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Toru Takemitsu is perhaps the single largest and greatest Japanese contributor to Western classical music. As a largely self-taught composer, he formed a unique synthesis of European influences, such asStravinsky, Messiaen and the Second Viennese School with traditional Japanese music and instruments.
Takemitsu was born in Tokyo but spent the first eight years of his life in China. By the time he returned to Japan, a nationalist tide had gripped the nation, and most forms of Western art, including music, were banned. Thus by the end of World War II Takemitsu had been exposed to only fragments of non-patriotic music, including some of the items in his father’s vintage record collection and a single recording of the French song “Parlez-moi d’amour,” which he overheard an officer playing while at Japanese army camp, where he was drafter during the war as to work on a labor gang. Takemitsu was enraptured by the song, saying later in an interview with theEconomist, “I did not know there was such beautiful music in the world.”
As he said, “I came to recognize the value of my own tradition.” The Guardian reported on the work, stating that it has “an almost overpowering focus, as if – in trying to make the two musics one, in striving to accommodate the two rich worlds – the composer draws himself and us into a strange new state.”
By the end of his life, Takemitsu was widely recognized for his work, winning the Gravemeyer Award (1994) – one of the most prestigious awards for composition, consisting of a $150,000 reward – and the Glenn Gould Prize in 1996. Takemitsu passed away the same year, and left his final work, his first opera, unfinished.
Header image courtesy of Schott Japan Other images courtesy of the New Yorker, Crow Collection and All Music
The end of the war brought not only peace but also opportunity, and Takemitsu cherished his newfound freedom to listen to American Armed Forces Radio and check out scores from the library. He was especially fond of American Big-Band era composerEdward “Duke” Ellington, as well as French impressionist Claude Debussy. By 1946 Takemitsu had become so smitten with music that he decided to become a composer. In this he was greatly aided by his girlfriend (and later wife) Asaka. Because of a lung disease and his father’s early death, Takemitsu had trouble providing for himself both financially and physically, and it was only with Asaka’s help that he was able to pursue a career in composition in the first place.
Takemitsu was almost completely self-taught as a composer, once stating that “my teachers are Duke Ellington and nature.” However he certainly took inspiration from a variety of other sources, includingCage, Webern and, perhaps most notably,Messiaen. Takemitsu’s first piece Lento in Two Movements ,shares extensive parallels with Messiaen’s work, but it in many ways was very different from the music coming out of Europe: Takemitsu’s works were delicate and often glacial in pacing, with an extraordinary attention to the details of texture and timbre.
Although he was steadily gaining an international following, it was really chance that rocketed Takemitsu to stardom when Igor Stravinsky, who was visiting Japan at the time, heard Takemitsu’sRequiem for Strings (1957). Stravinsky enjoyed the piece so much that he offered to take the young composer out to lunch, and lavishly praised his works to the press. Later,Aaron Copland <> would be similarly impressed by Takemitsu’s talents. Just a few words from Stravinsky were enough to immediately introduce Takemitsu’s music to audiences around the world.
One of Takemitsu’s greatest sources of inspiration for many years, as well as one of the only aspects of his culture he would appreciate until later in life, was Japanese gardens. His works are full of symbolism and references, both overt and veiled, to the time-honoured Japanese tradition. Some of his works, such asA Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1978) and Tree Line (1988) deal explicitly with this theme, but all of his compositions bear some influence. Takemitsu has stated, “My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener. Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture.” This philosophy has put him in line with the viewpoints of many champions of the avant-garde, such as John Cage, whom he greatly admired,Steve Reich and György Ligeti, by espousing a more holistic compositional approach that elevates elements such as texture and timbre to the same level that many composers treat pitch and rhythm.
Takemitsu also enjoyed a successful career as a film composer, and was fortunate in that he nearly always had a surprisingly high degree of artistic freedom in his film scores. Beginning with the 1964 filmWoman in the Dunes, with a minimalist score, Takemitsu wrote more than 90 soundtracks. Perhaps his best known scores are to the American filmRising Sun and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, based on the story ofKing Lear. An avid film buff, Takemitsu would view roughly 200 movies a year, as it was one of the activities that gave him the most pleasure.
Beginning in the 1960s, partially motivated by witnessing a performance of Bunraku puppet theatre in Japan and also influenced by a conversation with John Cage, a Zen Buddhist, Takemitsu began to eschew what he saw as the overly intellectual serialist approach, and take more inspiration from nature as well as traditional Japanese music. He began to write for ensembles combining Western orchestration with traditional Japanese instruments including the biwa, resembling a lute, and the shakuhachi, a flute made from bamboo.
The highlight of this compositional period was Takemitsu’s November Steps (1967), which was commissioned by theNew York Philharmonic for their 125th anniversary celebration. The performance, in addition to receiving rave reviews, marked a turning point in Takemitsu’s career.