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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

I couldn't decide which of two pieces by Ifukube to post today, so I'm posting two that are somewhat connected. Both have interesting stories behind them.

Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) is best known today as the composer who scored most of the Godzilla films along with many other Japanese films over five decades. But Ifukube himself was distinctly ambivalent about his film music legacy, as much as he owed his financial success to it. Perhaps he held a certain snobbery about film music; like Brahms, who disdained programmatic music, Ifukube saw himself as a concert composer first and foremost, and regarded film music merely as a lucrative side business. He felt similarly about his Japanese contemporaries -- when he attended the funeral of his colleague Fumio Hayasaka, he expressed bitter disappointment that music from Hayasaka's score for Seven Samurai was played rather than any of the deceased composer's concert music. But perhaps there was also some truth behind his attitude toward film music: Japanese film studios were notorious at the time for demanding that composers work quickly, sometimes only giving composers a few days to score a feature-length film. So perhaps it was natural that Ifukube did not consider his (or anyone else's) film music to represent his best work.


Sinfonia Tapkaara

Whether or not his disdain for film music was justified, Ifukube's concert music certainly had dimensions that were absent from his film scores. Born in a fairly remote town on the island of Hokkaido, and living on Hokkaido until he moved to Tokyo in 1946, he took great interest in the music of the island's indigenous Ainu people. Ainu themes appeared in many of his concert works, most notably his only true symphony, Sinfonia Tapkaara. Ifukube had never been in a hurry to complete a symphony; he had evidently planned to write an "Ainu Symphony" for some years, but much like Brahms, he did not believe he should compose it until he had perfected his craft. He only completed Sinfonia Tapkaara in 1954, at the age of 40. The timing was fortuitous: it was only a month after Godzilla appeared in Japanese theaters and made Ifukube famous overnight.

Ironically, the first performance of Sinfonia Tapkaara occurred in a place where Ifukube was still unknown: the premiere was given by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in January 1955, a year before Godzilla was first shown in the United States. When he first developed the idea of composing an "Ainu Symphony," he promised the premiere to his friend Fabien Sevitzky, who had conducted the premieres of some of his other works in Japan. By the time Ifukube completed Sinfonia Tapkaara, Sevitzky had moved to Indianapolis -- so instead of capitalizing on the composer's new-found fame in Japan, the symphony became the first Japanese piece performed in the United States after the Second World War. Despite not recognizing the composer's name, the audience responded enthusiastically, bursting into wild applause at the end of the first movement. (In a thank-you letter Sevitzky sent to Ifukube with the concert recording, the conductor apologized for the audience's "unruly outburst"!)

The word "Tapkaara" is a general word for men's dances in the Ainu language, and in particular, Ifukube based his symphony on a ritual dance involving outstretched arms and foot-stamping to worship the god of the earth, which he observed during his youth in Otofuke, Hokkaido. The symphony is in three movements. The first movement serves as an extended overture in sonata form, with one theme evoking the furious foot-stomping ritual dance and a more tranquil second theme that features Latin American percussion instruments standing in for Ainu equivalents. The second movement, according to the composer, evokes a tranquil night in Otofuke; in the middle of the movement, woodwinds repeat a brief descending gesture that is meant to evoke an Ainu chant. The third and final movement closes the piece in an ecstatic frenzy; Ifukube remarked to one orchestra that the movement should be played "as if carrying a bottle of sake by the waist."

Movements:
I. Lento molto - Allegro
II. Adagio (11:31)
III. Vivace (17:50)





Symphony Concertante for Piano and Orchestra

If you hear some of the same melodic material in this piece as in Sinfonia Tapkaara, you're not mistaken. The Symphony Concertante for piano and orchestra is the earlier of the two pieces; after the only copy of the score and parts was believed lost in the firebombing of Tokyo during the Second World War, Ifukube had no qualms about recycling one of the themes for use in his later symphony. Interestingly, despite the borrowing of material from it, the Symphony Concertante has nothing to do with indigenous music.

Ifukube composed his Symphony Concertante in 1941, before he became a professional musician. He was largely self-taught as a musician and and was serving as a forestry officer on Hokkaido at the time, but was beginning to develop connections in the musical world. In 1940, the German conductor and composer Manfred Gurlitt fled Germany for Japan after being denounced by the Nazis, and was almost immediately appointed music director of the Tokyo Philharmonic. Ifukube, who was then preparing for his debut as a conductor, went to Tokyo and approached Gurlitt for conducting lessons. Gurlitt asked Ifukube to demonstrate what he knew, and told Ifukube that he had no need for lessons. Having made Ifukube's acquaintance, Gurlitt later examined some of the young composer's scores and found them impressive enough to commission a new piece. That piece, the Symphony Concertante, was completed around the end of 1941 and premiered by the Tokyo Philharmonic in March 1942.

We have the piece today because, as it turns out, it was not entirely lost. Some of the orchestral parts turned up over the years, and then the full score, missing only a few pages, was rediscovered in the early 1990s. Ifukube, who was still active as a composer, reconstructed the missing pages, producing the piece as it exists now.

The Symphony Concertante represents a second influence on Ifukube as a composer. Inspired by futurist composers such as George Antheil and Arthur Honegger, and influenced by Stravinsky, this piece reflects Japan as a modern industrial society -- in the composer's own words, "blending Asian indigenous vitality and machine-civilization modernism." Some of the old Japan remains, both in the use of traditional pentatonic scales, and in the melancholy second movement that represents "the loneliness of one who lives in the remote north."

Movements:
I. Vivace meccanico
II. Lento con malinconia (14:47)
III. Allegro barbaro (25:11)


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