The Japan-based Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble performs the Washington, D.C., premiere of Mai Fu Jin 35 at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium on February 24, 2010. Composer Sukeyasu Shiba is seen playing side-blown flute (ryuteki) just to the left of the red hanging drum. The visible instruments are (L–R): small gong (shoko), side-blown flute (ryuteki), hanging drum (tsuridaiko), double-reed (hichiriki), lute (biwa), small drum on stand (kakko), and two mouth organs (sho).

From Court to Concert Hall: The Origins of Classical Music in Japan

Tokyo is one of the world’s great hubs for classical music. With eight symphony orchestras, it dwarfs most North American and European cities in its enthusiasm for and pursuit of so-called “Western” music. Today, Japanese artists like Midori and Seiji Ozawa are household names in the United States; the Suzuki method is used worldwide; and for decades, the esteemed Tokyo String Quartet was a highlight of various concert series across North America and Europe. An unlikely group of artists, however, helped transform Japan into a mecca of classical music: the gagaku orchestra—an ensemble of the Emperor’s court musicians who maintained an ancient repertoire— at the heart of the most formal and archaic of Japanese musical traditions.

The instruments of the gagaku orchestra began arriving in Japan through Korea in the sixth century, along with Buddhism. A gagaku ensemble is depicted in this late seventeenth-century or early eighteenth-century Japanese painting showing the arrival of Korean Buddhism in Japan. All of the instruments seen here are part of the modern gagaku ensemble, including (L–R): a large hanging barrel drum, a mouth organ, a side-blown flute, and a double-reed instrument (or perhaps an end-blown flute).
Detail, Korean ambassadors introduce Buddhism to Japan; Japan, late 17th–early 18th century; screen panel (mounted as a hanging scroll); ink and color on paper; Gift of Laurence I. Hewes, III, in loving memory of Laurence I. Hewes, Jr. and Patricia E. Hewes; Freer Gallery of Art; F1998.308.2.

Before Japan was forcibly opened to the West and the Emperor was restored to power in the 1860s, Western music was virtually unknown in Japan. Among the multitude of changes that followed the Meiji Restoration was an influx of musicians from Germany, France, England, and the United States, who came to Japan to teach, perform, and lead ensembles of Western music. To fulfill a desire to cultivate Western music, the Meiji government established military bands in the army and navy; set up the Music Study Committee (one of several forerunners of the Tokyo University of the Arts); set a course for music instruction at all grade levels; and assigned a team of musicians within the newly centralized gagaku orchestra to learn Western instruments, notation, and repertoire.

At the time, gagaku and Western classical music couldn’t have been more different in style, aesthetics, and function. The high Romantic period of European music featured soaring melodies, emotional outbursts, brooding sentiments, massive orchestras, huge public audiences, and a cult of genius composers and virtuosic soloists. By contrast, the music of gagaku exemplified emotional restraint, sparse orchestration, an emphasis on tone qualities (timbres) quite distinct from those of the West, extremely slow or nonexistent tempos, a sophisticated philosophy of silences (ma), anonymous composers, and functions restricted to severely formalized ceremonies for high-ranking officials.

Nevertheless, the Meiji government recognized the great musical talent available in its newly centralized gagaku orchestra consisting of musicians gathered from all the family lineages and guilds that had previously controlled individual repertoires and instrumental practices. In 1870, these musicians were assembled into a new Gagaku Bureau (Gagaku Kyoku), which later became the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency—an institution that continues to this day. From 1871 to 1873, the Gagaku Kyoku was entrusted with learning the gagaku repertoire from all the former family music guilds and with publishing notated versions of all the works. They performed gagaku music for a variety of new state ceremonies, including luncheons and banquets for foreign dignitaries.

Picture of a Mercantile Establishment in Yokohama
The prominent stripes of an American flag in the upper left corner, echoed in the blue-and-white pattern of a courtesan’s robe at the far right, identify this mercantile firm as American. In the center is a geisha, a professional entertainer, who plays a shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument. An American woman holds an instrument of the violin or viol family, playing it as if it were a shamisen, with a shamisen plectrum. Picture of a Mercantile Establishment in Yokohama; Utagawa Sadahide (1807–1873); Japan, Edo period, 1861; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Gift of Daval Foundation, from the Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. William Leonhart; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S1991.152a–c.

Within a few years, the Meiji authorities realized that a second kind of “court music” was required for a rapidly expanding number of diplomatic occasions: military band music. The Japanese army and navy had already been equipped with brass bands and European directors, but a centralized ensemble was needed. Thus, about half of the seventy or so gagaku musicians were assigned to study Western music under the navy band leader, Nakamura Suketsune, and studied privately with the German leader of the army band, Franz Eckert. Their instruments arrived from Great Britain in April 1876 and a new teacher—John William Fenton, a British instructor for the navy band—was brought in to lead the ensemble. Just seven months later, this new Western assemblage of gagaku musicians gave their first public performance in November of 1876 for ceremonies surrounding the Emperor’s birthday. It was so successful that the government ordered the Gagaku Bureau to start a string orchestra.

A dark steam train bleeding fire and smoke against a cloudy gray sky.
Compositions by Beethoven, Schumann, and Debussy, like those heard on this podcast, gained rapt audiences in Japan through touring virtuosos and influential German teachers. Kyochika’s woodblock prints capture the rapid changes experienced by Japanese society in the late nineteenth century. He created this print in 1879, seven years after a rail line opened between central Tokyo and Takanawa, about four miles away. View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon; Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915); Japan, Meiji era, 1879; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Robert O. Muller Collection; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S2003.8.1179.

Along with learning and performing Western ceremonial music, these gagaku musicians also composed new music for military bands, school classrooms, and education ceremonies. They strived to create a new music that would span East and West by utilizing gagaku scales (rissen and ryosen) within otherwise Western forms of music.

While Western music was consuming more and more of the gagaku orchestra’s time, they still devoted most of each week to public rehearsals of the traditional repertoire. The Meiji authorities also provided stipends to the heads of all the former gagaku family guilds to ensure the skills and knowledge of that repertoire were passed along.

Today, the multitalented gagaku musicians of the 1870s and 1880s are credited with serving a crucial role in spreading the knowledge and appreciation of Western classical music in Japan. In the current century, a former head of the gagaku orchestra at the Imperial Household Agency, Shiba Sukeyasu, established his own gagaku ensemble to perform traditional and contemporary music for gagaku instruments and brought them to the United States, thanks to the efforts of the Music From Japan Festival in New York. Listen to their performance at the Freer Gallery in our podcasts.

For an idea of the Western music that was popular in Japan in the late nineteenth century, listen to these Freer recitals on that theme by pianist Gilles Vonsattel and violinist Mayuko Kamio.




  • LaChaud, François. “Western Music in Meiji Japan.” Program notes adapted by Michael Wilpers for concert by Gilles Vonsattel, Freer Gallery of Art, 2014.
  • Mehl, Margaret. Not by Love Alone: The Violin in Japan, 1850-2010. Copenhagen: The Sound Book Press, 2014.
  • Mehl, Margaret. “Western Art Music in Japan: A Success Story?” Nineteenth-Century Music Review 10, no. 2 (December 2013): 211–222.
  • Tsukahara, Yasuko. “State Ceremony and Music in Meiji-era Japan.” Nineteenth-Century Music Review 10, no. 2 (December 2013): 223–238.

Michael Wilpers

Michael Wilpers is the manager of performing arts at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. He oversees the museum’s chamber music series, which focuses on Asian composers and music inspired by Asia, as well as other programs that explore genres from traditional Asian music to new music, jazz, and fusions. Many of these concerts are featured in podcasts on our website, where listeners can enjoy more than one hundred high-quality audio recordings. During the museum’s closure due to COVID-19, he developed our Look & Listen series, which brings together top performers and curators to explore the intersections of art and music. He also produces concerts with studio-quality video recordings made especially for the museum. Wilpers received his master’s in music from the University of Maryland and was formerly the president of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has played a variety of music, including jazz and Indonesian gamelan, in ensembles such as a Ugandan xylophone quartet, the Washington Toho Koto Society, and the Thomas Circle Singers.

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