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April 20, 2012

Akutagawa Yasushi (composer)

Akutagawa Yasushi (1925-1989; 芥川也寸志) was a Japanese composer and conductor - and the son of the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It is said that his love of music originated in a Stravinsky record left by his father (who died by his own hand in 1927). Akutagawa Yasushi was born in Tokyo and studied with Ifukube Akira and Hashimoto Kunihiko at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music (now Geidai). He graduated in 1949. In 1953, as a young composer he formed a group, the Sannin no kai ("The Group of Three"), with  Mayuzumi Toshiro and Dan Ikuma.

Akutagawa was interested in Soviet music, and in 1954 he took the drastic step of traveling to the Soviet Union to meet Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Kabalevsky - although Japan at that time had no diplomatic relationship with the S.U. He also had his own works performed and published in the S.U. The return trip to Japan was via China and Hong Kong.

That Akutagawa was influenced by Shostakovich appears for example from his Music for Symphony Orchestra (1950). Other influences were Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Ifukube.

As a conductor Akutagawa was active in introducing composers as Shostakovich to Japan. He only seldom played his own compositions. As an educator, he devoted himself to train an amateur orchestra, Shin Kokyo Gakudan ("The New Symphony Orchestra"), which he established in 1956. He also served as Chairman of the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers.

In 1957 he visited Europe and India. A visit to the Ellora Caves led to his composing the Ellora Symphony (1958).

From 1977-1984 Akutagawa presented a musical program "Ongaku no Hiroba" ("Musical Square") on NHK TV together with Kuroyanagi Tetsuko.

Almost one year after Akutagawa died, in 1990, the Akutagawa composition award was established in his memory.

Akutagawa's compositions are mostly festive and optimistic. He was not only a symphonic composer, but also wrote vocal and instrumental works. Akutagawa was also active as a writer on music.

Some of his best works:
  • Trinita sinfonica for orchestra (1948)
    Strong early work, very rhythmic (Akutagawa had learned from Ifukube's use of ostinato's!). Three parts: Capriccio (allegro) - Ninnerella (andante) - Finale (allegro vivace).
  • Musica per orchestra sinfonica (Music for Symphony Orchestra) (1950)
    His breakthrough work, won NHK prize. Two parts: Andantino (ABA) and Allegro (Rondo).  
  • Triptyque for string orchestra (1953) 
    Again a work that reminds one of Shostakovitch. Performed in New York's Carnegie Hall under conductor Kurt Wöss. Also popular in the S.U. Three parts: allegro - Berceuse (andante) - presto.
  • Prima sinfonia (Symphony No.1) (1954/55)
    Also the first symphony stands strongly under the influence of Shostakovitch and Prokofiev.
  • Ellora Symphony (1958) 
    Primitivistic symphony in the style of Ifukube's Sinfonia Tapkaara. Structured as a sequence of 15 segments. One of Akutagawa's most "experimental" works. 
  • Concerto ostinato for violoncello and orchestra (1969) 
    As a rather somber work, an exception among Akutagawa's compositions. 
Akutagawa also wrote film music, for example for Kinugasa's Gate of Hell, Ichikawa's Nobi and Yukinojohenge, etc. Interesting in this respect is also his Ballad on a Theme of Godzilla for orchestra (1988), which was dedicated to Godzilla-composer and mentor Ifukube.

My top three consists of: (1) Trinita sinfonica for orchestra & Musica per orchestra sinfonica (a shared first place), (2) the Ellora Symphony and (3) Triptyque for string orchestra.

Related Posts about other Japanese composers and musicians: