Barkhudarian was born on 7 September 1887 in Tiflis (now Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia), the third of eight siblings. His first musical experiences were those found directly around him: the visiting street musicians, and the Armenian folk songs that his mother, Varduhi Ivanovna Saipian, would sing for him. Sensing both delight and musical aptitude in her son, Varduhi Ivanovna acquired a piano so that Sarkis could begin to study the instrument at the age of ten. He learned for two years at home before being enrolled in the Tbilisi Music Institute in 1900, where he studied the piano with Yaroslava K. Stakhovsky and Lucian Truskovsky, as well as theory lessons. It rapidly became apparent that among the young teenager’s musical strengths was a great love of improvisation, and he progressed rapidly as both performer and improviser. His earliest surviving compositions date from his time at the Music Institute: the first being a Waltz composed on 25 April 1903. He kept an album of his new piano compositions, all miniatures in a variety of forms, some with pictorial titles: Lullaby, Farewell Song, Brook, waltzes, and so on. This collection of around 40 miniatures from c. 1903–09 is equally influenced by the musical and the literary. He was particularly attracted to the clarity, language and imagery of Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant; and also to the lyricism of Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann.
When he was twelve years old, Barkhudarian and his family travelled south to Armenia, visiting the cities of Ani, Alexandropol (now Gyumri) and Etchmiadzin (now Vagharshapat). Here Barkhudarian met the great Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869–1935), and played him several of his piano pieces. The older man’s warm appreciation and encouragement was to make an unforgettable impression on Barkhudarian. His training continued apace and in 1907, he graduated from the Music Institute in Tbilisi and won a place at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, where he began studies in September 1907 and was once more able to combine compositional studies with further refinement of his piano technique. He simultaneously enrolled at the University of Berlin to study Law, and set about acquainting himself with the history and culture of Germany through a wide engagement with literature, and trips to Dresden, Freiburg, Leipzig, and other major towns and cities.
Barkhudarian left Berlin in 1909, returning to Tbilisi. However, he still desired further training and travelled on to St Petersburg, where he studied with the Latvian composer Jazeps Vitols as well as Stravinsky’s teacher Vasily Pavlovich Kalafati. In the same year, he encountered a fellow Armenian composer also studying in Russia, Aleksandr Afansyevich Spendiarian (known in Russian as Spendiarov, 1871–1928). It was during his time in St Petersburg that Barkhudarian composed Four Oriental Dances (1910–13). These are some of the first piano works to use Armenian folk themes and devices as the basis for a series of original compositions. The collection was published in 1913 in St Petersburg, and was warmly acclaimed by the Russian musical community, including senior figures such as Alexander Glazunov and Anatol Liadov.
Further piano works followed, including a number of miniatures which later came to constitute two series of Piano Pieces: one from 1910–18, and a second from 1915–23. He also completed a Piano Sonata in 1915. On graduating from St Petersburg in 1917, Barkhudarian returned to Tbilisi and after the October Revolution, was appointed as Head of the Musical Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education of Georgia. He continued to compose, and made a number of very successful concert tours around his own country, as well as Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan. His piano programmes usually featured some of his own works alongside repertoire standards. In 1923, he became the Head of Composition at Tbilisi Conservatory, and went on to hold this position for 30 years, as well as regularly visiting Armenia to teach at the Yerevan Conservatory. His pupils included Alexander Arutiunian (1920–2012) and Vano Muradeli (1908–1970). He was awarded numerous honours, including the People’s Artist of the Armenian SSR, Honoured Artist of the Georgian SSR, and the Order of Lenin.
Barkhudarian’s piano pieces are highly melodic, and his miniatures often take simple forms within which he explores Armenian folk dances and songs.
Barkhudarian’s many colourful works also include several orchestral suites, the ballet Narine (1938), the children’s opera Keri-Kuchi (1945), and numerous other pieces for orchestra, brass band, chamber ensembles, and dramatic music for plays and films. However, it is his piano miniatures for which he is justly famed. As Glazunov remarked of Barkhudarian’s compositions, ‘His works are infused with the bright colours of the Armenian nation, and distinguished for their sincerity, elegance and harmony of form—which proves that their author is a great musician.’