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3 Japanese Women Composers

We're really excited to present the concert 'On an Endless Road' touring March 5-9. Before getting involved in the project we hadn't heard of the three Japanese women composers featured in the programme, and were so excited to be introduced to their work by curator and composer Francesca Le Lohé.

We asked her to tell you a little bit about them...

Kōda Nobu (1870 - 1946)

Kōda Nobu was at the very forefront of the development of Western classical music in Japan. Her story is full of firsts, although you wouldn't know it from her assured compositions. She was one of the very first students at what would become the Tokyo Music School, studying violin, piano and voice from the age of 12 with an American teacher. At 19, she was one of the first students sponsored by the Japanese government to study music abroad: going first to Boston, and then to Vienna where she studied composition with Robert Fuchs. When she returned to Japan in 1903 (in her early 30s), she became the first woman on the faculty of the Tokyo Music School.

She faced hostility, and the political tide turned reactionary in the following years. Discrimination and media backlash against women teachers forced her to leave her post in 1909. However, she received recognition during her life from her students, fellow musicians and even the imperial family. She went on to be the very first Western classical musician - as well as the first woman - to be elected to the Royal Japan Art Academy.

You can listen to Kōda's 'Violin Sonata No.1 in E flat major' on Youtube, here performed by Yasuko Ohtani and Takashi Sato.

Whilst studying in Vienna, Kōda began writing her 'Violin Sonata No.1 in E flat Major'. However, the third movement of the sonata was left unfinished. Struck by Kōda's talent and highly accomplished work, composer Ikebe Shinichiro (1943 - ), a current professor at the Tokyo Music School and a composer known for his scores for the films of Kurosawa, completed the sonata and programmed performances of the work in 2004. It is this edition that will be performed in 'On an Endless Road'.  Kōda's music is lush and Romantic, and remarkably German-sounding.

Toyama Michiko (1913 - 2006)

Like Kōda, Toyama studied in Europe and the US where her experiences greatly influenced the direction of her music and research, in her case in a more experimental direction. Like so many great composers she studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and in 1937 (the same year Kōda was elected to the Royal Japan Art Academy) her piece 'The Voice of Yamato' won the 15th International Composition Prize, making her the first Japanese composer to win an international award. When Pierre Schaeffer, pioneer of early electronic music 'Musique Concréte', gave a presentation at the Paris Conservatoire, Toyama was so impressed she went to study electronic music at Tanglewood Festival and then Columbia University. In the US she began composing music incorporating electronics and recorded sounds and released albums of her work on labels such as Folkways.

Her 1960 album, 'Waka and Other Compositions: Contemporary Music of Japan based on Traditional Japanese Themes and Poetry' is available on Bandcamp from Smithsonian Folkways recordings.

Toyama's wide range of interests and influences can be seen in her compositions, including her Suite of Japanese Folk Music which draws on aspects from folk, classical and electronic music. Originally for orchestra, Toyama later arranged the work for violin and piano. The suite comprises three movements, inspired by folk songs sung by and about women: 'Lullaby', after a well-known Japanese song for infants; 'Esashi Boat Song', a song of loneliness, about women who are forbidden to meet their male family members fishing in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island; and 'Rice Husking Song', an up-beat song from Hiroshima prefecture about two sisters working hard at harvest time. 

Toyama has received little academic interest (and her Wikipedia entry contains errors including both her dates and country of birth), but scholar Bridget Cohen writes: "Racist criticism during her lifetime dismissed her music as a belated mimicry of Western models. Yet the modernist qualities and themes of her work emerge as a consequence of her life lived in intercultural contact zones of uprooting – the very conditions that make ideas of the ‘modern’ possible."

Yoshida Takako (1910 - 1956) 

The daughter of an army officer, Yoshida's music was explicitly shaped by her political views and social activism. In the 1930s, she became involved in radical leftwing movements opposing rising fascism, and joined the Proletariat Composers Group. Between 1935 and 1940 she was arrested multiple times because of her politics, and her refusal to write music with militaristic titles and themes as the government demanded. A six month imprisonment greatly affected her health, but did not put an end to her creative activities. In the late 1940s, she set the words of famous feminist and anti-war female poets Yosano Akiko (1878 - 1942) and Ōtsuka Kusuoko (1875-1910) to music.

Supplication Hundredfold was originally written for voice with text from Ōtsuka Kusuoko's poem of the same name. The poem tells of a woman's distress as her husband is sent away to fight in the Russo-Japanese war. Yoshida arranged the work for violin and piano in 1953 for radio broadcast. She aimed for the closely entwined piano & violin parts in her heartfelt piece to carry the anti-war message of the poem. 

And so if I'm asked which is more important,

Our country's victory or my husband's life,

I'll look down in silence...

From 'Supplication Hundredfold' translated by I Nishida (2010)

She also published essays about sexual discrimination and the neglect of female composers, writing that the female composer needed "to depict the pain, anger, joy and sadness of females who have been neglected and oppressed in the short history of Western music in Japan, despite their abilities."


Click on the image below to find out more about the concert "On an Endless Road" touring to London, Huddersfield, Manchester and Leeds from March 5-9 and book tickets!


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