The Japanese composer and conductor Kazuo Yamada is remembered primarily as a writer of songs in the style of 20th-century French composers and as the successor to Qunihico Hashimoto (1904-1949). In the pre-war period he was also known as one of the few Japanese composers able to write full-scale orchestral music but, after the war, he refused to publish his earlier orchestral works. As a result, in the post-war period it was purely as a conductor that he was recognised, his songs alone narrowly escaping oblivion, whilst his career as an orchestral composer was completely forgotten.
In 1931 Yamada had joined the piano department of the Tokyo Music School, studying with Leo Sirota. He studied composition under Mahler’s pupil, Klaus Pringsheim, who became Yamada’s mentor, and conducting under Joseph Rosenstock, and made his début as a composer in 1937, when his work Prelude on a Japanese Folk Song took first prize in an orchestral music competition held by JOAK (the present-day NHK). He made his conducting début in 1942 when he was appointed full-time conductor of the Japan Symphony Orchestra, from which he created the present-day NHK Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with Hisatada Otaka.
In 1953 Yamada started to teach conducting at the Tokyo University of the Arts, fostering a younger generation of conductors that included Ken’ichiro Kobayashi, Kazuhiro Koizumi, Hiroshi Ishimaru and Yoshikazu Tanaka. As a conductor Yamada introduced major works from abroad and also conducted world premières of Japanese works, including Saburo Moroi’s Symphony No 3, Tomojiro Ikenouchi’s Two Symphonic Movements, and Akira Ifukube’s Lauda Concertata.
Yamada’s compositional style reflects diverse influences from Richard Strauss, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, and 20th-century French music. He always expressed interest in avant-garde methods of the day such as Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity). Importantly, however, his most significant influence was Mahler’s music, which can probably be ascribed to his study with Klaus Pringsheim, one of Mahler’s pupils. Yamada once confessed that Mahler was “the man for whom I feel the strongest affinity and sympathy”.