About this Recording
8.555975 - AKUTAGAWA: Ellora Symphony / Trinita Sinfonica / Rhapsody
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Yasushi Akutagawa (1925-1989)
Rapsodia per orchestra • Ellora Symphony • Trinita Sinfonica

After over two hundred years of isolationism, Japan opened its door to foreign countries in the 1850s and rapidly promoted modernisation, which covered almost all fields, including a complete reform of the Japanese styles and vocabulary to conform to translations from Occidental languages. This movement gave birth to new styles of Japanese literature, in which the new Japanese language was used under the influence of Occidental literature. One of the leading figures of the trend was Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), who is well known for his short stories, which were based on ancient Japanese fables, rewritten for modern readers. His short story Yabu no naka (In the Bush) was filmed by Akira Kurosawa, under the title Rashomon, one of the classics of Japanese cinema. Ryunosuke killed himself while still in his thirties, leaving a note of his feeling of ‘vague anxiety about the future’ of himself and of Japan. This incident marked the beginning of the Depression and the war, and is still remembered by many Japanese people.

Ryunosuke, who was born and bred in Tokyo, had three sons. The oldest son Hiroshi became a great actor of Shingeki, a new theatrical group born in the process of westernization, famous for his Hamlet and appearances in many films, including Kurosawa’s Dodesukaden and Nagisa Oshima’s Night and Fog of Japan. The second son Takashi was killed in Burma during World War II. The youngest son Yasushi, who was only two years old at his father’s suicide, became a composer. As a child, Yasushi listened eagerly to his father’s collection of records, and particularly loved Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu and Petrushka. He started studying the violin and during his days at the Annexed High School of Tokyo Higher Normal School (now Tsukuba University) decided to become a composer. He started piano lessons before entering Tokyo Music School (now the Music Department of Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music) in 1943, in the war. His first teachers there were Hermut Fellmer, who was invited from Germany, Qunihico Hashimoto, who had studied with Egon Wellesz in Vienna, Midori Hosokawa, who had been a pupil of Franz Schmidt in Vienna, and Kan’ichi Shimofusa, who studied under Hindemith in Berlin. Akutagawa had particular affinity with Hashimoto, a lyrical, urbane melodist, whose qualities Akutagawa shared. Towards the end of the war, when educational possibilities were limited, Akutagawa was sent to the army band with many other students and saw the end of the war there in the summer of 1945. He returned to the school and studied with Akira Ifukube, who joined the faculty after the war and, having spent his early years in a remote region in the northern part of Japan, had an idiosyncratic compositional style based on ostinato made up of brief motifs. The lessons with Ifukube were blessings to Akutagawa, as he was strongly influenced by Stravinsky in his childhood.

After graduation in 1947, Akutagawa made his mark as a composer with two orchestral works written in a characteristic style, where Hashimoto’s lyricism and Ifukube’s dynamism meet: Trinita Sinfonica (1948) and Music for Symphony Orchestra (1950) [Naxos 8.555071). Success brought immediate popularity. He was the son of a great writer, good-looking, proficient in both writing and speaking, politically determined and actively energetic. From then until his death, Akutagawa continued to attract public notice as a leading figure not only in music but also in general culture. His compositional work extended to a variety of fields, with an opera, symphonies, ballets, orchestral pieces, chamber and piano music, songs for solo voice and for children, commercials and various organizations, marches for wind band, music for some hundred films, radio broadcasts and plays. He formed a group ‘The Three’ with his friends Ikuma Dan and Toshiro Mayuzumi, and their activities led the Japanese music scene in the 1950s. He played an important rôle in managing the Japan Society for Contemporary Music, JFC (The Japan Federation of Composers, Inc.) and the Suntory Music Foundation. He also assumed the post of director of JASRAC (The Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers). With a mission to promote wider knowledge of classical music, he led the ‘Utagoe-Undo’, a kind of public singing movement, in the 1950s, and conducted one of the most skilful amateur orchestras, the New Symphony Orchestra, from the 1950s until his late years, without accepting any fees, in order to draw a clear line between the commercialism of professional musicians and the amateur. From the 1960s he appeared often in weekly television and radio programmes as conductor and presenter, as well as publishing books on music. In the 1980s he became the central figure of the antinuclear movement. After his death from cancer his influential and busy life was commemorated by the Suntory Music Foundation, with the foundation of the Akutagawa Awards for Composers.

Akutagawa’s creative life falls into three periods, 1947-1957, 1957-1967, and from then until his final years. In the first period, he strove to bring together the rhythmical energy of Stravinsky and Ifukube, with the lyrical style of Hashimoto, finding a solution in the socialist realism of the Soviet Union, in the work of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Kabalevsky. A result of this synthesis came with his Trinita Sinfonica and Music for Symphony Orchestra, as well as Symphony No.1 (1955) and Triptyque for String Orchestra (1953). From 1954 to 1955, he spent six months visiting the Soviet Union and China via Vienna, and built up strong ties with the two nations. In the Soviet Union he met Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky, and his Triptyque received a number of performances in Communist countries. In China he met Ma Sicong and Jiang Wenye, and performed his works with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. After returning to Japan, he continued his cultural exchange with the two nations, and conducted various works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, giving the first performance in Japan of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4. He also made friends with Shchedrin and Khrennikov, and in Japan was associated with left-wing parties in the labour movement, with which his ‘Utagoe-Undo’ had a close relationship.

In the second period Akutagawa turned away from his earlier style, influenced by new avant-garde trends in Japan. Japanese composers combined new techniques with the Japanese traditional sense of beauty, where silence, intervals and noises make sense. This avantgarde movement was promoted by Toshiro Mayuzumi and Toru Takemitsu, the former a member of ‘The Three’ and the latter for long a good friend, one of the circle around Hayasaka, the composer of the score for Rashomon. Feeling that music with clear melodies and rhythms was becoming old-fashioned, he started to change his musical language. With his Ellora Symphony (1958) and some other works, he leaned towards chromaticism, atonality and dissonance. His chamber piece Nymbe (1959) is based on microtonality, while his opera Orpheus in Hiroshima (1960), with a libretto on the bombing of Hiroshima by Kenzaburo Oe, features Sprechstimme for vocal parts, supported by vague orchestral sonorities generated from tone clusters. In his pointilliste Music for Strings (1962), dedicated to Takemitsu, a post-Webern style and Japanese beauty of silence and intervals are combined. Akutagawa suggested replacing the conventional western method of composition, where selected notes build up the entirety, with an oriental method, where all the notes are played first into chaos, and then notes are selected and cut out. He called this method ‘Minus Music’.

This did not last long. In his third period, Akutagawa returned to his starting- point, although a number of techniques were modified and avant-garde methods were occasionally used. ‘Music is for all people’, he declared. He might have realised that avantgarde music could not be for everyone, and so returned to the world of ostinato, lyricism and dynamism. The most important works from this period are Ostinata Sinfonica (1967), Kumo no Ito (The Spider’s Thread) (1968), music for the ballet of the same title, based on his father’s short story, Concerto Ostinato for cello and orchestra (1969), Rapsodia (1971), and Sounds for organ and orchestra (1986), written for the opening of the Suntory Hall in Tokyo. Here the music of the first period is refined, with the additional influences of Martin and Walton.

Rapsodia was commissioned by Bunka-cho (The Agency for Cultural Affairs) and completed on 12th September 1971. It is scored for triple or quadruple wind, and a variety of percussion, and was first performed in Tokyo on 4th October of the same year. This work had several performances by other orchestras, including the Leningrad Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev. The composer describes the work as music in which a sorcerer waves his short wand. He might have been thinking of Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier or Walt Disney’s film Fantasia, in which Dukas’s music is used. It is easy to imagine the sorcerer as the composer himself. The work begins with a wild roar and an ascending major seventh from the horn, followed by the violin and the viola violently playing motifs characterized by minor and major seconds. These motifs try in vain to develop into a large-scale Allegro, when the viola introduces a plaintive motif based on a slightly changed Japanese pentatonic scale. This motif, made up of two descending minor seconds, is repeated by each instrumental group, when the brass and the harp add a spell-like six-note motif. The first three notes of the motif are also formed by two descending minor seconds. These are the main motifs of the piece, and they are all ruled by narrow intervals, above all minor seconds and major seconds. The opening major seventh by the horn proves to be an inversion of the minor second. After the spell by the brass and the harp, the music turns into a brisk, Latin Allegro Ostinato, the mood of which is produced by guiro, maracas and bongo. Its ostinato theme consists of the six-note motif and the four-note motif developed from the opening major seventh. When the Allegro Ostinato ends, the plaintive pentatonic motif and the spell return, followed by a heterophonic lullaby on the woodwind led by the flute. There is a recapitulation, and the music ends with a gigantic roar.

Ellora Symphony comes from the beginning of Akutagawa’s second period. The vivid Allegro based on the ostinato technique of the first period is still prominent, but lyricism is replaced by dark, chromatic and cluster-like chords. This symphony for orchestra with triple wind, completed on 27th March 1958, was first given in a concert by ‘The Three’ on 2nd April of the same year. Ellora is the name of a town in the Deccan in India, where there is a famous temple consisting of over thirty rock caves spreading over 25 kilometres. The caves dug between the sixth and seventh centuries are for Buddhists, the ones between the seventh and ninth for Hindus, and the others, made between the ninth and twelfth centuries for Jainas. Three different religions from three different ages sit together in Ellora.

Akutagawa visited the town in 1956 and was impressed by two things. The first was infinity of space. The caves seem to spread infinitely and chaotically, without a centre, as if rejecting any orderly, symmetrical plan. The second point was the sexual element on a number of reliefs, where sexual intercourse by Siva and his wives, and by Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi are depicted explicitly. Unlike in Christianity, sexual expression was not taboo in Indian religions, but was worshipped as the symbol of prosperity. The innumerable reliefs evoke the concept of infinity.

Deeply moved by these aspects, Akutagawa conceived an Asia-oriented symphony, which differs from western symphonies, where everything is in order and moves forward to a climax. What he intended was music without any conception of beginning, ending and centre, music where the masculine and feminine infinitely cross together and life is renewed for ever. The former element is close to the aesthetics of Hayasaka and Takemitsu, and the latter suggests the aesthetics of persistent repetition by Stravinsky and Ifukube. In Ellora Symphony Akutagawa tried to express this vision with a chain of twenty fragmentary movements. Nine of them masculine, expressed in active, aggressive Allegro and eleven, the feminine, in passive, caressing Lento or Adagio. The reason why the number of each quality is not even is that the composer avoids giving an impression of completion; if each quality consists of ten movements, there will be ten couples. The order of the twenty movements is basically left to the conductor, although the composer’s ideal would be to repeat the movements endlessly, changing the order each time.

At the première of this work the score was not in twenty separate volumes, but in a single volume, in which the order was set up beforehand. It was: fem. - fem. - fem. -fem. - masc. - fem. - fem. - fem. - masc. - masc. - fem. - fem. - masc. - masc. - masc. - fem. - masc. - masc. - masc. - fem. The composer later cut out the 8th, 14th, 15th and 16th movements, and the 3rd and the 4th ones were merged into one. So the total is fifteen and the order is now set up as fem. - fem. - fem. (- fem.) - masc. - fem. - fem. - masc. - masc. - fem. - fem. - masc. - masc. - masc. - masc. - fem. The performance here follows this fixed version and sixteen tracks are given, to distinguish between them. In this version, slow feminine movements are mainly assembled in the first half, and fast masculine ones are put in the second half. So the work appears as a kind of ‘Introduction and Allegro’. The main materials for the feminine movements are a motif based on the diminished fifth suggested by the violin in the first feminine movement, a chordal motif shaped up by piles of notes on the brass for over two octaves in the second feminine movement, and motifs in the augmented eighth and the diminished eighth in glissandi by the horn in the third feminine movement. These materials are all written in wide intervals evoking the image of a woman who opens her legs and embraces a man, caresses and devours him. They also appear in the masculine movements and seduce men. The materials for the masculine movements are hectic melodies made up of the second. These melodies are filled with Indian and East Asian moods, often accompanying marimba sounds from the South and low brass drones, which suggest Buddhist music in Tibet. With these materials, the climate of Ellora is inscribed in the music. A man challenges a woman with her legs open. This symphony is a hymn to primitive reproduction.

Trinita Sinfonica was the early product of Akutagawa’s first period and brought him his first success. Scored for double wind, the work was completed on 30th August 1948, and had its première on 26th September of the same year. The first movement, Capriccio, is in a quasi-sonata form. In the opening, the clarinet plays the first theme over descending fourths on the bassoon. This hectic theme in fine texture, like the chatter of children, moves almost always in a narrow range of a second or third, characteristic of Akutagawa’s melodic writing. The theme is followed by the strings, when the very short, rhythmical, syncopated second theme is presented in tutti. Then the two themes are developed and recapitulated, although in the development, the themes are not very much transformed, but are repeatedly accented or articulated, and sometimes cut out in a variety of ways. Akutagawa learned this technique from Ifukube. The rhythm of the second theme is fragmented and sometimes suggests Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. The movement ends only with the woodwind. The second movement, Ninnerella is in tripartite form. The first section is a lullaby. Its theme, presented first by the bassoon in the opening, moves within a narrow range in the Phrygian mode. The middle section is another lullaby, with an Aeolian theme that is consciously pentatonic, evoking traditional Japanese lullabies. The Finale third movement, introduced by six powerful tutti attacks, is in rondo form. In the first section there is an almost Slav theme in the Mixolydian mode, and repeated over and over again. The first episode repeats variants derived from the first section. The second episode again obsessively repeats the scherzo-like motif made up of a four-note cell, which is formed by two descending minor seconds. The characteristics Akutagawa consistently kept throughout his creative career are clearly enshrined in this work.

Morihide Katayama
Translation: SOREL

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