Part II - The University Years


Akira Ifukube, 1933

In April 1932, Akira Ifukube began his studies in the Faculty of Agriculture at Hokkaido Imperial University in Sapporo; Isao had already been studying science and technology at the school by Akira's arrival. Atsushi Miura was also studying at this school.


Faculty of Agriculture, Hokkaido Imperial University.

Surely, the cosmopolitan atmosphere and diverse base of students at the university was exciting for the tall and handsome "country boy" who had grown up in the rural wilds of eastern Hokkaido. And although he was majoring in Forestry, the freshman took immediate interest in joining the school's locally well known symphony orchestra, which had been established in 1924. Ifukube auditioned to join the orchestra as a violinist and was immediately accepted. Ifukube's skills as violinist were so advanced, in fact, the he quickly became the concertmaster of the orchestra.

In October 1932, one of Isao's friends passed away due to lung complications. Isao, with his brother Akira, attended a commemorative gathering at the home of the deceased friend's mother. At this function, Akira made the acquaintance of fellow musician and music lover, also aged 18, who would eventually become one of his closest friends: Fumio Hayasaka.

Hayasaka was born on August 19, 1914 in Sendai in the eastern part of Honshu. He was born into a wealthy, art loving family and his mother played the piano. Surrounded by culture from birth, Hayasaka enjoyed painting and studying music. Due to his mother's influence, he was proficient keyboardist In 1918 the family fell on hard times and their wealth was depleted. The Hayasakas transferred to Sapporo and, in 1930, Fumio's father abandoned the family to be with his mistress. The next year, in 1931, Hayasaka's mother died leaving the 17-year old no choice but to give up his studies at the Hokkai Junior High School in Sapporo and work at a local laundry and printing company to support his younger brother and sister. [1] Despite the tremendous responsibility of having to support what was left of his family, and living in poverty, Hayasaka stayed as active as possible teaching himself music theory and playing instruments. He also aspired to be a composer. It was natural, then, that Ifukube and Hayasaka found much common ground.


Fumio Hayasaka.

Being in Sapporo afforded Ifukube a chance to travel outside of Hokkaido. Hokkaido's capital enjoyed reliable train service to the Oshima Peninsula, the southernmost branch of the island. From the peninsula one could easily travel due south by boat across the Strait of Tsugaru to Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost area of Honshu. In the summer of 1932, Ifukube and a friend, being on summer vacation, traveled to Hirosaki in southwest Aomori to observe a famous local celebration called the Nebuta festival. The purpose of this festival is to purge demons before the arrival of the fall harvest season. A primary feature of the event is a lantern-lit procession. The atmosphere of Nebuta, and certainly its distinctive music, deeply impressed Ifukube and he began thinking of writing an original piece of music based on his experiences at the festival.


The Ifukube brothers with Toshizo, Suzu and Kiwa, 1932.

Back in Sapporo, the Ifukube brothers along with Miura and Hayasaka began to frequent the bohemian NEVO café and tea house in Sapporo, which was located near that city's famous clock tower. Since it had opened in 1928, NEVO was a favorite haunt of artists, writers, actors, labor movement sympathizers and, certainly, musicians. The owner of the café played recordings of classical music while customers enjoyed their beverages and discussed the arts. The four music lovers would assemble at NEVO on Saturday nights and owner of the café often invited them to stay after closure at 10:00 PM to listen to recordings without being disturbed by the noise of the other customers. One night, the owner played a recording of the music from Claude Debussy's opera Pelléas and Mélisande (1902); this left the boys dumbstruck. They had never heard music of such marvelous originality and they left NEVO that night in silent awe.

Although Ifukube had been recently more involved in musical performance, at no point had he completely abandoned the sketches of original music that he had begun tinkering with in the year before starting his university studies. One has to imagine that the spirited, intellectual conversations at the NEVO café coupled with the inspiration that he must have gained by performing in the school's orchestra fueled his creativity like never before. Brimming with artistic energy, Ifukube finally saw some of his original material to completion. Wanting to emulate Stravinsky and write in a purely original, national idiom, Ifukube produced a piece for mezzo-soprano and piano entitled Three Songs of Autumn from the Heian Period (Heian-cho no aki ni yoseru mittsu no uta).

Ifukube had apparently been impressed by the recordings of a young Japanese soprano, Ayoko Ogino (1898 - 1944). With her specifically in mind, Ifukube was determined to write a vocal work in the hopes that Ogino would some day perform it.

Needing suitable texts for which the would-be composer could write music, Ifukube researched several short poems, known as tanka in Japanese. He seems to have been drawn to tanka that were written during Japan's Heian Period, which lasted roughly between 794 and 1185 AD and is considered to be the height of Japanese courtly life, particularly noted for the exquisite nature of its art, especially literature.

Ifukube chose three tanka, none of which have proper titles. The first selection was written by Ono no Komachi (825 - 900) and is from a collection entitled Kokin Wakashu. The second poem chosen by Ifukube was composed by Sone no Yoshitada (date of birth and death are unknown) and is sourced from the Shin Kokin Wakashu compendium The third was by Izumi Shikibu (976? - 1030) and was extracted from the Izumi Shikibu Shu anthology. There is a common thread linking these three poems: Each is a melancholic evocation of the autumn season.

Here are English translations of each of the brief poems in their entirety:

Autumn nights are long in name alone.
We meet and day has dawned before we realize it.

- Ono no Komachi

Nobody ever comes,
and the leaves have fallen, scattered about by the wind.
Night after night, the voices of the insects grow ever weaker.

- Sone no Yoshitada

The moon of the autumn night seems to reflect both my distress as well as my affection.
- Izumi Shibiku [1]

Three Songs of Autumn from the Heian Period includes each poem in one continuous work; they are not contained within separate movements. In his manuscript, Ifukube uses French to instruct that the music be played "très calme et doucement expressif," or "very calm and mildly expressive." (No doubt, it was Atsushi Miura who helped Ifukube write this.) Indeed, the music, which appears to be based on an augmented version of the Aeolian mode, is calm and moves forward at a deliberate, measured pace - it is entirely in 4/4 time - with a preponderance of even half notes and quarter notes. There is virtually no syncopation in either the vocal or piano parts; such simple writing suggests that the neophyte composer, who was a string player by experience - not a keyboardist - was cautious not to write anything that would be beyond his promising yet fledging capabilities.

Sparsely scored and unabashedly forlorn, and despite its wary modesty, Three Songs shows that young Ifukube possessed a natural talent for distilling the shadowy, austere "Japanese" mood of the three tanka and was more than capable to represent them with exotic music of taste and sincere artistic consideration.

Atsushi Miura must have been proud.

It is known that after completing Three Songs of Autumn from the Heian Period, Ifukube dedicated the score to Ayoko Ogino and sent her the music. Ogino received the score, but it is unclear whether or not the soprano ever performed it, either in private or in public. It seems that after she acquired Ifukube's one and only copy of Three Songs, it fell into a deep obscurity and was mostly forgotten - even by the composer - until it was rediscovered and publicly performed, undoubtedly for the very first time, in July 2016 at the Tokyo College of Music.*

With the completion of Three Songs, Ifukube must have felt a tremendous rush of artistic satisfaction. Emboldened and inspired by the creation of his first original musical work, in earnest he attempted a new composition, this time for an instrument that he felt more comfortable playing, the guitar. He titled the piece Jin.

The strange title Jin comes from an experience that Ifukube had while observing Ainu dancers perform a ritual around a fire pit in Sapporo. Ifukube approached one of the dancers to ask about the significance of the ceremony that he had just watched. The dancer, perhaps not knowing much Japanese, pointed to the flames and said what sounded like "jin" to the young man's ears. This mysterious word was not Japanese and, if it was Ainu, Ifukube had no idea what it meant. No matter; the cryptic utterance stuck with the budding composer and he used it as the title for this guitar piece in which he tried to imitate the music of the dance.

Miura employed his skills in the English language to communicate with famous musicians from around the world. One of his pen-friends was the Spanish composer and conductor Ernesto Halffter (1905 - 1989). Miura thought it would be a good idea to send Ifukube's Jin to Halffter in order to get a famous European composer's opinion of the music's quality. As was the case with Three Songs of Autumn, Ifukube did not prepare a second copy of the score and sent his original draft to Halffter. Sometime after the score was sent, Halffter wrote back to Miura to say that he received the package from Japan but there was only a letter; the score was gone. Very unfortunately, Ifukube's second complete effort as a composer went completely missing and so it remains to this day.

In 1933, shrugging off the loss of Jin, Ifukube again turned to composition and wrote a second solo guitar piece for the use Isao. Isao was a member of the university's mandolin club and he wanted to perform an original work for his fellow members. Thus Ifukube produced Nocturne which was, like its predecessor Jin, based on Ainu motifs. When Ifukube played Nocturne for Miura, the composer was distraught when his friend told him the piece had a "Spanish sound;" obviously, this was not Ifukube's intention. Further disappointment came when Isao finally played the work for the mandolin club. The disdainful members of the organization thought the work sounded too strange and forced Isao to leave the organization!

Although Ifukube could now consider himself a composer of sorts, he remained committed to his stature as a violinist. By 1933 he had established, with three other string players from the university orchestra, the Sapporo Philharmonic String Quartet. In this group, Ifukube took the role of first violin and was joined by his second violinist, Manabu Arita, the violist Takeshi Koiwa and the cellist Hajime Kudo.


Akira Ifukube (far left) performs with the Sapporo Philharmonic String Quartet in 1933

Ifukube also enjoyed performing with his brother Isao and with Hayasaka. With Miura's aid, the Ifukube brothers and Hayasaka formed their own ensemble and organized a public concert in at the Imai Memorial Hall on October 8, 1933.

Their intention with this event was to introduce the modern music that they loved so much to a mostly unaware public. Also, this was the chance for the burgeoning composers of the group to have their own music performed in front of a large audience for the first time. The Ifukubes and Hayasaka were to act as the performers and Miura wrote the program notes. This list of works performed is reproduced below.


Sample from the 1933 Ifukube / Hayasaka concert program.

Each work received its Japanese première at this concert, which was, without doubt, an amazing accomplishment for the young, ambitious organizers.


Isao and Akira Ifukube

Soon after their successful concert, Ifukube and Miura happened upon a new recording of Spanish piano music recorded by George Copeland (1882 - 1971) on the Victor label. Copeland, a native of Boston, was an American piano virtuoso who was living at the time in Palma on the Spanish island of Mallorca. An expert in French and Spanish piano music, Copeland was a close friend of Claude Debussy, whose music he championed.


George Copeland.

Ifukube and Miura were exceedingly impressed by Copeland's interpretations of Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados and, of course, Manuel de Falla on this album, but they were shocked when a Japanese music magazine gave the recording a bad review. Feeling bad for Copeland (though it is highly unlikely that Copeland would have seen this review himself), Miura, employing his skills in English, wrote to the pianist to praise his performances. Miura and Ifukube were pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Copeland in which he declared his amazement that two young people from the opposite side of the globe had such an acute knowledge of music. Copeland also asked Miura if he knew of any Japanese composers whose works he could perform. Miura sent a response saying that he personally knew a composer named Akira Ifukube. Miura also explained to the pianist that if he were interested, one of Ifukube's piano scores could be sent. In Copeland's response letter, he expressed his interest in receiving the score.

Prompted by Miura, whom Ifukube now jokingly referred to as Mephistopheles***, Ifukube revisited the sketches of a solo piano work that he had begun around the same time as Three Songs of Autumn. Using this material as a foundation and adding to it new material inspired by the music that he had heard on his Aomori excursion the previous year, Ifukube produced a four-movement keyboard composition entitled Piano Suite (Piano kumikokyu). With this work, Ifukube sought to express, through tone pictures, the mood and sounds of Japanese festivals.

The first movement of Piano Suite is titled Bon Odori (Allegro energico). The music is based on the composer's impressions of the music that accompanies the Bon odori, or Bon dance, that is commonly performed during the annual Bon Festival. Usually starting around the 15th of August and lasting three days, the festival, with its origins in Buddhist tradition, honors the spirits of the deceased.

The second movement is titled Tanabata, Fête of Vega (Lento tranquillo). Tanabata is star festival that was introduced to Japan from China in 755. During this event, people write wishes or poetry on small pieces of paper and hang them on bamboo trees. After the festival, the bamboo and decorations are often set afloat on a river or burned.

The third movement is titled Nagashi, Profane Minstrel (Quasi burlesco). The music is a portrait of a nagashi, or a homeless street performer.

The fourth and final movement is titled Nebuta, Festal Ballade (Marciale pesante). In this final portion of the suite, Ifukube recalls his journey to Aomori the previous year to see the Nebuta festival firsthand.

Ifukube dedicated the work to George Copeland and, in early 1934, the score was sent to the pianist

Copeland responded to Miura and Ifukube with praise for Piano Suite. The pianist promised that he would premiere the piece in Spain as soon as he could recover from an injured heel. However, whether or not Copeland publicly performed Piano Suite is not known; Spain had been in political turmoil for several years by the time Ifukube and Miura had begun to communicate with Copeland and, likely due to this, mail service from Spain had become less reliable. Ifukube and Miura never heard back from Copeland and the Spanish Civil would eventually break out in 1936.

Piano Suite in an earthy, roughhewn work. Technically difficult, one gets the impression that Ifukube was trying to write an orchestral piece for piano as opposed to a piano piece for piano; it often eschews elegance for impact with its youthful grandiosity and dense, often opaque tones and textures. It also exhibits features that would become hallmarks of Ifukube's compositional style: a preference for pentatonic scales and oriental-tinged modes in place of occidental hepatonic (major and minor) scales; facile tunefulness; sharply contrasting passages of serenity and bombast; highly distinct rhythmic drive even in slow sections and, most certainly, the frequently relentless repetition of motifs, themes and rhythmic patterns. In musical terms, this type of repetitiveness is known as ostinato.

Ifukube's propensity for ostinato stemmed from his appreciation and fascination for the primal music of the Ainu, which itself is characterized by tirelessly repetitive melodies and rhythms. That Ifukube would have so deeply absorbed and deftly reproduced this aesthetic in his own music seems quite natural as he was exposed to ostinato early and often in his development as a musician. Truly, it was one of the first things that he learned.

Not wanting to make the same mistake that he made with Jin, Ifukube was sure to retain his own copy of Piano Suite. Because he had lost contact with Copeland and because of the local unavailability of pianists adept enough to perform the unruly score, he temporarily shelved the Piano Suite and turned his attention back to violin performance.

If the alliance of the Ifukube brothers, Hayasaka and Miura had not been considered an "official" organization, this changed in 1934. The four dubbed themselves the Shin ongaku renmei (New Music League) and the mission of their new cooperative was the promotion and performance of modern music, as well as the composition of their own.

The first major performance arranged by the Shin ongaku renmei was a first for the group: a radio performance. On September 8, 1934 at 8:00 PM, Japan's national broadcast service, NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) aired a solo guitar recital by Isao. He performed six works including music by Falla and his associate Hayasaka. Later that month, on a public relations roll, the group staged their biggest and most ambitious concert yet...and it even had a cosmopolitan-sounding French title: Le festival de musique contemporaine (The Festival of Contemporary Music.)

The festival took place in Sapporo on September 30, 1934 at the Imai Memorial Hall. Miura prepared the program, in French, and the Ifukube brothers with Hayasaka were the principal performers. The other members of the Sapporo Philharmonic String Quartet, Manabu Arita, Takeshi Koiwa and Hajime Kudo, also had their moments in the spotlight: with Akira, they performed two string quartets and, to close out the festival, the combined group of musicians played an original arrangement of selections from Manuel de Falla's El Amor brujo, with Isao on the contrabass.

The wide-ranging program is reproduced below.


Program cover for Le Festival de musique contemporaine.
Image courtesy of Tohru Ifukube.


Samples from the 1934 Ifukube / Hayasaka concert program.

The concert was a success but Ifukube knew that his days of performing for the public would soon come to an end. Graduation was near and he would be leaving the big city of Sapporo to embark on a life of almost complete isolation in the dense woods of eastern Hokkaido.


* Three Songs of Autumn from the Heian Period, as mentioned, fell into obscurity after it was written. Ayoko Ogino died roughly twelve years after receiving the score and, subsequent to her passing, her belongings went into storage. In the decades after its composition, Akira Ifukube virtually never spoke of Three Songs. Its title would occasionally be mentioned in Japanese texts about Ifukube, but nothing was known about it except its title. During Ifukube's lifetime, and in the decade after his death in 2006, Three Songs was never included on lists of his compositions. Even other lost works such as Jin (1932) and Nocturne (1933) would be included on such lists. Around 2013, the score was surreptitiously discovered in Hagino's belongings. It was handed over to Rei Ifukube, the composer's eldest daughter. Finally, in July 2016, what had to have been the premiere public performance of Three Songs took place at the Tokyo College of Music in Ikebukuro, the institution where Ifukube was once the president. I was present at this performance as was Rei Ifukube.

** Today, both Nocturne and Chanson japonaise are considered lost works. It is not clear when or how they went missing.

*** Mephistopheles is a demon in German folklore made famous in the play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832). In the play, Dr. Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles in return for unlimited knowledge and success.


[1] Katayama, Morihide, liner notes for Fumio Hayasaka, Naxos Records, 2006
[2] I wish to thank Shogo Yamaguchi for supplying information about this piece and for his poetry translations.



© Erik Homenick. All rights reserved.