Part II - Student Years

Akira and Isao Ifukube, 1932

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 the time Akira started. 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 of 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 on the piano. 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.

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 enjoyed a steady diet of Western classical music over the years, especially since coming to Sapporo, he had never forgotten his deep affection for the Japanese and Ainu folk melodies he heard in Otofuke. This love for the native music of his homeland, coupled with the encouragement of Miura, prompted Ifukube to attempt his first original composition. Wanting to emulate Stravinsky and Falla and write in a purely original, national idiom, in 1932, at the age of 18, he fashioned an original work for solo guitar called Jin.

The strange title Jin comes from an experience Ifukube had 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 dance 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 composer-to-be and he used it as the title for his guitar piece in which he tried to imitate the music at 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 scores to Halffter in order to get a famous European composer's opinion of the music's quality. Ifukube did not make a copy of the score and sent his original draft to Halffter. Sometime after the score was sent, Halffter wrote back to say he received the package from Japan but there was only a letter; the score was gone. Very unfortunately, Ifukube's first 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, like its predecessor Jin, based on Ainu motifs. When Ifukube played Nocturne for Miura, the would-be 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 club!

Although Ifukube could now consider himself a composer, he remained committed to his stature as a violinist. By 1933 he established, with three other string players from the university orchestra, the Sapporo Philharmonic String Quartet.

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, exotic 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.

The concert was divided into four sections. The first section was devoted to the works of Japanese composers. The pianist Hayasaka, who had written several of his own compositions by this time, performed two of his original works, the Piano Sonata no. 2 and Hommage à Erik Satie. On the guitar, Isao Ifukube played Noasobu by Morishige Takei (1890 - 1949) and Matsumushi-So by Yoshie Okawara (1903 - 1935). He also interpreted his brother's Nocturne as well as one of his own compositions, Chanson japonaise.*

The second section showcased works for guitar or piano by mostly Spanish composers. The guitar works were played by Isao and included: Danza española by Enrique Granados (1867 - 1916); Recuerdo de Alhambra and Malaguena by Francisco Tarrega (1852 - 1909); Mazurka by Alexander Tansman (1897 - 1986); and Fandanguillo by Federico Moreno Torroba (1891 - 1982). Hayasaka took over for the piano pieces, which included: Serenata española by Joaquín Malats (1872 - 1912); Homenaje (pour Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy) by Manuel de Falla (1876 - 1946) and Granadina by Joaquín Nin (1897 - 1949). Granadina is scored for piano and violin; Akira performed the violin part.

The third section was comprised of two pieces arranged for guitar trio: Tambourin by Jean-Phillipe Rameau (1683 - 1764) and Saudades do Brasil by Darius Milhaud (1892 - 1974). These works were performed by the Ifukube brothers and Hayasaka.

The forth and final section featured more guitar works, again mostly Spanish, played by Isao: Peñas (Meditación) by Antonio Alba (1873 - 1940); Bolero by Julián Arcas (1832 - 1882); Romance by Emilio Pujol (1886 - 1980) and Rapsodie in fa majeur by Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806 - 1856).

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 badly for Copeland (though it is highly unlikely that Copeland would has seen this review himself), Miura, employing his skills in the English language, wrote to the pianist to praise his performances. Miura and Ifukube were pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Copeland in which he stated "You must know music very well even though you live far away on the other side of the earth." 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 retrieved as much material as he could of the piano work he started two years prior in 1931 and, using those sketches as a basis, he produced a four-movement composition entitled Piano Suite.

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 tone picture 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 première the piece in Spain as soon as he could recover from an injured heel. 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 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 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, the group staged their biggest and most ambitious concert yet...and it even had a French title: Le festival de musique contemporaine (Festival of Contemporary Music.)

The festival took place in Sapporo on September 30, 1934. Miura prepared the program, in French, and the Ifukube brothers ad Hayasaka were performers. Because of the scope and variety of the music chosen for the concert, Shin ongaku renmei had to engage two other performers, the violinist Manbu Arita and the cellist Takeshi Koiwa, to lend their talents. Even Isao was called upon to act as doube-bassist for the final work on the program.

Program for Le Festival de musique contemporaine

The complete (and large) program is reproduced here:


1. Violon et Piano


Igor Stravinksy - Prélude et Ronde des Princesses, Extrait de L'Oiseau de feu, transcr. par l'auteur*

Maurice Ravel - Chanson Italienne, Chant populaire romaine (sic), transcr. Par A. Ifukube

Darius Milhaud - Sumare, Saudades do Brasil no. 6, transcr. Par C.L. Levy

Manuel de Falla - Danze del molinero, El Sombrero de tres picos, transcr. Par A. Ifukube

Pierre-Octave Ferroud - Nonchalante, Au Parc Monceau no. 3, transcr. Par A. Ifukube (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

Erik Satie - Choses vue à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes) pour piano et violon (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

Joaquin Nin - Chants d'Espagne, transc. Par P. Kochanski

2. Quatuor à cordes

Quatuor Philharmonique de Sapporo

Louis Gruenburg - Four Indiscretions for String Quartet, Op. 20 (1924) (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

Alfredo Casella - Cinque Pezzi per due violini, viola e violoncelle (1920) (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

3. Piano Solo


Erik Satie - Trois gnossiennes, Nos 1,2 and 3 (1890) (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

Erik Satie - Les Trois valses distinguées du précieux dégoûte (sic) (1914) (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

Erik Satie - Le Réveil de la mariée, extrait de Sports et divertissements (1914) (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

4. Violon seul


Erwin Schulhoff - Sonate pour violon seul (1ère audition en (sic) Japon)

5. Sextuor avec piano

Manuel de Falla - El Amor brujo, transcr. by F. Hayasaka and A. Ifukube

* Sapporo Première

Many of the works on this program were Japanese premieres. Three of the selections were original transcriptions by Ifukube and, in the case of El Amor brujo, by Ifukube and Hayasaka. The concert was a success but Ifukube knew that his days of performing for the public would soon, more or less, come to an end. Graduation was near and he would be leaving the big city or Sapporo to embark on a life of almost complete isolation in the dense woods of eastern Hokkaido.

* 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] Godziszewski, Ed, Ifukube on Ifukube, G-Fan Magazine November/December 1995, page 31

© Erik Homenick. All rights reserved