in: Reviews

April 13, 2012

Gagaku Concert Celebrates Centennial


A ryuteki player (Anthony J. Palmer photo)

A century ago this year, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo, in honor of the continuing development of friendship between Japan and the United States, donated cherry trees to Washington, D.C. The centennial celebration of the Sakura Festival further enriches the tradition between Boston and Japan, Boston being a sister city of Kyoto and Massachusetts having a state to state relationship with Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan, the ties are strengthened and signal a continuing affirmation of friendship.

Thus, Boston played host on April 9 at Symphony Hall to a rare hearing of the court and shrine music of Japan with a performance of gagaku, the oldest and longest continually performing orchestral art in the world.

With members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing classical music from the Western repertoire, Kitanodai Gagaku Ensemble graced its audience with classical music from Japan. Located a couple of hours west of Tokyo, and established in 1982, the ensemble is under the tutorship of Shogo Anzai, court musician of the Music Department at the Imperial Household Agency. Kitanodai’s mission is to “educate and raise the level of aesthetic sensibilities of young people and to promote Japanese culture abroad through gagaku.”

Gagaku” means elegant, correct, or refined music. When accompanying dance, the term used is bugaku. The origins of gagaku find roots in the Asian continent: India, China, and Korea. Imported possibly as early as the third and fifth centuries from Korea (music from the right), the dates more solidly substantiated are the sixth and eighth centuries, however earlier imports from China and India (music from the left) occurred in the sixth century.

A biwa player (Anthony J. Palmer photo)

Kitanodai was initially coached by Fumitaka Toghi of the Imperial Household Agency. Like the Bach family in Germany being synonymous with music, the Togi clan can be traced back to the sixth century under the reign of Prince Shotou (574-622) as guardians of the tradition. Although gagaku is strongly connected to the court, Shintô, the nativist beliefs of the Japanese, also availed themselves of the music for shrine celebrations. With the Meiji Restoration of the emperor to the throne in 1868, Shintô shrines and Buddhist temples were separated and the ensembles were relegated to shrine activities only in addition to the court.

The music was an extraordinary display of sensitive music-making. Members of the BSO began the program with Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, played by 15 strings, and concluded with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with harpsichord. While the Tchaikovsky work was quietly sustained and stunningly articulated with amazingly controlled contrasting dynamics, the Bach work was exuberant, vigorous, and robust. These works so brilliantly performed were an auspicious announcement of what was to come.

The Japanese entry to a wonderful evening of artistry began with a bugaku piece, Kanshu. Its Chinese origins (a left piece), composed by the Emperor Xuang Zong of Tang (eighth century), followed a legend of snakes and other insects that did not attack people when they heard the melody of Kanshu. The four dancers were colorfully dressed in multilayered costumes and revealed an unrivaled elegance in telling the story. The symbolic movements ended in a sowing of seeds in keeping with the rural culture of the Kanshu region. The instruments, on either side of the stage, so that the dancers could be seen, were an integral part of the movement as well as an entity in their own right.

The audience, largely unfamiliar with the makeup of the ensemble, received a brief musical demonstration of the three classes of instruments. The tsuri-taiko, one of the largest and loudest percussion instruments is a large round drum with skin heads on both sides but played only on the side opposite the audience. It is played with two large mallets, set in a wooden frame and highly decorated, sits front and center. To its left the hour-glass drum called the kakko sits on its side, so that the player can strike each side with thin sticks. The kakko player actually controls the tempo of the piece being performed by a series of strokes that sometimes become faster and faster. To the right of the tsuri-taiko is the shöko, a metal disk of usually about four or five inches diameter and an inch or so deep, played by two metal-headed thin sticks. The shôko is played usually in conjunction with the tsuri-taiko.

Some shô players (Anthony J. Palmer photo)

Three types of instruments comprise the wind category: the shô, the hichiriki, and the ryûteki. The shô is a 17-pipe instrument, each approximately 10 inches long with a brass reed in the bottom of each pipe and set in wax as part of the tuning device, all set in a cup-shaped container with a mouthpiece extending out of one side. Each pipe has a hole and plays when the hole is covered. There are 11 combinations of tones that are used in all compositions for gagaku. The hichiriki is a short bamboo pipe with seven holes on top and two underneath and is played with a double-reed much like an oboe or bassoon reed. It is the most prominent sound in the ensemble. The last type is the ryûteki, a transverse flute and doubles the melody of the hichiriki, but with embellishments.

The string group is composed of two gaku-sô, akin to a koto and two pear-shaped lutes called biwa. These instruments accentuate the rhythm of the piece by playing a type of chord at specific times in concurrence with the percussion instruments.

The stage, now occupied solely by the instruments, was a large square platform about a foot high marked off in front with the typical red fence seen in many Japanese drawings. The percussion sits in the front row, the strings next, and the winds at the rear, one group on each half. Kangen (instrumental pieces) are played in this formation and Konju no ha, a piece from the left classified as Tôgaku, which literally means Tang Dynasty music, was the featured instrumental work. Kangen are preceded by a Netori, a tuning piece in one of the six modes that gagaku uses. Konju no ha is in sojo mode with G as its center, somewhat comparable to the major scale in the West.

Kitanodai is an excellent musical group. Their intonation was precisely appropriate to the repertoire, the A tuned around 435 cps, below the usual 440 cps of Western music. Their phrasing was impeccable and illustrated the gagaku musical structure in pristine form, (Kangen is usually composed in duple meter and in 4-beat phrases of twos: 2+2, 4+4, 8+8.) Their tone was highly representative of the best that I heard in Japan; gagaku groups have been proliferating over the last three decades.

A tsuri-taiko (Anthony J. Palmer photo)

Returning to bugaku, the next piece was Karyobin, a dance piece brought to Japan in 736 by the monk Buttetsu, traveling from Vietnam. Karyobin are birds appearing in Indian mythology that preach the Law in Pure Earth with a song so beautiful, it is referred to as the voice of the Buddha. The four dancers, attired with wings over a colorful costume, do a jumping dance while simultaneously clapping two copper cymbals, making the sound of the birds. A children’s dance, it depicts the spring, with the pollinating of flowers and plants to bear fruit abundantly.

The final dance, Uravasu no mai, was of recent creation. Composed in 1940 to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of Japan’s founding, it was written to a poem by Emperor Showa, who lived from 1901 to 1989. The title means “the land of natural beauty, where serenity reigns.” The translation of the poem is a prayer for peace: “I pray to God creator of the universe for a peaceful world — a world like the calm morning sea.” It was set to music and choreographed by Tadatomo Ohno, conductor of the Imperial Household Agency’s Music Department at the time. The dancer’s costumes are made of a 12-layered vermilion-colored ceremonial kimono, with bluish purple open trousers. A silk skirt of ancient white, seven feet long, trailed the dancer’s graceful movements. Two aspects of the dance were clearly indicated by the fans, and bells were shaken at key points.

Like Kabuki and Noh, the presence of women in gagaku is a recent development, probably beginning some time in the last quarter of the 20th century. (In the mid-1980s, I encountered a female shô player of national renown.) Dancers sometimes were female in gagaku, but usually in Kagura-mai, Shintô rituals mainly from the folk traditions. The dancers for this program were all female, although all the instrumentalists were male as is the tradition. The division of gender stems from the very beginning of Japan’s history and is embedded in subtle and various ways in cultural artifact. The Tao symbol of the circle, half white and half black with a corresponding smaller circle within each of opposite color, was an influence from China, as so much of the literature and cultural influences were. The idea of yin and yang is reflected in this symbol. In gagaku, for example, the two stokes on the tsuri-taiko (tsun do) are done with one on the weak beat just before the strong downbeat and referred to as female and the strong beat is of male character. Musical modes of Chinese origin adapted to Japanese music are in ryo (male) and ritsu (female) configurations.

The best words to describe the performance are elegance and grace. The dancers’ movements were highly controlled at the same time that they appeared to be spontaneous. The music was excellently played with all the nuance expected, with the subtle tunings and microtonal approaches to the main tones. The rhythms were steady, and the tripartite form of jo-ha-kyû (slow-faster-faster yet), although very subtle, was in evidence. Kitanodai is an outstanding group and their mission, at least in the United States, was achieved with great success, judging from the audience’s response.

Anthony J. Palmer’s knowledge of gagaku is from several years study and performing the music, one year of which was spent in Japan instructed by Kanehiko Togi, one of the famous family and a member of the Imperial Household Agency.


  1. *It was indeed an elegant performance, though I found the  BSO contribution an anomaly on such a program and a severe detriment to creating and maintaining a proper atmosphere for Gagaku and Bunraku.  Would that the entire evening had been longer, and exclusively devoted to Japanese music and dance.  How sad that there were dozens of audience members scurrying for the exits between the second and third Japanese items on the program (in a house that was, at most, half full).  Boston is not very tolerant of the musically strange and challenging, no matter how beautiful it may be.

    I was lucky to be invited to a performance of Gagaku and Bugaku by the Imperial Household Gagaku Ensemble in 1965, at the palace in Tokyo, and it remains one of the most thrilling and indelible experiences of my life.  On my return to the U.S. I was able to purchase a few vinyl recordings of Gagaku and Bugaku, and loved to listen to them as I recreated that experience in my mind.  This past Monday’s performance brought back a flood of aural and visual memories of that evening at the Imperial Palace.

    I wonder, though, about the program-book’s “softening” of things that might be uncomfortable for the majority of a western audience.  First, though the primary program-book essay translates the addressee of the “prayer” poem that inspired the final dance as “God,” an alternate translation of the poem by one of the tribute-letter writers in the program-book more accurately translates it as “the gods” (Shinto is polytheistic, not monotheistic).  Was the use of “God” an attempt at avoiding possible difficulties for an American and largely Christian audience?  I don’t know.

    More troubling, I think, was the program-book’s insistence on obscuring the identity of the poet of this “peace poem” by calling him “the Emperor Showa” (surely it is the reign that is termed “Showa,” which isn’t the Emperor’s name, though the man himself can be properly termed “the Showa emperor”?)  But how might a U.S. audience react if it realized, from the  first, that the so-designated “Emperor Showa” is none other than the more familiarly recognizable Emperor Hirohito (that is his name) of World War II infamy, who–only a little more than a year after writing this poem praying for global peace–presided as an “immortal” over the bombing of Pearl Harbor?  Again, I don’t know.

    I do hope that Boston gets an opportunity to experience Gagaku again before another hundred years brings the 200th Anniversary of the Washington D.C. Tidal Basin cherry-trees gift!  Perhaps, on such a future occasion, the sponsor will not feel it incumbent to precede the performance with Tchaikovsky Andantes and Bach Brandenburgs in order to underline the spirit of “brotherly” internationalism.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — April 15, 2012 at 12:17 am

  2. *In the second line of my comment, the term ‘Bunraku” should, of course,have been “Bugaku.” Not really a slip of the mind, but rather a slip of the fingers (since I have often taught Bunraku as a dramatic form, and know full well the distinction!).  I don’t think I slipped up on that term in the rest of my comment.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — April 15, 2012 at 12:21 am

  3. With respect to the late Emperor’s name, I have it from my brother, who has lived in Japan since 1973, working as a translator, that in the first place, after an emperor has died, he is never referred to by his personal name, but by the name of his era.* So the late emperor would never be called “Emperor Hirohito” by a Japanese. As to “the Showa Emperor” vs. “Emperor Showa,” I have been assured that both renderings are correct. Of course, anyone who looked at the dates could have guessed that this emperor was the one who presided over Japan during WWII.

    * At one time era names were not necessarily coterminous with an emperor’s reign, but at least since the Meiji restoration, that has been the custom. And thinking of Meiji reminds me that when I was growing up, all references to the emperor of that era were to “Emperor Meiji,” not to “the Meiji Emperor.”

    But it was definitely a fascinating performance. Although I have visited Japan a few times,I have never seen anything like this. I could not really tell the differences between the tempi: it all seemed slow to me. But it was elegant and beautiful. I;m glad I noticed the reference in that morning;s Globe and was able to attend.

    As a sidenote — there were many young children in attendance with their parents, many who looked too young to be there if the standards for attendance at regular performance of the BSO were applied. Yet they were almost universally quiet — only two were removed by a parent, and only one was making noise that I could hear. Some were not always interested in the music, but they kept quiet and just occupied themselves with some silent activity. IMO this is a limpse of a real cultural difference between Japan and the West. That many pre-school American children would have disrupted the entire evening with constant crying and loud complaints.

    It was a wonderful evening, and it’s unfortunate that there were not more people to enjoy this glimpse of another musical tradition.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 15, 2012 at 1:01 am

  4. *Joe Whipple, I certainly defer to your knowledge about emperor-titles.  Interestingly, I asked nine or ten people (six of whom were at the concert and had read the program and apparently pay no attention to dates, and three or four who had not been there) whether they knew who Emperor Showa was.  Not one of them knew.  When I told them it was Hirohito, they knew, of course.  At the end of my paragraph about this I did admit that I really didn’t know if “softening” the reaction to Hirohito had anything to do with the program’s use of titles.  Based on what you say, I now know that I was probably wrong to be suspicious.  The juxtaposition of “peace poem” and this particular emperor triggered my suspicions. Thank you for the clarifications.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — April 15, 2012 at 11:02 am

  5. Back when I was covering everything conceivable for Boston’s newspaper of record I can remember twice being dispatched to give an account of visiting Gagaku ensembles. Tchaikovsky didn’t figure in either event. Sad to say, the Symphony Hall affair as described strikes me as sadly misconceived, and in effect rather condescending towards its audience.

    Gagaku has certainly not lacked for champions in the world of Western classical music — see attached — one of whom, Hidemaro Konoye, also made the first-ever recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, in Tokyo in 1933. (Denon reissued it on CD in 1988.)

    Transcriptions, however, are just that. What this sublime music insists on — if it can be said to be really insisting on anything at all — is simply to be let alone.

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm

  6. Corrrection. The Konoye/Tokyo recording dates from 1930, not 1933. And paragraph 1 sentence 3 could very well do without the “sadly” that qualifies “misconceived,” trailing as it does just a few words behind the protestation “sad to say.” It doesn’t do to be that emotional.

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 16, 2012 at 3:37 pm

  7. Alan, Hirohito had one of those lives whose arc, or at least whose fundament, is not easy to get to the bottom of (botched-metaphor alert; if indeed either one can be understood coherently). Began as god, wound up as rather sensible: 

    Fwiw, I do know that my father and grandfather (the former born and reared in Japan, the latter a missionary there from 1915 to well over a decade after the war was over, both able nonetheless to serve in the US armed forces) never thought Hirohito really was the enemy. Just an Emperor, meaning pretty much trapped in the divinity complex. There is some family story about grandpa Sherwood directly suggesting (to someone influential) that Hirohito not ride postwar through his defeated people but get down off his horse and walk like a mere mortal.

    Comment by david moran — April 16, 2012 at 9:26 pm

  8. “Fundament” is one of those words best avoided by the careful writer, as one of its definitions, according to the Merriam-Webster Second International, is:

    “The part of the body on which one sits; the buttocks; specif., Anat., the anus.”


    Comment by Richard Buell — April 16, 2012 at 10:44 pm

  9. This careful writer (at least as careful as my old friend and colleague Richard, here being highly imaginative), of course meant it in the first Merriam-Webster sense: “underlying ground, theory, principle.”

    Comment by david moran — April 17, 2012 at 1:48 am

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