. According to Vishnevskaya, one local composer declared the issue “a matter of honour for the Armenian people” and managed to find a cobbler. While Britten was delighted with his repaired shoes, he and Pears were less thrilled about being obliged to sit through recordings of music by lesser-known composers. “Pretentious, bombastic, rhetorical, with minimal ideas and a maximal display of pseudo-energy,” was Pears’ verdict after one such session around the gramophone.

Many who spent time at the resort enjoyed bursts of intense activity. “It’s impossible to be in Dilijan and not create something,” wrote Azerbaijani composer Fikret Amirov, while Armenian poet Paruyr Sevak commented: “You’d have to be deaf not to write music amid such beauty.” But this was not always the case. Others, distracted by the convivial atmosphere, failed to produce anything. “I had very pleasant memories, but I never went to Dilijan again because I didn’t get any work done,” Russian composer Sergei Kolmanovsky wrote after his trip at the end of the 1970s. Kolmanovsky was also surprised to find the resort full of high-ranking party officials, rather than composers. “Armenia is small and stony,” he concluded. “And there was obviously nowhere better than Dilijan near the capital.”

Work on the resort’s final, and most monumental, building began a few years after Kolmanovsky’s visit. Designed by architect Levon Hovhannesyan, the breath-taking Beethoven Hall, which can seat 600 people, is a modernist masterpiece constructed from light-orange stone. Perched high up on the valley side, it is both spectacular and difficult to access — just like many medieval Armenian churches. To give the audience a view of the mountains and surrounding forests, one wall is made entirely from glass. This was a controversial design decision as many feared the glass would spoil the acoustics, but, drawing inspiration from the ceilings of Armenia’s Geghard monastery, a series of beehive-like domes were added to the ceiling — and the acoustics were saved. The concert to mark the 1984 opening featured pianist and Soviet music official Tikhon Khrennikov and was led by young Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

Musical activity at Dilijan tailed off rapidly with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Armenia was engulfed by economic difficulties and war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, a chronic lack of funding ruthlessly exposed the utopian thinking — and Mirzoyan’s self-aggrandisement — that had been behind the project from the very beginning. Isolated, impractical and expensive to run, the resort became under-used and fell into disrepair. For many years, no concerts took place at all.

Despite these difficulties, the Dilijan resort remains in the hands of the Armenian Composers’ Union (equivalent resorts in Georgia and Azerbaijan were either sold off or abandoned), and members can still enjoy discounted holidays. In Yerevan, I met the modern head of the Armenian Composers’ Union, Aram Satyan. Aged 74, Satyan is intensely fond of Dilijan, where he spent much of his youth, and remembers meeting both Britten and Shostakovich. But today, the only source of financing for the Armenian Composers’ Union is its real estate holdings, and Satyan has cut deals with private individuals to renovate some of the Dilijan cottages in return for long-term rentals. The canteen has been renovated, and concerts occasionally take place in the Beethoven Hall — although only in summer, as the heating system is broken.

Walking around the resort today, there is plenty of evidence of renovation: piles of construction waste, and the sounds of drilling and hammering. But the money has not stretched to most of the bigger buildings, and some of the repairs are destroying the original structures. Satyan says he has several pipe dreams, including hosting music festivals, or creating a spa complex. Installing a hot water supply and renovating the swimming pool would cost about £250,000, he tells me, “but where would I get the money?”

Whichever way you look at it, the future of the Composers’ Resort is far from certain. And without funding, the buildings will continue to deteriorate. For Satyan and other members of his generation, the resort represents a lost-paradise associated with their youth — but nostalgia may not be enough to guarantee its survival. “There’s something godly there,” Satyan tells me. “You can say lot about Dilijan. But the bottom line is that it’s an idyll.”

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