About this Recording
8.557987 - ABE: Symphony No. 1 / Divertimento / Sinfonietta

Komei Abe (1911-2006): Symphony No. 1
Divertimento for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra • Sinfonietta


In spite of the belief in the West that the Japanese were embedded in their own traditional culture, in fact attitudes had changed, with the impact of Western civilisation after Japan's long isolationism, and treasures of art, undervalued at home, were sold to foreign countries for a song. It does not mean, of course, that Japanese tradition became extinct, but it was the harsh reality that its influence on the nation certainly became weaker. Even traditional plays like Noh and Kabuki were once on the verge of extinction. Japan's national policy of Westernisation was drastic and sweeping to that extent. The central parts of big cities were Westernised almost instantly. Food and clothing were also Westernised first in the big cities. Music was not an exception. Japan's educational system adopted Western music in the latter half of the nineteenth century and Japanese traditional music was never taught at school. In big cities, military music and Christian hymns promoted by Protestant missionaries became more and more popular. Traditional music such as Kabuki, Noh and Geisha did continue to exist in theatres and in entertainment areas, as well as folk-music in rural areas and Gagaku (ancient imperial music) in the imperial court and in some temples and shrines, but urban children, who had nothing to do with theatres, entertainment areas or the imperial court, grew up more familiar with Western music than with Japanese traditional music.

The great pioneer of modern Japanese music, Kósçak Yamada (1886-1965), whose works can be heard on two CDs of this Japanese Composers Series (8.555350 and 8.557971), grew up in big cities, surrounded by his Christian family, listening to hymns and marches. To Yamada, who was born only after twenty years of Westernisation, Western music was already more familiar than Japanese music. It was not until the 1910s, when he was in New York and was at a loss as how to answer his American colleagues' questions about ancient Japanese music, that he began to turn his eyes to his own country. The same is true of Saburo Moroi (1903-1977) (8.557162), Qunihico Hashimoto (1904-1949) (8.555881), Hisato Ohzawa (1907-1953) (8.557416) and Yoritsune Matsudaira (1907-2001) (8.555882), whose works can also be heard in this series. In their childhood they were all more familiar with Western music than with Japanese traditional music.

Komei Abe belongs to the same line. He was born on 1 September 1911 in Hiroshima, which is in the western part of Japan and is now well known for its war-time devastation. His father was an army officer and the future composer grew up moving from one city to another, accompanying his father. When he was living in the suburbs of Tokyo in his primary school days, he was enchanted by the sound of violins played in streets and he aspired to be a musician.

In Japan the violin grew rapidly in popularity around 1910. Japan's aspiration from the latter half of the nineteenth century to catch up with the West was settled by victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Then the nation's main concern shifted from politics and military matters to economics and culture. In music Jinta, martial wind ensemble music accompanied by percussion, was much in fashion during the Russo-Japanese War period, then to be replaced by solo violin music. World War I, which broke out in 1914 and devastated Europe, brought economic prosperity and the rise of the middle class in Japan. The period from around 1910 to 1929 (when the Depression began) is said to have been Japan's most peaceful time in the first half of the twentieth century, when international cooperation took priority over nationalism, and individualism over collectivism. The musical instrument that symbolized the spirit of the times was the violin, and Abe grew up in that environment. Abe's father, however, was not happy that his son should study the violin. Eventually, during his secondary schooling, he managed to persuade his father, but it was too late for him to be a professional violinist. Then he rushed to study the cello and in 1929 he entered Tokyo Music School (today's Music Department of Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music), the best place for the study of Western music.

Abe specialised in the cello there under Heinrich Werkmeister (1883-1936), who had come to Japan in 1907, immediately after graduating from the Berlin Musikhochschule, and made a tremendous contribution to Japanese music education. During this period Abe was hoping to become a cellist, not a composer. He formed a chamber ensemble with his fellow-students and worked on Beethoven's music in particular. Playing all his string quartets, he began to revere this great composer.

In 1931 the conductor and composer Klaus Pringsheim (1883-1972) was appointed professor at the Tokyo Music School. He was a pupil of Gustav Mahler in his Vienna Court Opera days. Conducting operas in Geneva, Prague and Bremen in the 1910s, he established his name in Berlin in the 1920s by collaborating with the great director Max Reinhardt, as well as performing a cycle of Mahler's symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. Pringsheim's move to Japan had come about when he failed to succeed Bruno Walter as music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and was at a loss where to go.

Pringsheim worked vigorously in Tokyo. He performed a cycle of Mahler's symphonies, as well as works by Wagner and Bruckner, conducting an orchestra made up of teachers and students of the school. Often playing with the orchestra as a cellist and growing in admiration of Pringsheim, Abe began to study German-style harmony and counterpoint with him both at school and in private lessons. It was under the influence of this teacher that he made up his mind to become a composer, not a cellist. Pringsheim had an extensive knowledge of music from late romanticism represented by Mahler and Richard Strauss to the neoclassicism of Hindemith and Kurt Weill. In those days he was pursuing his ideal of future music in neoclassicism and in its origin, the music of Bach. Abe was strongly influenced by his teacher's view of music.

In his student days Abe had, incidentally, made friends with the physicist Shohei Tanaka (1862-1945), who had studied in Berlin for fifteen years from 1884, as a pupil of Helmholtz. Tanaka was interested in just intonation and in 1889 he invented a harmonium which was able to reproduce all the tonalities in just intonation. The instrument had a keyboard consisting of some twenty keys in an octave, and a device for finely adjusting the pitch of each key. This invention was highly acclaimed in Europe and startled many musicians, including Bruckner and Hans von Bülow, who called the instrument the "enharmonium". Adding this instrument to his ensemble, where he himself played the cello, Abe was enchanted by the beautiful sonorities generated by just intonation. He became more attached to string instruments, which are able to generate just intonation, and felt remoter from instruments controlled by equal temperament, like the piano. Thus, his experience of playing Beethoven string quartets, his lessons with Pringsheim and his encounter with the enharmonium eventually led him to become a composer who sought models in Beethovenian classicism and Hindemithian neoclassicism, at the same time showing sympathy with the more exaggerated gestures of Mahler and Richard Strauss, and to write music for strings or for orchestra including strings.

The works that brought Abe into recognition were his Little Suite for Orchestra (1935) and Cello Concerto (1937). The former was given its première in Shanghai by Pringsheim, and the latter was awarded one of the five first prizes, following the six special prizes in the Weingartner Competition. Felix Weingartner had come to Japan in 1937 and knew about the creative activities of young Japanese composers. He established a competition as a means of introducing their works to Europe.

When Abe started his career as a composer, a different type of composition had come to the fore, endorsing nationalism and primitivism as represented by Stravinsky, de Falla and Bartók, who regarded classicism and romanticism as their hypothetical enemy. Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) (8.557587) and Humiwo Hayasaka (1914-1956) (8.557819) in this Japanese Composers Series belong to this line. Abe felt antipathy towards such people and wrote as follows:

Nationalists are mistaken in thinking that Japanese sentiment is always ruled by something Japanese at the roots. Modern Japanese are now able to sympathize with Wagner and Strauss from the bottom of their heart … Verdi is Italian, to be sure, but he is also "our" Verdi. We are modern and international Japanese rather than archaic Japanese.

Abe remained loyal to the international and universal culture of big cities that had nurtured him from the 1910s to the 1920s, even in the period from 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War broke out, to 1945, when World War II came to an end. Abe had worked as a first-class seaman towards the end of the war and was 34 years old when it ended, by which time he had written some other works. These included several orchestral pieces, four string quartets, one flute sonata, choral pieces and film music. He had already established his name as a master neo-classicist and his style seemed to have become secure, but he made a further step forward in the postwar days. Many of his colleagues had written their representative works before the war or in wartime, but many of Abe's important works were written in the 1950s and the 1960s. One of the reasons for this lay in his character and the other in external elements.

The first element is his work at the Ernie Pyle Theatre in Tokyo. The defeat of Japan had brought American occupation. Theatres for entertaining the American forces were built and the Ernie Pyle Theatre, called after a war correspondent killed in Okinawa, was one of them. A variety of shows and concerts were held there, including opera, ballet, dancing, orchestral music and jazz. As the theatre was run mainly by Japanese staff and performers, many Japanese musicians and dancers were employed and Abe was among them. He composed and arranged music for modern dancing and he himself conducted the orchestra. The numbers included Jungle Drum choreographed by Michio Ito (1893-1961), to whom Gustav Holst had dedicated his Japanese Suite (1915) and who had long worked in Europe and in the United States. Working with Ito, Abe's interest in rhythmic music for dancing became deeper. As a neo-classicist he basically liked clear allegro music, and his collaboration with Ito enhanced this tendency.

The second element was the influence of Carl Orff. As an ardent admirer of Pringsheim, Abe regarded himself as a musician in the European tradition, especially the German tradition. Stravinsky and Bartók, whom Japanese nationalists adored, were distant from him, but by having connections with the theatre, he felt inclined to link the neoclassical spirit of the Allegro with a primitivistic and repetitive style, suited for dancing. What he discovered then was Orff's Carmina Burana. He acquired a score in Tokyo soon after the war. This primitivistic music from Germany naturally brought the Germanophile Abe into the world of ostinato.

The third element was Abe's music directorship of the imperial orchestra for six years, beginning from 1948. From 1937 he had studied conducting for seven years under Joseph Rosenstock, a Polish-born Jewish conductor. After having served as music director of opera-houses in Darmstadt and Mannheim, Rosenstock had come to Tokyo to escape the Nazis and to conduct the New Symphony Orchestra (today's NHK Symphony Orchestra). After the war he moved to the United States and was appointed conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera. There were many Western musicians who wanted to settle in Japan in those days, because of the rise of the Nazis and the Russian Revolution after World War I. Abe's generation enjoyed their benefits, as he was able to get great teachers such as Pringsheim and Rosenstock, without moving abroad. Rosenstock taught Abe all Beethoven's symphonies in detail.

Abe's imperial orchestra, however, seldom undertook large-scale works. The ensemble was basically small, as its main purpose was to entertain guests from foreign countries at parties held by the Emperor, by playing waltzes and serenades. What was important for him was that he came to know Gagaku there. The members of the imperial orchestra played not only Western instruments as they were originally musicians of Gagaku, Japanese ancient music handed down in the imperial court. It was just that they also played Western instruments as a part-time job. By associating with them Abe learned Japanese traditional music, with which he had not been very familiar in his younger days. It broadened the horizons of his compositional style.

Stimulated by these elements, Abe's neo-classical style in the postwar days became more limpid, simplified and vivid. He used ostinatos of rhythms and patterns in many places and even sometimes suggested Japanese traditional music in a moderate way. As a result, his style sometimes suggested Soviet music, which permeated throughout postwar Japan. The present recording contains three of his major works, written in his fruitful days after the 1950s. Symphony No. 1 was completed in 1957, although most of it was written from 1953 to 1954, and had its première on 9 May of the same year with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hideo Saito, Seiji Ozawa's teacher. It is scored for triple wind and a variety of percussion, including timpani, triangle, bass drum, snare drum and cymbals. The work is made up of three movements.

The first movement, Allegro con brio, in 2/4, is written in sonata form and in the key of E. The strings play the first theme, over regular rhythms by the brass. Its brisk gestures are characterized by repetitions of the same notes, ascending patterns in a scale or in a circle of thirds, and the technique of shortening the value of each note gradually (for example, by starting the first bar with crotchets, then playing the second measure with quavers and the third bar with semiquavers, and so forth). These features, where Abe's originality and personality are evident, appear not only in this symphony, but also in Abe's music in general. The second theme, presented by the violin and the viola, is made up of a combination of glissandos in major and minor sevenths, and is simple and humorous in character. The development and the recapitulation are both limpid and powerful. The tense coda leads to a powerful conclusion on the key-note E.

The second movement, Adagietto, is in 3/4 and in the key of B. After the introduction, where the cello predicts the main theme and the woodwind move chromatically, mysteriously and fragmentarily, the cello plays the main theme, over regular rhythms of the horn. It is a nostalgic melody in the Dorian mode in B. The theme is repeated by the violin and then the oboe presents a subsidiary motif derived from the latter half of the first theme of the first movement. It is characterized by Abe's original way of shortening the value of each repeated note. Then the cor anglais and the clarinet suggest variants of the main theme. The music gradually grows excited and comes to a brief Allegro section, which seems to predict the last movement. In the end the introduction reappears. The composer called this movement "Memories of my childhood".

The third movement, Vivace assai, in 2/4, is written in sonata form, in the key of E. The brisk and lively mood of the first movement reappears in a more passionate way. The clarinet opens the movement with the first theme, which ascends and descends in a scale at a dizzy speed. The second theme, suggested by the horn dynamically over what the composer calls "rhythmic ostinato by the steam locomotive" (which is produced by violent attacks of trombone, tuba, timpani and snare drum), is simple in form, and is made up of a combination of ascending scale patterns and repetition of the same note. After the cor anglais recalls the first theme of the first movement, the movement is closed powerfully on E, as in the first movement.

Immediately after its première, this symphony won the then very prestigious Mainichi Music Award. It eventually established Abe's position as a master composer.

Abe wrote his Divertimento for Alto Saxophone and Piano in 1951. Its piano part was orchestrated in 1960, the version included here. It is scored for double wind, accompanied by timpani, snare drum, triangle and harp. The solo saxophonist for the première was Arata Sakaguchi, one of the pioneering saxophonists in Japan.

Abe studied the clarinet in the postwar days, as he wanted to master a woodwind instrument, in addition to the string instrument he was best at. The fruit of his efforts is evident in the masterful treatment of woodwind in this work, as in his Symphony No. 1. In his school days, Abe had been moved by the treatment of the alto saxophone in Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, and hoped to write such music for the instrument. His wish came true in this work.

The E flat major first movement, Andante sostenuto – Allegro, in 3/4, is in sonata form. As is usual with Abe, the first theme, presented fluently by the alto saxophone, is characterized by an ascending pattern and repetition of the same note. The second theme in B flat major, suggested by the flute and the violin, is cantabile in character.

The second movement, Adagietto, in 3/4, is written in A-B-A ternary form. The A section, in B flat major, is based on a canzonetta-like melody as if taken from an Italian opera. The B section, in E flat major, is vaguer in mood.

The E flat major third movement, Allegro, in 3/4, is written in sonata form. The first theme, presented by the alto saxophone, is made up of a combination of dotted rhythm and ascending scale patterns, accompanied by a sub-motif made up of repetition of the same note in an effective way. The second theme, in which chromatic scales are skilfully woven, is suggested by the viola and the bassoon, and brings with it a very relaxed mood.

If the two other works on this disc represent the neoclassicism of Prokofiev and Kabalevsky, or of Roussel and Hindemith, this Divertimento, replete with elegant and sensual gestures, shows neo-classicism in its late romantic guise, in the manner of Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto. This work reminds us that Abe was a pupil of Pringsheim and a descendant of romanticism.

Abe's Sinfonietta was completed in December 1964 and had its première in Tokyo on 14 January of the following year, with the Japan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Akeo Watanabe. It is scored for triple wind, timpani, triangle, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, xylophone, wood block, guiro, harp and celesta.

The first movement, Allegro con brio, in 3/4, is in sonata form and in D. The first theme is presented by the strings over intense rhythms of the brass, as in the first theme of the first movement of Symphony No. 1. It is made up of a combination of a descending pattern in the perfect fourth and chromatic runs, and carries a resolute, strong and dance-like character. The second theme begins with the descending minor second of the cello, then with the violin an octave higher. It sounds more like a capricious passage than a theme. This movement goes forward, cleverly contrasting what is resolute and what is capricious.

The second movement, Moderato, is in 4/4 and in D. It opens with Gagaku-like music, and then the clarinet suggests the main theme, which sounds like a combination of Stravinsky's Berceuse from L'Oiseau de feu and an old Japanese lullaby. In the middle section the flute and the solo violin insistently play figurative up-and-down patterns, often heard in Japanese traditional music. Then the lullaby returns. This movement is one of the most Japanese pieces that Abe ever wrote.

The third movement, Scherzo, is in 4/4. This is music of the "steam locomotive", as is the second theme of the last movement of Symphony No. 1, suggesting Honegger's Pacific 231. Much is made in this movement of glissandos and flutter-tonguing by the brass.

The fourth movement, Allegro assai, in 2/4, is in sonata form and in D. The first theme is suggested by the violin, over rhythmic ostinato of the "steam locomotive" generated by the horn and the cello. Its vigorous melody, which begins with an ascending pattern in the perfect fifth, is contrasted against the first theme of the first movement, which began with a descending pattern in the perfect fourth. The second theme, suggested by the English horn, has some connection with the materials of the second movement and is imbued with Japanese character.

This work shows Abe's barbaric neo-classicism in its most advanced way, coupled with the Japanese character that he had avoided in his younger days. It was performed in 1967 by Arvid Jansons and the Leningrad Philharmonic in a subscription concert. This was a significant achievement for Abe, as his fame had long been limited to Japan.

When Abe published these three works, many of the younger generation in Japan were advocating avant-garde music. But Abe, who loved just intonation, was unwilling to accept atonal music, without a key. He was long regarded as a master composer who was behind the times, a fact that forced him to spend his time more in education than in composition. It was not until the latter half of the 1990s that his works began to be appreciated once more. Abe's works from the postwar period include Symphony No. 2 (1960), Clarinet Quintet (1946) and String Quartets Nos. 5-15 (1947-1993). He died at the age of 95 in Tokyo, on the morning of 28 December 2006.

Morihide Katayama
English Translation: SOREL
(Edited by Naxos)


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