Pre World War II Recordings

Koto Music


Although I spent a long time in Japan, I did actually little recording there. Commercial recordings of much of the music that drew my interest were readily available. Making private recordings in a country where everyone had experience with records and radio made the possibility very expensive .I did at various times however come across rare and valuable old recordings.

Before I embarked on my study of Gagaku, my real purpose for being in Japan in the late 50s, I had been a student of the Yamada Ryu koto. While in Japan I expected to find a treasure trove of old koto recordings but to my disappointment I learned that most had been lost in the war. Upon my return to the US in 1960, I sought out my former koto teacher in San Francisco, Madame Haru Suwada, and asked to borrow her collection of old 78s of koto music. These were real gems that she had with her all during the years of internment during the war and contained recordings of many of the great masters of the Japanese koto tradition, both Yamada Ryu and Ikuta Ryu.

I shall gradually add to this collection as I process the recordings.
1. Nebiki no Matsu 根曳の松

The Pine Seedlings, composed by Mitsuhashi Koto (who flourished around 1801-30).In the early days of the New Year it was auspicious to dig up pine seedlings to ensure longevity and happiness.
Koto: Imai Keisho 今井 慶松

2. Chidori no Kyoku 千鳥の曲

The Sea Plovers. An early 19th C. composition by Yoshizawa Kengyo. This is composed in the Kokin (old and new) Gumi style and uses a tuning for the koto in which one tetrachord in tuned in the manner of the of the old court music, Gagaku. The song describes the call of the sea Plovers as they fly to Awaji Island in the Inland Sea. Yoshida Seifu was well known for his collarborations with the koto player Miyagi Michio with whom recorded a number of new compositions for koto and shukahachi composed by Miyagi in a new semi Westernized idion. The most famous of these was Haru no Umi, The Sea in Spring.

In the mid 1920s Yoshida toured the US under sponsorship of the Japanese Government where they performed in many cities in part as a gesture of thanks American support after the devastating Tokyo Earthquake of 1923.

Koto and Shakuahchi played by Yoshida Seifu 吉田 晴風,shakuhachi with his wife, Kyoko

3. Kogo no Kyoku 小督の曲


Another of the important Yamada Ryu compositions, one of the four great compositions by the Master Yamada Kengyo. This quintiessential performance is again recorded here by the same group of leading performers of the Yamada school as in Matsukaze, above. The text is drawn from the Heike Monogatari and descibes an incident in which one of the Emperor's favorites is homesick and which to return home for a visit. She is given permission to return but soon the Emperor is saddened by her absence and a courtier goes to the countryside to find her. Hearing the sound of someone playing the court composition, "sofuren" on the koto, he joins in on the flute and thus finds the lady and returns her to the court.
Koto: Imai Keisho 今井 慶松
2nd koto: Imai Keiko 今井慶子(Later Nakanoshima Keiko)
Sangen: Nakanoshima Kin'ichi 中能島 欣一
Shakuhachi: Notomi Juro 納富 寿童

4. Shiki no Nagame 四季の眺 Viewing the Four Seasons. Composed in the early 19th C by Matsuura Kengyo as a Shamisen Jiuta piece and then later arranged for koto and shamisen. This appears to be an older recording, perhaps the early 1930s if not the late 1920s. Only the koto player's surname, Sato, is deciferable. Only one section of the piece, perhaps, the last song, is recorded here. shiki.mp3
5. An Unknown Ji-uta composition Regretably, I no longer have access to the original 78 recordings from which these copies were made. The title of this composition was unrocognizable or lost. If any one knows the title I shall be happy to correct this. ju-uta.mp3
6.Sakuragawa 桜川 The Sakura River. Composed by Mitsuzaki Kengyo in the early 19th. Mitsuzaki was also famous for other compositions, such as Godan Kinuta, Nanakomachi and Akikaze no Kyoku (Autumn Wind) for which he was eventually banned from the guild of blind musicians for composing a kumiuta (song-suite) after a ban on further compositions in this form had been decreed. Unfortunately, Akikaze no Kyoku was not among the recordings in this collection, although later recordings do exist.
Koto: Nakajima 中島
7. Nana Komachi 七小町 Seven Tales of Komachi. Another composition of Mitsuzaki Kengyo, considered one of his best and a difficult peice to perform, Nana Komachi takes seven episodes from the live of the famous and beautiful courtesan, Komachi. In her prime she was said to be cold and ruthless with those who sought her out, only to be remorseful and filled with sorrow in later life.
Shakuhachi: Notomi Juro 納富 寿童
8. Haru no Kyoku 春の曲

"Composition of Spring", composed by Yoshizawa Kengyo of Nagoya, who also composed Chidori no Kyoku(above).
Koto: Hagiwara 萩原 Koyo
Shakuhachi: Ohashi 大橋

9. Shin Musume Dojoji

A composition by Ishikawa Kodo(fl. 1820) , also known as kanegamisaki, adopted from the Nagauta composition, Dojoji.
Koto: Miyagi Michio 宮城道男
Shakuhachi: Yoshida Seifu 吉田晴風

10. Matsukaze 松風 (the wind in the pine trees) Composed by Nakanoshima Kengyo (1838-1894) and was dedicated to a young noblewoman who had suddenly become widowed. She was given an excellent koto as a gift for consolation. The koto was named Matsukaze, the wind in the pines. Nakanoshima composed this piece for her. The text has been translated by Gen'ichi Tsuge and appears on this website:


The composition is an excellent example of Yamada Ryu composition and includes, toward the end of the piece a section called "gaku" which imitates the sound of Gagaku, Japanese court music. The recording probably made in the early or mid 1930s include performers who are all very famous .
Koto: Imai Keisho 今井 慶松
2nd koto: Imai Keiko 今井慶子(Later Nakanoshima Keiko)
Sangen: Nakanoshima Kin'ichi 中能島 欣一
Shakuhachi: Notomi Juro 納富 寿童
Matsukaze mp3
11. Haru no Yo 春の夜 (Spring Night) Composed in 1913 by Miyagi Michio in a modern style but using the tegotomono form. This composition precedes later modern koto compositions like Haru no Umi(the Sea in Spring). Miyagi was attempting to create a new modern style for koto music that reflected a taste of Western music, for which he seems to have drawn both on French 20th Century music as well as some forays into Chopin. Haru no Yo is an earlier work still firmly in the tegoto form, opening song, instrumental interlude, and final song.
Koto: Miyagi Michio 宮城道男
Shakuhachi: Yoshida Seifu 吉田晴風
Haru no Yo Mp3
12. Kaede no Hana 楓の花 (Flower of the Maple Tree) Ikuta Ryu composition by Ozaki 尾崎宍夫 from the early Meiji era.
Koto: Hagiwara 萩原 and unknown Shakuahchi.
Kaede-no-Hana mp3
13. Chanoyu Ondo 茶の湯音頭

Music for the Tea Ceremony. An early 19th Century compostion for and about the Tea Ceremony. There are four 78 sides to this recording.
Koto: Fukuda Kiku
Sangen: Kawada
Shakuhachi: Araki Kodo IV

14. Sakuragari 桜狩

Viewing (Hunting) Cherrry Blossoms, by Yamada Kengyo (1757-1817). Considered on of the most brilliant of the compositions by the founder of the Yamada Ryu, this compostion features powerful instrumental sections. The text written by a princess of the Tokugawa period descibes a pleasant outing to view the cherry blossoms.
Koto: Hagioka Shoin 萩岡松韻
Sangen: Horii

15. Rokudan 六段

Six steps, or sections, the famous koto composition attributed to Yatsuhashi Kengyo, the early 17th century founder of the first and basic tradition of secular koto playing. It is here performed completely by koto, sangen and shakuhachi.
Koto: Fukuda Kiku
Sangen: Kawada
Shakuhachi: Araki Kodo IV 四世 荒木 古童

16. Shochikubai 松竹梅 Pine, bamboo and plum, symbols of happiness and good luck. This composition has three songs, the first devoted to the plum, the second to the pine and the last to the bamboo.
Koto: Ito, Shamisen: Kikumori, Shakuhachi: Kitahara
17. Zangetsu 残月 The Waning Moon. Originally composed in memory of a young student who died, this composition from the late 18th century compsed by Minezaki Koto is often played at memorials.|
Koto: Fukuda Kiku, Shamisen(sangen) Kawada, Shakuhachi: Araki Kodo IV 四世 荒木 古童
18. Sue no Chigiri 末の契

Eternal Fidelity. An early 19th Century Jiuta compostion in the tegoto mono form, a short opening song, followed by an instrumental interlude and the a closing song.
Shamisen and Shakuhachi. Yoshida Seifu 吉田 晴,shakuhachi



The period just preceding World War II was a one of the optimum periods for the music department of the Japanese Imperial Household agency. This had nothing to do with the coming war, but simply that the number of musicians at that period was just enough so that the chief court musician could choose the best ones for performances. During the war about half of the men who was conscripted perished and the total number was reduced to about 24 at which number it has pretty much remained since then.

Sometime in the late 1930's the court musicians were recorded and although the number of recordings was small they represent an ideal in performance quality. There is only one each of the wind instruments and one each of the string players. But the players were among the best even by today's standards


  gagaku-in-recording-studio Imperial Palace Music Department musicians in a recording studio: from the left, Hayashi Tamio, Togi Masataro, Oku Kigan, Abe Sueyoshi, unknown, Shiba Sukehiro, Sono Hiroshige, unknown. Date unknown.
1. Kimigayo 君が代 National Anthem of Japan Although the National Anthem of Japan is somewhat know beyond Japan, few know, even in Japan, that it was in origin a composition in the Gagaku style. It was in fact composed by one of the court musicians, Hayashi Hiromori as part of a large collections of song written by the Imperial court musicians for the newly established public education system at the beginning of the Meiji period. This beautiful collection of songs was eventually abandoned in favor of a Western music system for the public schools. A few of the songs remained and this one eventually became the National Anthem. Heard performed in the Gagaku style as it was originally conceived is powerful.
A page from the original collection of public education song, Kyoiku Shoka, 教育昌歌 showing the original version of Kimigayo.
2. Sai-O-Raku 西王楽, The music of the Western King In order to accommodate the entire piece, two 78 side were devoted to this composition. It is in Oshiki-cho and includes an excellent ryuteki (flute) performance by Oku Kigan, who shortly afterwards, left service in the palace to play the Western flute in a radio station orchestra. He may have been happier getting a better salary, but it was a great loss to the Imperial Palace Orchestra. saioraku.mp3
3. Koromogae 更衣 Changing Robes This is a composition in the Saibara form, one of the two vocal forms in the Gagaku repertoire outside the various types of Shinto forms performed by the court musicians. There are only two Saibara regularly performed by the court musicians, Koromogae and Ise no Umi. While the tradition of wind and percussion playing and the dance were entrusted to the hereditary court musicians during the long period from the end of the Heian period until the beginning of the Meiji era, the performances of the string instruments, koto and biwa and the vocal forms, Roei and Saibara became the purview of the court nobles. These noble families did their best to hang on to the traditions of the court life during the long period under they were asked to pass this responsibility onto the court musicians. In the interim much was lost and while we know that there were hundreds of saibara for example performed during the Heian Period, only two survived in a form that the court musicians felt was intact enough to allow performance.
This recording covers two 78 sides.
4. Somakusha 蘇莫者 This is a kangen (instrumental) version of a dance piece. Somakusha represents a monkey who comes down from the mountains to dance to the flue playing of Shotoku Taishi. In the dance performance one of the musicians stands on stage and plays the flute while the dance goes on. In this faster section of the dance the the rhythm pattern is in tada byoshi, a pattern of six beats divided, 2 plus 4. somakusha.mp3
5. Bairo (tessen) 陪艫 Bairo is a composition which is often performed as dance, but in kangen instrumental form as well. In this case the recording has the word tessen, in addition to the title, meaning the removal of the gifts in the Shinto ceremony. The performance appears to be identical to the Bugaku (dance) version of Bairo. I found this recording, a old 78, in the library of the Imperial Household Music Department. I cannot remember exactly now, almost 50 years later, but the label as I recall was not an ordinary commercial 78 but was printed on a white label. It may be that it was perhaps intended for use by Shinto shrines for the part of the ceremony when the offerings are removed from the altar. In any case the performance is by the court musicians of the Imperial Palace. bairo-tessen.mp3
6. K'onju 故飲酒 This compostion in the Choshi or tuning, Ichikotsu-cho and is preceded by the playing of the Ichikotsu-cho netori, a short worm -up piece for all compositions in that choshi. K'onju, the Barbarian Drinks Wine, is also a dance piece and is said to depict a barbarian from perhaps Central Asia enjoying wine. konju.mp3

Very Old Gagaku Recordings

  These recording were made with the acoustic rather than the later electronic system. They were probably made in 1927 or 28. I have only my memory to rely on now. I obtained copies of these in 1959 and I recall being told that they were recorded in the late 1920s. Hearing them now the performances sound beautiful and steady, but when I heard them in the late 1950s for the first time, they seemed painfully loose and almost disorganized. I can also remember that when I first played these for the younger court musicians in the late 50's they thought the recordings had been made by some shrine musicians in some remote part of Japan. They were shocked and could not believe that the recordings were made by their own grandfathers even after I showed them the labels with the names of the musicians on it.
Many of the recordings show speed deviations which affect the correct pitch. In an effort to leave these recordings pretty much as is, I have not adjusted the speed/pitch of these originals.
1. Ryo-O 陵王 A kangen (winds and strings) performance of the piece Ryoo,the Prince of Lan-Ling. Because of the restrictions of the recording time the ending was truncated in the original. In two parts. ryoo.mp3
2. Bato 抜頭 A kangen performance of Bato. Said to be one of the compostions that was originally of South East Asian origin. Although such an idea is difficult to substantiate, Bato, along with a few other compositions show distinctive qualities the separate them from the bulk of the main repertoire. One such distinction is that the composition is in a rhythmic pattern of six beats rather then the more usual 4 or 8 beats. bato.mp3
3. Niwabi 庭燎 The song Niwabi is the first song in the sacred Mikagura cycle. It is performed here by only two musicians, one singer and one wagon player. The wagon is a six string zither used ofr most of the court Shinto related music. Three sides are devoted to the recording. niwabi.mp3
4. Etenraku 越天楽 Etenraku in hyojo is perhaps the most often heard composition in the entire Gagaku repertoire. Hearing this oldest recorded version of it helps to make clearer the defference between it and all later performances. The entrances of each player at the beginning at the playing of the tomede, ending formula, show a freer looser style of playing. Hearing this now I can understand the disbelief of the younger musicians of the 50s. At the same time from this perspective I also hear something rather refreshing in this older and freer, perhaps more expressive style. etenraku.mp3

5. Gakkaen


Part of the Taikyoku suite in Taishiki-cho. Two parts gakkaen.mp3
6. Choshi-Hyojo 平調調子 Choshi are the longer more complex forms of opening preludes played in each ofthe six main Gagaku tunings, or modes (choshi is the word for both this form and for the modes themselves). choshi-hyojo.mp3
7. Ichoshi 意調子 The prelude composition used for the Komagaku repertoire. ichoshi.mp3
8. K'onju 故飲酒 This performance of K'onju, the Barbarian Drinking Wine, compares with the later recording presented above. konju.mp3



Some further information on Gagaku

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Robert Garfias

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