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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Japanese Composers

Part One

In 2011, feeling a bit jaded with the music I knew well, decided to go on a journey of discovery, with a view to sharing what I found with my radio audience. This music is one of the pieces I discovered. Have a listen for a moment and see what you think. [listen]

This music is from the mid-20th century, but it's not American, it's not Australian and it's not European. My journey of discovery ended up focusing on Japan, looking at music composed by Japanese-born composers who wrote in a European art music idiom.

Japan viewed from space

I'm ashamed to say that prior to starting this reading and listening I only knew the names of two Japanese composers - Toru Takemitsu and Takashi Yoshimatsu - and I couldn't really say I knew any of their music well. So I hit Grove and the ABC sound library (the latter a resource which in recent years has been decimated to a fraction of its former size) and was overwhelmed. In this post (divided into two parts to reflect the two radio programs I made) I want to share a little of what I discovered. Believe me, it's the tip of an enormous iceberg and I could have filled ten programs had I wanted to.

The music I linked to above was composed in 1948 by Yasushi Akutagawa, of whom more later on. But the composition of western art music by Japanese composers really starts at the end of the 19th century. Depending on your view of Japanese history, the events of 1868 are called either the Meiji Restoration or the Meiji Revolution, but either way, the restoration of Imperial rule to Japan led to the start of the modern Japanese nation. Prior to this the country was largely isolated from the outside world. Despite the activities of Portuguese and Spanish missionaries in Japan from the mid-16th century, the ban on Christianity from 1588 and the isolationist policy from 1639 effectively stopped imported musical styles taking root in Japan.

This means that there is no Japanese contemporary of Bach or Mozart or Brahms, writing in a European style, in the 18th or 19th centuries. (This is in striking contrast to Latin America, where the influence of missionaries rapidly led to highly developed schools of European style Baroque and Classical music evolving in Mexico, Peru and elsewhere. An earlier post in this blog is devoted to that repertoire.)

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 changed all this, and the rapid industrialisation of Japan led to the country opening itself to the west. German, American and French musicians started teaching and performing in Japan and the Tokyo Music School, the country's first such music academy along European lines, opened in 1887.

Japanese-born composers writing their own music in European styles began to be active from around 1900. Some were influenced by German music - Wagner and Brahms, especially - while others gravitated to the French school of Fauré and Debussy. The first fruits of the influence of the west were evident in songs, and perhaps the most famous song of the period was composed by Rentaro Taki in 1901: The moon over a ruined castle. [listen]

Rentaro Taki

Taki studied at the Tokyo Music School from 1894 and he had a short period of study in Leipzig. This was sadly cut short by the illness which brought about his early death in 1903 at the age of only 23. Blessed with a much longer life was Kosaku Yamada, who was born in 1886, only seven years after Taki, but who lived until 1965. Yamada also studied in Germany after graduating from the Tokyo Music School, and his teachers included Max Bruch. He was active as a conductor and wrote operas and orchestral works in the German romantic idiom.

Yamada later travelled to the United States and France (he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour) but his career was firmly based in his native country. This is his choreographic symphony Maria Magdalena, written during the first world war. [listen]

Just a few years younger than Yamada was Michio Miyagi, who was born in Kobe in 1894. Miyagi was a master of the koto and became internationally famous as a teacher, composer and performer, despite the fact that he became blind at the age of seven. In 1920 he began the New Japanese Music Movement which sought to synthesise European and traditional Japanese musical styles. His music is often arranged for western instruments, with the music for koto being particularly well-suited to adaptation for the guitar or harp. This piece, The Sea in Spring, dates from 1929, and was originally written for shakuhachi, koto and sho. This arrangement is for flute and koto. [listen]

Michio Miyagi


Another Japanese composer who, like Taki, died terribly young, was Koishi Kishi. Kishi was born in Osaka in 1909 but died in 1937, aged only 28. He studied violin in Geneva and later with Carl Flesch in Berlin. His composition teachers included Paul Hindemith and he studied conducting with Wilhelm Furtwängler. He composed songs, violin works, a ballet and orchestral pieces and he even conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in recordings.

This is his Buddha Symphony, which he premiered with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1934. [listen]

Akira Ifukube was born in 1914 and died in Tokyo in 2006. He was a forestry engineer by profession and only came to public notice as a composer in the 1930s. It seems that an encounter with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was the cause of him starting to compose and he was largely self-taught, showing the strong influence of French composers. His two-movement Japanese Rhapsody dates from 1935 and it won a prize for composers set up by Alexander Tcheripnin (who was living in Shanghai at the time and studying Asian music). The panel of judges who awarded Ifukube the prize included Roussel, Ibert and Honegger, and it has been a classic of Japanese orchestral music ever since. [listen]

Akira Ifukube

Another composer who took a decidedly Francophile course in his music was Yoritsune Matsudaira, whose very long life spanned 1907 to 2001. In 1939, four years after Ifukube's Rhapsody, Matsudaira wrote his orchestral Theme and Variations on a Lullaby from Nanbu for piano and orchestra. Like many such works by Japanese composers, it's titled in French, which immediately suggests the inspiration and musical ethos of the piece. But the best music of this type is never an attempt to slavishly imitate the French Impressionists or Modernists. Matsudaira manages to infuse his music with an aura of Japan, albeit expressed in a French musical language. [listen]

Yoritsune Matsudaira

Matsudaira's later music abandoned French Impressionist, Modernist and neo-Classical influences and entered the worlds of serialism and chance music. He was major figure in Japanese contemporary music for most of the second half of the 20th century and won many awards for his work. His son, Yoriaki Matsudaira, is also a well-known composer.

Yasuji Kiyose lived from 1900 to 1981, and like some of the other composers mentioned in this survey, was actively involved in the formation in 1930 of the Shinko Sakkyokuka Renmei which eventually became the Japanese section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (or ISCM).

Kiyose's music draws on both the German romantic and French impressionist traditions while at the same time managing to include elements of traditional Japanese music as well. His works are mainly on a small scale - songs, piano works and chamber music - but the orchestral arrangement of his Japanese Festival Dances is among his best-known music. This dates from 1942. [listen]

Yasuji Kiyose

Kunio Toda was born in 1915. Like Ifukube, Toda came to music as a profession late. His training was in law and he worked as a diplomat in Germany. Later, while working in Moscow, he attended the Tchaikovsky centenary festival and on his return to Tokyo in 1941 started composition lessons. During the war he started to compose in a Schoenbergian twelve tone style and became a major exponent of this sort of writing. He retired from the diplomatic service in 1965 to devote himself to composition, and teaching was an important part of his life. He died in 2003.

Toda's music is not always as hard-line serial as the connection with Schoenberg might suggest. Often he used only elements of the technique in otherwise more conventional-sounding works. This is his violin sonata of 1957. [listen]

Earlier I mentioned Rentaro Taki, probably the first Japanese composer to write an opera (in the western sense of the word). Another composer whose writing for the voice included a number of operas was Ikuma Dan, who lived from 1924 to 2001. Dan graduated from the Tokyo Music School in 1945, and his official professional debut came in 1950 with the successful premiere of his first symphony. His best-known work was written around the same time, the folk opera Yuzuru (Twilight Crane). Also worth mentioning are his six Songs for Children. These date from 1945, the year of his graduation, but more significantly this is of course also the year of Japan's defeat in World War 2. The role of the war in shaping the Japanese national identity will be mentioned more in Part Two, but I find it fascinating that in the midst of what must have been terrible times, Dan could retreat into himself, in a sense, and write music for the next generation.

As an example of his larger-scale work, this is Dan’s first symphony, written in the late 1940s. [listen]

Ikuma Dan

This brings us more or less to the end of the first half of the 20th century and the end of Part One of this survey. I want to end this part with music which was premiered in 1950 and which signalled the start of the career of the most famous of all Japanese composers, Toru Takemitsu. I'll talk about Takemitsu and his amazing career in Part Two, but we'll end with his first publicly performed work, the spookily atmospheric Lento in Two Movements. [listen]

Part Two

After the defeat of their empire in the second world war, Japanese composers had to play their role in expressing the national psyche and attempting to rejoin the wider world.

In 1945, when the war ended, the man regarded now as Japan's most famous composer was 15. Toru Takemitsu didn't come to public attention until 1950, with the performance of his Lento in Two Movements (linked at the end of Part One). But this piece was written the year before. It's called Romance, but the emotional terrain traversed by the 19 year old Takemitsu in this piece goes far beyond the simple suggestions of that innocent title. [listen]

In the first half of the 20th century a large number of Japanese composers asserted their nation's ability to create western style art music on a par with that produced elsewhere; we surveyed a number of these composers in Part One. In this part we're going to look at more Japanese composers, covering the second half of the century. It's evident that Japan wanted to recover and recover quickly from the horrors of the war, and music played its part in this.

The establishment of an annual arts festival from 1946 was part of the Government's strategy to revive Japanese artist excellence and music was at the forefront. Smaller groups of composers with similar ideals were formed to make small collectives to create new work within the larger Japanese Society for Contemporary Music.

The group called Shinsei Kai, formed in 1946, included Kunio Toda (referred to earlier) and Minao Shibata. Shibata lived from 1916 to 1996 and like many Japanese composers went through distinct stylistic periods as he came to grips with European influences. His early work developed from German romanticism but he later turned to more avant garde techniques. Later still (from the mid-1970s) he returned to his ethnic roots and involved Japanese folk tunes in a series of theatre pieces.

Minao Shibata

He wrote a massive symphony for choir and orchestra in 1975 called Floating Rivers Never Ceasing. This seems to juxtapose, rather than blend, the modern and the traditional and in so doing he creates the most extraordinary aural colours. (Sadly I can’t find a recording online to share with you here.)

Other composer groups formed after the war included Shin Sakkyyokuka Kyokai in 1947 (which included Kiyose and Matsudaira, mentioned in Part One), and Jikken Kobo in 1951 (whose members included Takemitsu). Takemitsu is undoubtedly the best known Japanese composer outside of Japan today, and he lived from 1930 to 1996.

Takemitsu fell under the spell of Debussy very early on and this in turn led him to Messiaen. Like the famous French modernist, Takemitsu wrote music which is obsessed with texture and colour, and his music has the ability to mesmerise in a way we non-Asian people seem to feel is peculiarly Asian. Grove points out that Takemitsu often extracts modal, traditional-sounding melodies from a dense chromatic background, and it's true that a feeling of textural depth is a common feature of his music.

One of Takemitsu's most famous works is A flock descends into the pentagonal garden, written in 1977. [listen]

Toru Takemitsu

Five years older than Takemitsu was Yasushi Akutagawa, whose music I used at the start of Part One. Akutagawa, who died in 1989, responded to very different influences compared to those which inspired Takemitsu. He was part of another composer collective, the Group of Three, which was formed in 1953. He spent much time in the Soviet Union, making his first visit in 1954, and his early works show a direct response to the music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky. His "middle period", like that of Shibata, saw him embrace more modernist, avant garde techniques, while his later works saw him return to his earlier style.

As a comparison, this is a work composed in 1958, the Ellora Symphony. It's a series of short movements inspired by Hindu and Buddhist notions of sexuality and reproduction. [listen]

Yasushi Akutagawa

A little over a decade later Akutagawa was writing music which was more lyrical and expansive, returning to the inspiration of the Soviet composers. I don't think it's any coincidence that his 1971 Rhapsody for Orchestra has been very popular in recent years with Russian performers. [listen]

Another member of the Group of Three was Ikuma Dan, who I referred to in Part One. In the years following the second world war, Dan composed his most famous and most popular work, a folk opera called Yuzuru (Twilight Crane); it was premiered in 1952. This reflects part of the desire of Japanese composers to go back to the earth, as it were, by looking back to the traditions and the past. The work's popularity with Japanese audiences is also indicative of this.

The events which brought the war to an end for Japan - the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - left their indelible marks on the Japanese nation and composers were no exception. The bombs fell in 1945 but it wasn't until 1952, with the end of the American occupation, that the Japanese people became aware of the true extent of the horror of what happened in that fateful August.

The torii of Itsukushima Shinto Shrine near Hiroshima, one of the Three Views of Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The composer Masao Ohki, who lived from 1901 to 1971, wanted to express in music the sorts of things the painters Iri and Toshi Maruki had expressed in their series of fifteen paintings, The Hiroshima Panels. (You can read more about them here and here.) Ohki's orchestral work, To The Hiroshima Panels appeared in 1953 and was later renamed as his fifth symphony, with the simple subtitle Hiroshima. The work itself, though, is far from simple. It's a 40-minute piece in eight movements describing the agony of the city and its people. The journey is slow but thorough, ending in a 12-minute Elegy. Ohki, with avowed left-wing sympathies and firm anti-imperialism, created a work which deeply affected its first audiences and which is a masterpiece of modern Japanese art. The movement titles are listed in the comments under this video. It deserves to be heard in full. [listen]

Masao Ohki

Iri and Toshi Maruki: Fire (1950) - one of the Hiroshima Panels

Another Japanese composer who took inspiration from the French aesthetic was Sadao Bekku, who was born in 1922. In the early 50s, Bekku studied in Paris where his teachers included Milhaud and Messiaen but he was already an established composer in Japan before that period of study. On his return he composed his Two Prayers for Orchestra (titled in French), a work which won him two major composition prizes in Japan after its premiere in 1956. [listen]

Sadao Bekku

A contemporary of Bekku was Akio Yashiro and he too not only spent time in Paris in the 50s but also wrote works which reflect then-current developments in French music. Yashiro's teachers included Boulanger and Messiaen and on his return to Japan in the late 50s he continued and developed his influence on Japanese music through his teaching. He died in 1976.

This is the second movement of Yashiro's Symphony for Large Orchestra (yet another work titled in French), composed in 1958. [listen]

Akio Yashiro

Ikuma Dan, referred to earlier, was one of Japan's leading composers of opera; another was Hikaru Hayashi, who was born in 1931 and died in 2012. In addition to operas, Hayashi composed choral music, songs, orchestral works and ballets; he was involved with music theatre for much of his creative life.

Hayashi's writing for the voice was exquisitely beautiful, and this feeling for lyrical melody certainly carried over into his purely instrumental music, such as this symphony from 1953. [listen]

Hikaru Hayashi

In his later works, Hayashi sought - like many of his compatriots - to infuse modern music with a sense of the traditional. Blending ideas from the Baroque with folksongs from Okinawa is just one concept he followed up. This is a much more recent work a concerto for viola and strings called Elegy, written in 1995. [listen]

When I started researching Japanese composers for Keys To Music I had intended to make one program. The fact that I ended up making two still doesn't really indicate the wealth of material I found; there's a huge amount of fascinating and wonderfully-crafted music written in the western tradition by composers from Japan. I hope this overview has given you, as it has me, an opening to a world well worth exploring.

Takashi Yoshimatsu

I'll end with a piece by the prolific Takashi Yoshimatsu, who was born in 1953. Yoshimatsu has written major concert works, including a number of symphonies, and some pieces which take a rather tongue-in-cheek view of popular culture. The music linked to here is his Atom Hearts Club Suite No 1, which was written in the late 1990s. It's inspired by the Beatles, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Astro Boy. It's a long story. [listen]

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2011.

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