European Classical Meets Japanese Nagauta

European Classical Meets Japanese Nagauta

Terasaki Chair Thomas Rimer discusses the beginnings of Western classical music in Japan and the life of Japan's first well-known composer.

I was so struck by the intense love that I found when I got to Japan for western classical music that I was totally unprepared to understand it.

Thomas Rimer, the current Paul I. Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations at UCLA, has always been fascinated by Western classical music and was pleased to discover that the music had made its way to Japan when he served for the United States during World War II.

"I was so struck by the intense love that I found when I got to Japan for Western classical music that I was totally unprepared to understand it," Rimer said, describing his first experience listening to a European musical performance in Japan.

Rimer talked about the introduction of the music to Japan in the twentieth century at an April 28, 2008, event at UCLA sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

Rimer has been impressed by the skill of Japanese musicians. He recalled a performance in 1957 by a baritone who returned to Japan after studying in Germany. As a former choirboy, Rimer was impressed by the the man's vocal abilities.

"Western music has permeated and filled some sort of psychic niche that people find very rewarding," Rimer said.

In an attempt to understand Japanese interest in this foreign tradition, he began reading the autobiography of Yamada Kōsaku (1886-1965), the first great classically trained composer of Japanese descent.

Yamada studied with famed German composer Max Bruch at the Berlin Hochschule and was the first Japanese composer to write symphonies and operas. As a conductor, he introduced many orchestral works to Japan, including Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, Johann Strauss II's An der schönen blauen Donau, and Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll.

The Japanese people did not understand Yamada's music at first, but by the end of 1920s, audiences for European classical music were found. Rimer said few people know that the first recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 was made in Tokyo.

Part of the reason why a taste was developed so quickly was that the music was taught in Meiji (1868-1912) schools, but Rimer believes another reason for its acceptance was Japanese people's appreciation for how the art was learned.

"One of the things that may make the study of Western music and the performing of it in Japan somewhat familiar is that it's the only Western art form…that you learn in somewhat the same way you learn the traditional Japanese arts," Rimer said.

Rimer explained how studying the cello or piano is similar to studying sado or ikebana, the Japanese arts of tea ceremony and flower arrangement. It is only after mastering the basics that an ikebana artist or cellist can add his or her creativity and individuality to the art.

"The idea that you learn something and then express yourself later on down the line is an old, old Japanese pattern and it works for Western music," Rimer said.

Yamada added his unique touch to Western classical music by incorporating familiar Japanese sounds into his work. His Nagauta Symphony fuses European classical music and nagauta, vocal music performed with traditional Japanese instruments. In the work Yamada adds orchestral music to a classic nagauta piece.

Published: Thursday, May 08, 2008