Celebrating the unknown

Excuse me, I’ve got an enquiry…
Godzilla, as portrayed in the 1954 film, directed by Ishiro Honda.

As a music librarian, one of the major parts of my job is answering reader enquiries. They come in all sorts of ways, in happier times face-to-face, but principally via email. It may sound surprising, perhaps even counter-intuitive, but my favourite enquiries are often the ones where I know little or nothing about the subject when the enquiry comes in, and have to do a little detective work myself. I enjoy these enquiries partly because research is always fun, and I enjoy the thrill of the chase. I also love learning new things, and it’s refreshing to realise that however much you know about music, there is always plenty more to learn, with so many composers out there, previously unknown to you, just waiting for you to experience the excitement of hearing their music for the first time.

I was in this situation the other day when an enquiry came in asking if we had a book on orchestration by Akira Ifukube. The answer was simple – no, we didn’t; but finding out who did, and in which language, needed some international help and a penchant for movie monsters.

Akira Ifukube

A quick search on the internet for more information on Akira Ifukube gave me some background to the author and composer. AkiraIfukube.org provided a wealth of information on Ifukube’s early life, and is worth investigating for more in depth information.

Ifukube (1914-2006) was a Japanese composer and lecturer. Born on Hokkaido in a small village, the son of the local police chief, he spent quite a lot of his early childhood moving around the island, as his father’s job prospects improved. This brought him into close contact with the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, and he grew up listening to their folk music. His first encounter with western music was, surprisingly in the local barber shop where he heard a violin for the first time, and begged his father to buy him an instrument. Although his father eventually agreed to this, he refused to allow young Akira to have music lessons, and so he was completely self-taught listening to western music when he could, and copying the tunes on his violin.

Sinfonia Tapkaara is influenced by the music of the Ainu. Tapkaara is a dance style synonymous with the people.

In 1926, he moved to Sapporo to live with his grandmother and to attend secondary school. There, he was lucky enough to become close friends with another keen musician, who encouraged him to compose. After leaving secondary school he went to university to study Forestry, but even here music was never far away. Indeed his graduate thesis was an analysis of the acoustic and vibratory characteristics of different woods and their use in the making of musical instruments. Following graduation, he moved to a remote area of Japan, where he started his career as a forester. Alone in the woods, he composed, but with no prospect of his works being performed.

This changed when he heard about a competition organized by Russian composer, Alexander Tcherepnin. Tcherepnin loved Japan, and although currently based in Paris, he had designed a competition exclusively for Japanese composers who had written orchestral works. He had already promoted the work of other Japanese composers, so this was potentially a great opportunity for Ifukube, who entered the work he had been writing in his remote cabin – Japanese Rhapsody.

The competition entries were performed at the Japanese Embassy in Paris in December 1935. There was a prestigious panel of judges, which included renowned composers, Honegger, Tansman and Tcherepnin. Ifukube’s piece was unanimously voted the winner, much to the composer’s surprise, who was astonished to receive a celebratory telegram the day after the competition.

In 1936 Tcherepnin arrived in Japan preparing for a recital tour of the country. He met with Ifukube, and did his best to persuade the young composer’s parents that he should leave his forestry work and become a full-time musician. Ifukube’s parents remained unconvinced, despite the best efforts of Tcherepnin and his wife. Indeed, at this point, Ifukube himself was still not convinced that a musical career would be financially viable. His thoughts were to change over the next few years however as his works were published and performed in Europe and the United States, he even heard that Sibelius was a fan of his music.

By 1940, he knew it was time to move. If he stayed in the forest he would never hear the latest music, his music might stale, and so clutching his violin case, he and his family moved to Sapporo. His forestry work continued throughout the war years, alongside his music career. There was to be a decisive move into music as the war drew to an end, when Ifukube received a high dose of radiation after working with x-rays without sufficient protection. Health problems meant an end to his forestry work. What could have been a tragic ending proved to be unexpectedly fortuitous, as Ifukube’s move full-time into music coincided with the blossoming of the Japanese film industry. Although his art music was always of prime importance to him, Ifukube wrote over 250 film scores over the next 50 years, working with the major names of Japanese cinema including Akira Kurosawa. He reminds me very much of our own William Alwyn, who was similarly torn between art, commercial music, and teaching, though Ifukube seems less conflicted.

In 1954, he wrote the score for which, outside Japan, he is probably best known, the very first Godzilla film. Indeed, he not only wrote the score, he also gave the famous monster a voice, as he created its roar.

It happened to be a Japanese monster movie fan site that had first put my reader on the trail of the orchestration book, as it was mentioned here in a series of interviews with Akira Ifukube. Proof that sometimes the oddest references can yield useful results.

My reader was looking for information on Ifukube’s book Orchestration, written when he was teaching at the Tokyo University of the Arts. According to the information on the monster movie site, this extraordinary book was written in Japanese, English, French, German and Italian. It also thoughtfully included a dedication page in Russian to Ifukube’s mentor, Tcherepnin.

All I could find were a few copies in America, both of which appeared to be in Japanese only. It was time to ask my colleagues on the IAML (International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres) list for help. This swiftly arrived from Japan – it appeared that some information had been lost in translation. No, the book had never been published in multiple languages, it was only in Japanese, though it did include common musical terms in European languages; nor was it dedicated to Tcherepnin, that was another work. It did appear that outside Japan, there were only a few copies, principally in the United States. The textbook in Japan though has been very successful and is a staple of university courses. I relayed the news to my reader, who though disappointed that the book is not available in English, is now thinking of starting a Japanese course.

My IAML correspondent would have been pleased by this enthusiasm for Ifukube, as he had studied the composer at university, and was also an enthusiast. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to the music of this, hitherto unknown to me, composer. So to finish, another listening recommendation, courtesy of my Tokyo colleague. Enjoy.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to Celebrating the unknown

  1. Thanks, this is fascinating! I came across Ifukube when I was preparing Sunday concert programme for the Fitz (sadly the concert had to be caneclled because of You-Know-What), and I too was astonished at the story of his life.


    • mj263 says:

      Fantastic! Do let me know if the concert does take place eventually, as would love to hear him live (so to speak…)


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