Takemitsu, Toru

Period: Late 20th Century

Born: Wednesday, October 8, 1930 in Tokyo, Japan

Died: Tuesday, February 20, 1996 in Tokyo, Japan

Nation of Origin: Japan

Major Works:
Wind Horse (for choir, 1961-1966)
From me flows what you call Time (for 5 percussion instruments and orchestra, 1990)

Other Information:
Quick Facts

  • Mostly self-taught but he studied with Kiyose from 1948 to 1950.
  • Connected East and West by using the biwa and the shakuhachi with the traditional western orchestra.
  • He employed the rhythms of Japanese Noh Theatre music.
  • He was very interested in timbre. He used avant-garde techniques including electronic tape. His influences included Schoenberg, Messiaen, and Schaeffer (musique concrète).
  • He was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize shortly before his death in February, 1996.
  • He composed much music for film.

Toru Takemitsu was a composer who established new bridges between east and west. Born on October 8, 1930, Takemitsu was largely self-taught. Though he studied for some time with Yasuji Kiyose (1900-1981), he later recalled: "My music is very much influenced by American radio, because after the war Japan was occupied by the American Army and they had a radio station for the American soldiers. Every afternoon they broadcasted three hours of beautiful classical music - Bruno Walter, Toscanini, or Paul Whiteman from the Hollywood Bowl. I listened to radio every day. My first teacher was the radio." (W. Breyer in conversation with Toru Takemitsu: My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener.) Takemitsu brought some of his early pieces to Kiyose for evaluation, but Kiyose mainly talked about art and did not teach his talented student anything about composing techniques. Due to lack of any supervision and "organized" classes, Takemitsu managed to develop his unique and individual style.

Takemitsu's first piece that drew attention was "Tutatsu no rento" for piano. It was first performed on a contemporary music concert in 1950. The work caught the attention of the composer Jogi Yuasa and the conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama. With them Takemitsu founded the "Jikken Kobo" group in 1951. The members of "Jikken Kobo" were interested in multimedia and modern streams in arts. This artistic group premiered much of Messiaen's music in Japan, and introduced other twentieth-century composers' music such as Béla Bartók, Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Arnold Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Samuel Barber. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Takemitsu's major interest was in electronic music and he did not pay much attention to Japanese traditional music. (Which can be easily understood having in mind recent history.) Some of the works for magnetic tape: "Static Relief" (1950), "Vocalism A.I." (1956), "Clap Vocalism" (1956) and "Tree. Sky. Bird." (1956) were written during that period.

In 1957 Takemitsu wrote a piece for string orchestra, "Requiem for Strings," that would both bring him international fame and change his interests. The piece is dedicated to his friend, composer Fumio Hayasake, and was immediately highly praised by Igor Stravinsky who heard the piece during his visit to Japan. After completing this piece, Takemitsu became aware of some dualities in life such as: life and death, individuals and others, solitude and multitude - and East and West. It was Leonard Bernstein who asked Takemitsu to write a piece to celebrate the 125th anniversary of New York Philharmonic in 1967. Bernstein had an idea of a work that would unify Western music with traditional Japanese music. "November steps" was born, a piece that established a world reputation for Takemitsu. The New York Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa first performed it on November 9, 1967. Apart from traditional orchestra, the score called for biwa (a lute-like Japanese instrument) and shakuhachi (a Japanese instrument similar to the flute).

The relationship between nature and people in Japan is truly unique. It is said that if a person from the western world sees nice flower on a meadow, he or she picks it up and takes it home. On the other hand, in Japan, people come to the meadow and enjoy the flowers there. As Takemitsu once sad: "A sound is undoubtedly a living thing. It is like nature that has no individual. As transformations of the wind or water are complicated, a sound becomes rich or even poor. That depends on how deep our sensitivities accept sound." His idea of incorporating the sounds of nature is shown in the titles of his pieces. Words such as "water," "tree," "garden," "dream," and numbers can be frequently found in his titles: "A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden" (1977, for orchestra), "Dreamtime" (1981, for orchestra), "Waves" (1976, for clarinet solo accompanied with horn, two trombones and bass drum) etc.

From 1956, Takemitsu devoted a lot of his time to film music. From 1956 till his death, he composed more than 90 scores for masterpieces of Japanese cinema like: "Woman of the Dunes" (1964, Hiroshi Teshigara), "Ran" (1985, Akira Kurosava) and "Black Rain" (1989, Shohei Imamura).

While working on his only opera, La Madrugada (The Dawn, libretto by: Barry Gifford), to be premiered in Lyon National Opera House at the end of 1998 (conducted by Kent Nagano), Takemitsu died of cancer on February 20, 1996.

Due to the lack of "proper", guided education, Takemitsu managed to develop his own style in music. His style is greatly influenced by Debussy's, Messiaen's and Webern's. Among other composers who made significant influence on Takemitsu's artistic style are: Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and Igor Stravinsky. Takemitsu was greatly influenced by his friend Cage's philosophy that music and life coexist: "I believe the existence of a stream of sounds. Sounds coexist with our life, and we don't usually recognize that. Music is always here and there. Thus, the composers' task is to curve and shape them into the form of what we call music." - T. Takemitsu. But the best picture about his composing style is given by his own words: "I don't use notes to make a composition, but collaborate with notes."
Alen Hadzovic
April 2001
Used by permission of the author

Essay contributed by:
Alen Hadzovic

General Bibliography:
Lampert, Vera; Kemp, Ian; and White, Eric Walter, The New Grove Modern Masters (The New Grove Series), W. W. Norton & Company, November 1997, ISBN: 0393315924

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186

Griffiths, Paul, Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945, Oxford University Press; 1st edition (April 11, 1996), ISBN: 0198165110

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

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Biographical essay from Wikipedia
Home Page for Toru Takemitsu

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