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MASAO OHKI  

(1901 - 1971)

Masao Ohki was born on 3rd October 1901 in Iwata, a small provincial city on the Pacific coast in central Japan, and grew up in the larger nearby city of Shizuoka. His father was a teacher at a girls’ high school and he spent his childhood during a period when westernisation was bringing an interest in western music, with operas and orchestral concerts occasionally heard in big cities like Tokyo. The circumstances in provincial cities were different. There were only a few pianos in Shizuoka and not even a small orchestra. Musical interest was mainly in Japanese traditional works. Ohki’s father liked to play the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute, and Ohki himself played it from his childhood. With unstable pitch and a mysteriously‘cloudy’, somewhat husky timbre, the instrument has especially been associated with asceticism and Zen meditation. The experience of shakuhachi music was to exert a significant influence on Ohki’s own work. At the same time he had some experience of western instruments, and was able to hear recordings of classical Chinese operas and arias from Bizet’s Carmen, as well as a variety of Japanese traditional music. The basis of Ohki’s melodies was always the shakuhachi music and the recordings he heard, and, above all, Japanese traditional music.

After completing his junior schooling in 1910, Ohki went on to technical senior high school in Osaka and majored in chemistry. He was now able to study the shakuhachi with master-players, and formed a male choral group with his classmates. At the same time he had an opportunity to hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’ Overture. This was his first encounter with full-scale orchestral music. Deeply impressed by these works, he wished vaguely to write orchestral music, but lacked the means to pursue this ambition. He therefore started by studying vocal music more minutely and by writing nursery songs.

Graduating in 1921, he began work as an engineer for a factory in Tokyo and continued his studies of vocal music, but soon came up against the limitation of Japanese singers singing in foreign languages with pronunciation and intonation essentially different from those of the Japanese language. Leaving his job, he moved to Ueda, a small city in the mountainous area of central Japan, to teach at a girls’ school, and then finally made up his mind to devote himself to writing orchestral music.

Believing that music should possess power to affect society and that good music could contribute to the pursuit of happiness of the people, Ohki took Tchaikovsky as his model, seeking to make the most of Japanese traditional music represented by the shakuhachi. To realise his dream, he returned to Tokyo. Working part-time to keep himself, he allotted as much time as possible to the study of composition, working under Giichi Ishikawa, who had studied music in California from 1906 to 1920. Under his guidance, Ohki studied music theory from the beginning. In addition to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, he was attracted to Mussorgsky’s earthy melodies, the precise orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel, Debussy’s sensitivity and the fusion of popular and modern sonority found in Stravinsky’s L’oiseau de feu.

From around the 1930s Ohki started to conduct his own orchestral works and in 1939 won first prize in the Weingartner Competition, when his co-winners included Shukichi Mitsukuri, Hisatada Odaka and Humiwo Hayasaka (Naxos 8.557819). His prizewinning works were Five Fairy Tales (1934), inspired by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Idea of the Night (1937), in which he attempted the orchestration of shakuhachi music. The outbreak of war prevented the performance of these works in Europe, which were to have been conducted by Felix Weingartner.

--Based on notes by Morihide Katayama
English Translation: SOREL





 
 
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