About this Recording
8.570319 - SUGATA: Symphonic Overture / Peaceful Dance of 2 Dragons / The Rhythm of Life

Isotaro Sugata (1907-1952): Symphonic Overture
Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons • The Rhythm of Life • Dancing Girl in the Orient


Isotaro Sugata was born on the 15 November 1907 to a rich family in the port city of Yokohama. As a child he attended a missionary school founded by the American Baptist Free Mission Society at Kanto Gakuin, encouraged by the hymns he heard to study piano, violin, theory and singing. His education came to an end in 1927, when he contracted tuberculosis, thereafter to concentrate on composition. From 1928 he started taking private lessons with noted composers in Japan. His first teachers were Kósçak Yamada and Kiyoshi Nobutoki, who had both studied in Berlin and taught him academic music theory in the German tradition. Dissatisfied with that he turned to post-Debussy music. In 1931 he began to study with Meiro Sugahara, who was of the opinion that: "German music would not be a good model for Japanese composers trying to create Western-style music imbued with Japanese sensibility, nurtured by Gagaku (ancient imperial music), Buddhist chants, folk-songs and Kabuki music, since the German methods are basically ruled by the major and minor modes, which tend to point to chromaticism in the extreme if one tries to get out of them. Latin and Russian music would be better suited to Japanese mentality, as such music aims for more flexible sounds, by employing whole-tone and Oriental scales."Sugahara encouraged his pupils, including Sugata and Shiro Fukai, to study Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Respighi, Malipiero and Milhaud. In response to his advice, Sugata wrote two gigantic orchestral pieces in a style which could be described as "Oriental Stravinsky": Yokohama(1932) and Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) (1933).

In writing these pieces, however, Sugata was faced with a major question: French and Russian music is superior in its diversity of melodies and in the richness of colours, but is inferior in the theoretical rigidity of harmony and counterpoint. As a consequence, music leans towards the senses, suitable for ballet or small pieces, and not for logical, large-scale orchestral works. The same kind of theoretical weakness is found in Japanese arts and ways of thinking. That is why Japan, despite the richness of its sensibilities, fell behind China and the West. To overcome this problem Sugata returned to German-orientated music studies and in 1933 started to study with the neo-classicist Klaus Pringsheim, a former pupil of Mahler, who was then a professor at Tokyo Music School (today's Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music). Under this new teacher, Sugata studied German music ranging from Bach to Hindemith, and began to show interest in Schoenberg's atonal music, although he did not completely turn to the German school, as he continued his interest in Debussy, Stravinsky and Japanese traditional music.

It was in 1935, two years after he started to study with Pringsheim, that the name of Sugata came to be known in the Japanese music scene. In this year his piece Japanese Picture Scroll won a prize in the competition held by the Imperial Household Agency. The following year saw his Festive Prelude awarded a prize in the competition organised by the NHK (Nihon Hoso Kyokai; Japan Broadcasting Corporation), together with Humiwo Hayasaka's Prelude for Two Hymns. In 1938 Symphonic Dance won a prize in the competition held by the New Symphony Orchestra (today's NHK Symphony Orchestra), along with works by Kishio Hirao, Kojiro Kobune, Toshitsugu Ogiwara and Kazuo Yamada. The work was performed in Helsinki and Warsaw under the direction of Kobune. In 1939 Symphonic Overture was chosen for the celebration of the 2600th Year of the Emperor held by the NHK, together with Hayasaka's Overture in D (8.557819). In response to a commission by the NHK in 1940, Sugata composed Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons and in 1942 Philharmonic Symphony won an award in the competition by JVC (Victor Record Company of Japan).

In addition to the above Sugata continued to win major prizes in Japan, where he was recognised as one of the leading composers, although his compositional styles were far beyond simple explanation. In Japanese Picture Scroll, Festive Prelude and Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons, Japanese traditional music and methods of Debussy and Stravinsky are combined, while Symphonic Dance belongs to nineteenth-century romanticism, and Symphonic Overture and Philharmonic Symphony are inspired by Hindemith and Pringsheim. Sugata continued to produce several works connected respectively with Bach, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov and Bartók, until 1945. Thus tracing the history of music, he was steadily fulfilling his grand programme of mastering and synthesizing every kind of music language, and by acquiring such a variety of styles on the way, he stood out as an idiosyncratic figure in the Japanese music world.

Towards the end of World War II, escaping air-raids in Tokyo and Yokohama, Sugata moved to a provincial town some seventy kilometres north of Tokyo, Tanuma, where his father's parents lived. He stayed there after the war and continued his compositional activities. In 1946 his interest in Schoenberg bore fruit in the completion of a string quartet in atonal style, followed by an orchestral piece Picasso's Picture, also using atonality.

Most of these works, however, were never to see performance in Sugata's life-time, as he was no more than a provincial private composer, cut off from music circles in Tokyo and completely oblivious of post-war confusion. His health deteriorated and he died in Tanuma on the 5 July 1952, without achieving his ultimate goal of synthesising various styles. Most of his works were not to be published and his autograph manuscripts were left forgotten in his house in Tanuma. Since then Sugata's music had long been neglected and it was not until 1999, when his family found the manuscripts, that his music gradually returned to public attention. The present CD marks the first ever recordings of his works.


Symphonic Overture and Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons were both composed in celebration of the 2600th Year of the Emperor. The year 1940 fell on the 2600th year of Japan's own official year system, which is based on the year of the enthronement of Emperor Jinmu, the mythical first emperor of Japan. These works were among those commissioned from Japanese and distinguished foreign composers to mark the occasion.

Symphonic Overture was a product of the study of Hindemith under Pringsheim. Taking Hindemith's symphony Mathis der Maler, as a model, above all for its first movement, it was completed on 10 December 1939 and won a prize at the Competition Celebrating the 2600th Year of the Emperor held by the NHK. It had its première with Kósçak Yamada and the New Symphony Orchestra on 11 February 1940, the national holiday commemorating the enthronement of Emperor Jinmu. Written for orchestra with triple winds, the work is made up of three parts: Introduction - Allegro - Finale.

The long, large-scale Introduction, in ternary form, begins with a chromatically ascending pattern from F in tutti. This ascending gesture, supported by harmonies of fourths, is magnificent in mood and reaches G sharp, when the solo oboe plays the singing theme in G sharp minor. This theme is connected allusively with Kigensetsu, a popular song celebrating the holiday of 11 February and which every Japanese knew in those days. This melody is repeated, polyphonically decorated in the Hindemithian manner. The central part moves slightly faster. The archaic, dance-like theme in Phrygian mode with its key-note on B flat, is suggested by the flute and the oboe, and the music becomes excited like a march, till the brass plays a brief hymn. Then the first section reappears in free style and the music ends on G sharp and D sharp chords.

The Allegro part is in quasi-sonata form; the two themes are suggested and developed, but the recapitulation is replaced by a double fugue. The first theme, suggested by the violin, evokes the music of Hindemith, while the second theme, presented by the English horn over an accompaniment by the bass clarinet, recalls Shostakovich. The two themes are related to the theme of the Introduction, in terms of intervals and rhythms.

In the Finale the singing melody of the Introduction is transfigured to a victorious hymn, interspersed with a Stalinist Soviet-style march, leading to a brilliant conclusion. The tonal centre for the Allegro and Finale is C.


Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons attempts to combine the style of Gagaku, Japanese ancient imperial music, and Sugata's interest in Stravinsky and Bartók. Commissioned by the NHK, the work was completed on 4 June 1940 and had its première with the New Symphony Orchestra under Qunihico Hashimoto on 10 November of the same year, the very day when the government held a ceremony commemorating the 2600th Year of the Emperor. It is scored for triple winds and Japanese traditional percussion.

This work is based on the traditional Gagaku Nasori. The main melodies and rhythms of the work are borrowed from Nasori, although their treatment is quite free. It implies that the work is not a mere arrangement of Nasori, but an entirely new work using its materials. Nasori depicts two dragons playing peacefully. The dragon is considered sacred in China and Japan, unlike its associations in the West. Nasori is a festive element of Gagaku, and it was quite natural that Sugata should choose it for music celebrating the 2600th Year of the Emperor.

The dance music of Gagaku is basically made up of three movements: Jo - Ha - Kyu. Jo denotes "Overture", Ha corresponds to "Development" and Kyu means "Rapid Finale". Jo is usually characterized by slow tempo, ambiguous rhythms and long lines of melodies. These elements move forward towards Kyu, via Ha, gradually increasing the speed, making rhythms more and more distinct and adding gestures to the melodies. Following this traditional construction, Sugata's work is also made up of three parts: Jo - Ha - Kyu.

Jo begins with a rapid arpeggio by the flute. Based on Gagaku's Ritsu scale starting with E (E - F sharp - A - B - C sharp), the melody often moves in parallel fourths and predominates for the most part. The Gagaku percussion kakko adds accelerando rhythms, which often appear in Japanese traditional music, when the cello plays the theme, which is broad and gentle in the Ritsu scale based on E. Then the theme and the arpeggiated pattern are repeated.

Ha is introduced by a primitivistic rhythmic ostinato, characterized by open fifth chords based on D, and the flute plays the rustic theme, made up of a pentatonic scale starting with E (E - F sharp - G - B - C sharp), over the rhythm. Then the melody is varied expressively.

Kyu begins with a lighthearted accompaniment pattern in a Ritsu scale starting with E (E - F sharp - A - B - C sharp), played mainly by the piano and the harp. The piccolo and the flute suggest the brisk Kyu theme, which originates from the Jo theme. The theme is repeated, becomes excited and then calms down temporarily, when the Jo theme reappears accompanied by solemn rhythms by the timpani and the bass drum. Combined with the Kyu theme, it comes to a rapturous climax, which is rounded off by the quotation from the opening of Peasant with Bear (Quatrième tableau) of Stravinsky's Petrushka. Sugata might have consciously implied that this free paraphrase of Nasori is written particularly by taking Petrushka as its model. The music concludes with mystic chords by the violin, imitating the sound of sho (a Gagaku instrument), in a brief, rapid coda. The last dissonant chord consists of the second formed by E and D. This implies that the key note of Jo and Kyu was E and that of Ha was D.

In this work Sugata frequently uses chords of the fifth and the fourth (the inverted form of the fifth). They are what he called the "Japanese harmony". The Japanese musicologist Hisao Tanabe maintained in the 1910s that the Japanese traditional pentatonic scales originated from the circle of the fifths, since the first five notes of this circle (C - G - D - A - E) could be arranged into the Ryo scale (C - D - E - G - A), which is one of the basic scales of Gagaku, together with the Ritsu scale. In accordance with this theory by Tanabe, Sugata came to the conclusion that harmony based on the fifth and the fourth would be suitable for Japanese music. This way of thinking is not limited to Sugata, but can be seen in many Japanese composers in the first half of the twentieth century.


The Rhythm of Life, music for ballet, was completed on 20 September 1950 and belongs to Sugata's last years. In this work he recalls the starting-point of his creative life. Like his two earliest works Yokohamaand Sakura, this work quotes various materials from Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps, Petrushka and L'oiseau de feu, forming an idiosyncratic patchwork of Japanese melodies and fragments from Stravinsky, in a cut-and-paste manner. Its compositional technique even foresees postmodernism. This work was never performed in the lifetime of the composer and had to wait until 2006 for its première with the present performers. Written for orchestra with triple winds, the work carries three movements, although the composer left no programmes for them.

In the opening of the first movement, marked Misterioso, the main motif is suggested by the four horns. It is a transfiguration of the motif for Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes (Mystic Circles of the Young Girls) from Le sacre du printemps, in the Japanese manner. It is then followed by patchwork-like music derived from melodic fragments, instrumentation, harmonies, rhythms and timbres of Le sacre du printemps.

The second movement starts by imitating the opening part of Action rituelle des ancêtres (Ritual Action of the Ancestors) of Le sacre du printemps. It is soon followed by the reappearance of the main motif of the first movement on the strings, when the music rapidly accelerates into Moderato scherzando. The basic model for this part is the carnival scene from Petrushka (Quatrième tableau). The brass plays the Japanese folk-song-like theme which, interwoven with the motif of the first movement, develops flamboyantly into Japanese festivities, not Russian ones. Quotations from L'oiseau de feu also appear. Then the festival is over and the music is rounded off after briefly recalling the mood of Le sacre du printemps.

The third movement opens Lento, an imitation of the Introduction of Part Two of Le sacre du printemps, then leading to the main part, Presto capriccioso, with wild and rapid glissandi by the brass. It is followed by barbaric dance music, based on a simple descending pattern suggested by the English horn. In the latter half, the folk-song-like theme of the second movement is mainly used and the music becomes more excited. Then a groaning dissonant chord closes the movement, as if feeling regret for something.


Dancing Girl in the Orient is the fourth movement of Sketches of the Desert - Suite in Oriental Style. The work consists of five movements. The other four are: Pilgrimage to Mecca, A Caravan in the Desert, The Patrol in the Desert and Riding Arabs. This suite, completed in 1941, was not blessed with opportunities for performance, and its première was given in 2002 by the present performers. It is scored for double wind, including a variety of percussion. The composers Sugata followed here are not Hindemith, Stravinsky or Schoenberg, but Rimsky-Korsakov, Ippolitov-Ivanov and Ketèlbey.

Dancing Girl in the Orient is in D minor, in 3/4, and is marked Allegretto con sentimento.The exotic theme suggested by the oboe is repeated and the yearning for the Islamic world of dreams swells, although it was rare for Japanese composers to show interest in Islamic regions before World War II.

Morihide Katayama
English Translation: SOREL, edited by Naxos


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