Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

April 2, 2012

Miyagi Michio (Musician)

Miyagi Michio (1894 – 1956; 宮城道雄) was a Japanese musician and famous koto player. The koto is a stringed instrument, made of paulownia wood, 6 feet long, usually with 13 strings, somewhat like a zither, but played by plucking the strings with the fingers. It could well be called the national instrument of Japan. The koto goes back to the Chinese zheng and was already introduced into Japan in the 7th or 8th century.

Miyagi Michio was born in Kobe, where he was exposed to Western music. He lost his eye sight in 1902, when he was 8 years old, and that was the time it was decided that he would become a full-time professional koto player. He studied under Ikuta School Master Nakajima Kengyo II. In 1909, he wrote his first composition, Mizu no Hentai and at age 18, in 1913, he became kengyo, the highest rank for a koto player.

He spent part of his youth with his family in Korea, but moved back to Tokyo in 1917. Two years later he gave the first recital featuring his own compositions. This led to a successful career as composer and as concert and recording artist (Miyagi had an exclusive contract with JVC and his recordings were also sold outside of Japan).

Miyagi Michio composed in a style that fused elements from Western art music with the Japanese tradition. He also crossed cultures in the sense that he made the traditional koto into a modern concert instrument.  In these efforts he was supported by shakuhachi master Yoshida Seifu (1891-1950), who often played together with him in traditional ensembles.

Miyagi's style was modern for the time. Most works are for the koto and other Japanese instruments, although occasionally Western instruments are used as well (in the nineteen thirties he played together with a famous French violinist, Renee Chemet). Miyagi also invented larger types of koto (such as the seventeen-stringed koto) to give expression to his orchestral flights of fantasy.

Among his more than 500 compositions, his most famous piece is Haru no Umi, "Spring Sea," composed in 1929. In 1930 he became lecturer at what is now the Tokyo University of Arts (Geidai), and in 1937 professor.

Michio was increasingly sought after as performing artist in the years after the war. In 1948, he was appointed to the Academy of Arts of Japan. Miyagi was also active as an essayist - he was a good friend of the writer Uchida Hyakken. In 1956, while on a concert tour, he died after a tragic fall from a train.

In Tokyo stands the Miyagi Michio Museum.


Most important works:
  • Mizu no Hentai ("Transformations of Water," 1908)
    Series of six songs in Jiuta style about mist, clouds, rain, snow, hail and dew. In the Tegoto, the instrumental interlude after songs two and five, the koto mimics rain and hail.  For 2 koto and singer.
  • Ochiba no odori ("Dance of Falling Leaves," 1921)
    First piece for the 17-string koto (with shamisen). Autumn leaves falling down in the garden. The 17 string koto has a wider range especially among the lower tones.
  • Sakura Hensokyoku ("Variations on Sakura," 1923)
    Trio for two ordinary koto and a 17-string koto. Variations on the famous "Sakura, sakura" melody, in 8 parts.
  • Seoto (”Rippling waves," 1923)
    A visit to the Tone River near Maebashi suggested this piece to Miyagi. For ordinary koto and 17 string koto.
  • Haru no Umi ("The Sea in Spring," 1929)
    Representative piece of modern Japanese music. For koto and shakuhachi. Meant to evoke a trip over the Inland Sea near Tomonoura: the sound of the waves, seagulls, etc.
  • Kazoe-uta Hensokyoku ("Variations on Kazoe-uta," 1940)
    Variations on the popular song "Kazoe-uta," in 8 parts and for single koto.
  • Sarashifu Tegoto ("Instrumental Interlude in "Sarashi" Style," 1952)
    Follows the pattern of the well-known Jiuta "Sarashi." For a duo of koto's, one in the high and one in the low register.
Miyagi Micho website (Japanese)