Reflections on an Old Japanese Folk Song

Reflections on an Old Japanese Folk Song was commissioned by the Tokyo Wind Symphony Orchestra and premiered by them, conducted by the composer in a concert dedicated to his works, in the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre Concert Hall on 26th September 2015.

It is based on the tune Suiryo-Bushi, which comes from the shamisen tradition; the shamisen is a versatile three-stringed, plucked instrument which is used in a variety of traditional ensembles and to accompany kabuki as well as solo singers, especially geisha. The melody was included in a ground-breaking 1892 publication by Y. Nagai (a military bandmaster) and K. Kobatake (a renowned saxophone player) called Collection of Japanese Popular Music. This included some of the first examples of Japanese traditional music in Western notation, with the aim of increasing its popularity outside Japan, following the country’s resumption of trade with the West in 1853. It is assumed that Puccini used this book when composing Madame Butterfly, as he uses six of its songs (including Suiryo-Bushi) in the opera.

Reflections on an Old Japanese Folk Song opens with two contrasting statements of the melody, first sparsely presented by the woodwinds and then in a harmonised version played by the full band. This is followed by a lively section with melodies based on the pentatonic scale which characterises the folk tune. Next is a slower variation, which centres around a plaintive English horn melody made up of sections of the original tune and presents the opening phrases of Suiryo-Bushi against an intensely florid accompaniment. The final section is in the form of a scherzo, which eventually forms the accompaniment to a final presentation of the folk tune.