The Legacy of Western Music in Meiji Japan – Gilles Vonsattel

Enjoy the Romantic music that so entranced Japan in the late nineteenth century with this recital by the acclaimed Swiss-born pianist Gilles Vonsattel, whose 2011 CD was named a classical album of the year by Time Out New York. Beethoven’s beloved “Moonlight” Sonata and Bagatelles are played alongside works by Liszt and Schumann. The podcast concludes with Debussy’s atmospheric Images, Books I and II, compositions that were directly inspired by Japanese prints. This concert took place in conjunction with the 2014 exhibition, Kyochika: Master of the Night.


Bagatelles, op. 126 (1823‒24)
Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Andante con moto, cantabile e compiacevole
  • Allegro
  • Andante. Cantabile e grazioso
  • Presto
  • Quasi allegretto
  • Presto—Andante amabile e con moto

Time: 0:00‒17:05

Sonata in C-sharp Minor, op. 27, no. 2, “Moonlight” (1801)

  • Adagio sostenuto—Allegretto—Presto agitato

Time: 17:24‒32:27

Pensée des Morts
From Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, S. 173, no. 4 (1833‒34/1848‒53)
Franz Liszt

Time: 32:47‒57:35

Arabeske in C Major, op. 18 (1839)
Robert Schumann

Time: 57:52‒1:04:10

Images, Book I (1903‒1905)
Claude Debussy

  • Reflets dans l’eau
  • Hommage à Rameau
  • Mouvement
  • Images, Book II (1907)
  • Cloches à travers les feuilles
  • Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut
  • Poissons d’or

Time: 1:04:25‒1:39:00


Western Music in Meiji Japan

This performance was the second of two concerts exploring the European music that the Japanese so enthusiastically embraced after their country’s opening to the West in 1854. With the push toward modernization that marked the Meiji era (1868‒1912), Compositions by Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, followed by Bach, Chopin, and Debussy, became staples of the concert scene in Japan. These composers and their works influenced the circle of artists and writers associated with the artist Kobayashi Kyochika (1847–1915). His woodcut prints of Japan in the midst of modernization were the subject of the Sackler exhibition Kyochika: Master of the Night, on view March 29 through July 27, 2014.

Western classical music in Meiji Japan has a fascinating history. Philip Franz Balthasar von Siebold (1796−1866) likely introduced the first piano heard by the Japanese. The Japanese were manufacturing their own pianos and other Western instruments as early as 1875. Four years later, in 1879, the government created the Music Study Committee, which was devoted to Western music. The Committee adopted the German model of music instruction when it decided that the ability of Japanese students to read Western music notation was of paramount importance. The Music Study Committee later led to the establishment of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

Thirty-two catalogues of extant scores, mostly of German Romantic music and songs for mission schools, have survived from the Meiji era. The most popular composer in Japan at the time (and still today) was Beethoven. Other favorites were Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, and later Bach. In the Meiji era, a music recital would have typically included short pieces by German composers as well as by Debussy. By 1900 Japanese audiences in urban centers could easily hear (and even perform) works by Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, Schubert, and other European composers. Some music teachers, such as Rudolf Dittrich (1861−1919) from Austria, were inspired by the woodblock prints of Hiroshige and created short musical pieces about famous landscapes. The illustrious German teacher Frantz Eckert (1852−1916) taught composition and harmony, wrote military marches, and composed Japan’s national anthem as part of this effort to bring Western music to Japan.

The first concert piano made in Japan (using parts from Germany) was manufactured in 1900 by Yamaha Torakusu (1851−1916), the founder of the Yamaha Corporation. Violins were first manufactured by Suzuki Masakichi that same year. Japan’s embrace of Chopin started with pianist Guillaume Sauvlet, who taught in Italy before he was recruited as an advisor to the Music Study Committee. One of his students was pianist Kōda Nobu (1870−1946), who played the entire Chopin Nocturnes in concert. (Her sister was a virtuoso violinist.) The first Chopin concert took place on July 20, 1885, and was performed by graduating students of the Music Study Committee.

After the turn of the century, works by Chopin were played at home, at graduation concerts, and at professional recitals. His popularity was probably due to the emergence of a golden generation of Japanese pianists that included Sawada Ryūkichi (1886−1936), Kuno Hisa (1886−1925), and Ogura Sue (1891−1944). In the 129 printed concert programs that survive from the Meiji era, the single most popular piece was Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp Major, with his Nocturnes and Preludes not far behind. Japanese scholars have also documented that Meiji Japan experienced a Wagner boom. Many intellectuals considered themselves “Wagnerites,” including Nagai Kafū (1879−1959), Ishikawa Takuboku, and Kitahara Hakushū.

A century later, the lasting extent of Japan’s embrace of Western music is evident in the eight professional orchestras that still perform regularly in Tokyo at the Bunkamura, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space, Cultural Hall, Suntory Hall, Orchard Hall, Sumida Hall, and NHK Hall. In addition, nearly all high school students can read music today, thanks to requirements put in place by Meiji rulers.

—Adapted from notes by François LaChaud

Bagatelles, op. 126
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770‒1827)
The opus 126 Bagatelles date from the winter of 1823‒24, the time when Beethoven was just completing two of the most monumental projects of his life: the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Both were premiered the following spring. In contrast to those major compositions, which took months or even years to complete, the Bagatelles were nuggets of momentary inspiration, perhaps distilled from a temporary frame of mind or a fleeting thought. “We know that Beethoven was subject to moods and that these moods varied greatly and were apt to change suddenly and violently,” wrote musicologist Eric Blom. “All this is reflected with extraordinary vividness in the Bagatelles. . . . Indeed, one may plausibly argue that in this respect they reveal his character more intimately than anything else he ever wrote.”

Unlike Beethoven’s first two sets of Bagatelles, which were collections of independent pieces composed over several years, the opus 126 set was apparently conceived as an integrated cycle. He described them as a Ciclus von Kleinigkeiten (Cycle of Trifles) and arranged the numbers according to a rigorous sequence of keys, separating them (except for the first two numbers) by the interval of a descending major third: G major, G minor, E-flat major, B minor, G major, and E-flat major. In terms of mood, they favor the meditative over the dramatic, with all but one of the movements (number four) bearing a marking of cantabile (singing), amabile (amiable, with love), or dolce (sweetly). Like several other of his late works, the Bagatelles seek to synthesize the essence of musical form by making bold juxtapositions of starkly contrasting material. This quality is most noticeable in the closing movement, where a tiny, violent Presto passage surrounds the nocturnal body of the movement.

Sonata in C-sharp Minor, op. 27, no. 2, “Moonlight”

Beethoven fell in love many times, but he never married. The object of his infatuation in 1801, when he was thirty years old and still in hope of finding a wife, was the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. Thirteen years his junior, she was rather spoiled and reportedly something of a vixen. She seems to have been flattered by the attentions of the famous musician, but she probably never seriously considered his intimations of marriage. Her high social station would have made wedlock difficult with a commoner such as Beethoven. For his part, Beethoven apparently remained under her spell as late as 1823, by which time she had been married for twenty years to Count Wenzel Robert Gallenberg, a prolific composer of ballet music. The C-sharp Minor Sonata was dedicated to Giulietta upon its publication in 1802, but its precise relationship to Beethoven’s infatuation remains unknown. Five years after the composer’s death, the work’s passion and emotional intensity inspired the German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab to describe the Sonata in terms of “a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight,” a sobriquet that has been inextricably attached to the music ever since.

In noting the experimental nature of the form of this work, Beethoven specified that it is a sonata “in the manner of a fantasy” (Sonata quasi una Fantasia). At the time it was written, the standard model for an instrumental sonata consisted of three independent movements: a fast and substantial movement in sonata form (exposition—development—recapitulation); a slow movement arranged as a variation or a three-part structure; and a closing, lighter rondo in galloping meter. Breaking with this standard in the “Moonlight” Sonata, Beethoven altered the sequence by shifting the expressive weight from the beginning to the end of the work, and he made the cumulative effect evident by instructing the movements be played without pause. Instead of opening with a large symphonic-style, sonata-form essay, “Moonlight” begins with a somber, minor-mode Adagio of great introspection. Next come a subdued scherzo and a trio whose delicacy is undermined by its off-beat syncopations. The expressive goal of the work is achieved with its closing sonata-form movement, a powerful essay filled with tempestuous feelings and dramatic gestures about which music historian John N. Burk wrote, “It is the first of the tumultuous outbursts of stormy passion which Beethoven was to let loose through the remaining piano sonatas. It is music in which agitation and urgency never cease.”

Pensée des Morts
From Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, S. 173, no. 4
Franz Liszt (1811‒1886)

The popular image of Franz Liszt as a peerless virtuoso and flamboyant showman overshadows the fact that he was one of the most versatile musicians of his era, with an ability to perform a full spectrum of musical idioms. Beethoven sonatas and Bach fugues were given equal place on his recitals with breathtaking fantasias on operatic themes. His original compositions ranged from stormy tone poems to sensitive settings of items from the Roman Catholic liturgy, from fiery Hungarian rhapsodies to pieces of prayerful introspection. Among the earliest evidences of his meditative side is the melancholy Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, composed in 1833 and 1834, and named after a collection of poems by the French writer and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine. Liszt originally conceived of the work in 1833 in Paris, shortly after the city had been ravaged by a cholera epidemic. He believed he had successfully fended off the disease by playing variations on the Latin chant Dies Irae (from the Requiem Mass) throughout the night at the height of the plague. (The next day his neighbors asked him to leave, and he obliged.)

Between 1848 and 1853, while directing the musical establishment at Weimar, Liszt created a collection of ten piano pieces, some of which were new and some were reworkings of earlier compositions. Building upon the early Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, he thoroughly revised it, renamed it Pensée des Morts (Thought of the Dead), and made it the fourth movement of the collection. He included a solemn, hymn-like setting of the Latin chant De Profundis: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.

The work is austere and introspective, with the fragmented melodic motion, rhythmic ambiguity, and unsettled harmonies of the Pensée finding only modest solace in the steadying influence of the De Profundis. Pensée des Morts, which one musicologist called a “pianistic descent into the realm of the dead,” ends with a quiet, questioning passage that evokes the tolling of funeral bells.

Arabeske in C Major, op. 18
Robert Schumann (1810‒1856)

By the middle of 1838, Robert Schumann’s parallel passions for music, writing, and Clara Wieck had brought the twenty-eight-year-old composer to a crucial point in his life. Denied by the adamant intervention of Clara’s father from having her hand in marriage, resigned to never becoming the piano virtuoso he had dreamed since childhood, and seeking a more vibrant musical milieu than Leipzig as the base for the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), which he had edited since its inception in 1833, Schumann decided that a move to Vienna might improve his fortunes.

By Christmas it had become clear that his Viennese venture would fail. He could find no significant way to advance his career, and there was no promising situation for the Zeitschrift. Most of all, he missed Clara terribly, especially since the Viennese adored her playing and continually interrogated him about her. Schumann lingered in the imperial city until March 30, 1839, when news that his brother Eduard had become seriously ill compelled him to return home. Saddened by the sudden death of his brother and by the disappointment in Vienna, Schumann returned to Leipzig. Six months later, he finally married his beloved Clara
on September 12, the eve of her twenty-first birthday.

Although Schumann did not realize his most immediate goals in Vienna, he did compose several piano works there, including Arabeske, op. 18. Schumann arranged this piece in a rondo form. The elegant, whispering principal theme is interrupted twice by wistful minor episodes. Added as a coda is a thoughtful paragraph in slow tempo, which reflects the dreamy and romantic side of Schumann’s personality. A tiny wisp of the principal theme rises from the closing measure.

Images, Books I and II
Claude Debussy (1862‒1918)

“The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird register complex impressions within us,” Debussy told an interviewer in 1911. “Then suddenly, without any deliberate consent on our part, one of these memories issues forth to express itself in the language of music.” Debussy thus distilled the essence of musical Impressionism. With only rare exceptions, his compositions—in their titles and their contents—derive inspiration and subjects from poetry, art, and nature. His two sets of Images for piano are among his most evocative creations, and he valued them highly. “I think I may say without undue pride that I believe these pieces will live and will take their place in the piano literature . . . either to the left of Schubert or to the right of Chopin.” Images I and II were composed in 1903–1905 and 1907; Ricardo Viñes premiered them in Paris on March 3, 1906, and February 21, 1908, respectively.

“If there is Impressionism in music,” wrote Oscar Thompson in his classic study of Debussy, “‘Reflets dans l’eau’ (Reflections in the Water) is one of the most perfect examples of it.” All here is shimmering, luminous, evanescent, and formulated, Debussy said, “in accordance with the latest discoveries in harmonic chemistry.” Visual concordances seem inescapable in such suggestive, pastel-hued music. The British musicologist Frank Dawes offered this metaphor: “If one gazes fixedly at an object for long enough, the pupils of one’s eyes dilate, the picture loses its sharpness of focus, and a feeling of pleasant drowsiness overcomes one. So it is here. One feels that the composer gazed long enough into his pool of water to become bemused by the spectacle of endlessly shifting reflections.”

Debussy’s entire career was dedicated to finding a uniquely French musical language, one free from the dominating German influence. He sought to revive the long-dormant traditions of French Renaissance and Baroque music, as much for their spirit as for their technique. Debussy viewed the two giants of French Baroque music—Jean Philippe Rameau (1683‒1764) and François Couperin (1668‒1733)—as the lodestars guiding his quest. He composed Hommage à Rameau in the style of a solemn saraband while he was editing the score of Rameau’s opera-ballet Fêtes de Polymnie, and it remains a fitting tribute to his musical ancestor. Mouvement, the most ambiguously titled of the Images, recalls the lighthearted gaiety and incessant motion of Debussy’s Masques (1904), which depicts Scaramouche, the clownish and easily deflated braggart of the Italian commedia dell’arte.

In Images, Book II, the haunting Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells Sounding Across the Leaves) refers to a local custom of the Jura region in eastern France. Louis Laloy, Debussy’s first French biographer, described it as “the tolling that sounds, from village to village through the yellowing forests in the silence of the evening, between Vespers on All Souls Day [November 2] and the Requiem Mass for the Dead.” The mock-archaic parallel harmonies, exotic scales, and hints of Balinese gamelan bells led Laloy to suggest the title Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut (And the Moon Descends on the Vanished Temple) for this composition. Oscar Thompson wrote that the music’s “rather rigidly moving blocks of hollow-sounding chords—a formula developed by Debussy to suggest the mystery of things ancient and immobile, as in a world that has been drugged and left behind—give it a strange and disquieting character.”

In the final selection, the gleaming, rippling strains of Poissons d’or (Golden Fish) are said to have been inspired by a Chinese or Japanese print, embroidery, or lacquer tray. The music undoubtedly arose from both Debussy’s fascination with Orientalism and his interest in creating a musical equivalent for the play of light on water.

—Richard E. Rodda, PhD


Kiyochika: Master of the Night

March 29–July 27, 2014
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

On September 3, 1868, the city called Edo ceased to exist. Renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers, the city became the primary experiment in a national drive toward modernization. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), a minor retainer of the recently deposed shogun, followed his master into exile. When he returned to his birthplace in 1874, Kiyochika found Tokyo filled with railroads, steamships, gaslights, telegraph lines, and large brick buildings—never-before-seen entities that were now ingrained in the cityscape.

Self-trained as an artist, Kiyochika set out to record his views of Tokyo. A devastating fire engulfed the city in 1881 and effectively ended the project, but the ninety-three prints he had completed were unlike anything previously produced by a Japanese artist. Avoiding the colorful and celebratory cityscapes of traditional woodblock prints, Kiyochika focused on light and its effects. Dawn, dusk, and night were his primary moments of observation, and his subjects—both old and new—are veiled in sharply angled light, shadows, and darkness. To accommodate this new way of seeing, Kiyochika effectively invented a visual vocabulary that incorporated elements of oil painting, copperplate printing, and photography. Interest in Kiyochika’s prints revived in the 1910s, when Tokyo intellectuals began to interpret the series as a critique of modernity.

In the exhibition, approximately half of the prints from the Kiyochika’s views of Tokyo were displayed in thematic groupings that represent the artist’s unique visions and site selections. Beyond describing the odd juxtapositions of traditional and modern, Kiyochika lingers on more subtle shifts in communal sensibility. He shows a population inclined to spectatorship over participation and introduces solitary figures that seem to sleepwalk in a new landscape.


Gilles Vonsattel, piano, gave recitals during the 2013‒2014 season in Tokyo and Osaka; at Festival Lucerne; in Baltimore, Detroit, Frankfurt, and Ludwigshafen (Germany); and at New York’s Bargemusic. He performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts and Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 with the Quebec Symphony.

The Swiss-born American pianist began touring after being awarded the top prize at the 2002 Naumburg International Piano Competition. He made his Alice Tully Hall debut that same year and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2008. He has since performed with the Warsaw Philharmonic; at Zurich’s Tonhalle, Warsaw’s Chopin Festival, and Tokyo’s Opera City Hall; and in the United States with the Utah, Santa Fe, Nashville, and Grand Rapids symphonies and the Boston Pops Orchestra. In July 2010 he made his Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood debuts with Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 under Herbert Blomstedt. He played the same concerto in May 2012 with the Calgary Philharmonic under Roberto Minczuk. In July 2011 he made his San Francisco Symphony debut playing Mozart, and he returned a year later to play Beethoven’s Concerto no. 1 under conductor Michael Francis. He performed in recital on the stages of Boston’s Symphony Hall, Cleveland’s Severance Hall, the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, and Geneva’s Victoria Hall. Recent recitals included performances at the Library of Congress, Wigmore Hall, the Gilmore Festival, La Roque d’Anthéron, Musée d’Orsay, Davos Festival, Zürich’s Tonhalle, Warsaw’s National Philharmonic Hall, La Jolla Music Society, the Munich Gasteig, and Atlanta’s Spivey Hall.

Deeply committed to the chamber music repertoire, Vonsattel has been an artist member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since the 2012‒2013 season, and he is a former member of Chamber Music Society Two. He has performed with the Seattle and Philadelphia chamber music societies, and he has collaborated with artists such as Emmanuel Pahud, Jorg Widmann, Kim Kashkashian, Ida Kavafian, Cho-Liang Lin, and Yo-Yo Ma, among others. He has performed with Trio Valtorna and the Borromeo, St. Petersburg, Pacifica, Ying, Orion, and Ebène quartets.

He has given world premieres of works by Ned Rorem (at Alice Tully Hall) and Nico Muhly (at the National Gallery of Art) and in recent seasons has performed the music of George Benjamin, Heinz Holliger, Jorg Widman, Georges Aperghis, and John Harbison. In addition to being the first-prize winner at the 2006 Geneva International Music Competition, Vonsattel was a laureate of the 2009 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary as well as a laureate of the Cleveland and Dublin piano competitions. He has been heard frequently on NPR’s Performance Today and Radio France Musique, in addition to the CBC, ARD, and BBC. Vonsattel’s recording of Liszt solo works and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with L’Orchestre de Chambre de Genève was released in 2007 on the Pan Classics label. His recording of Bartók’s Contrasts on Deutsche Gramophone with members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is available for download on iTunes. His 2011 recording on the Honens/Naxos label of works by Debussy, Honegger, Holliger, and Ravel was named one of Time Out New York’s classical albums of the year.

After studying with pianist David Deveau in Boston, Vonsattel received his BA in political science and economics from Columbia University and his MM from the Juilliard School. He is assistant professor of piano at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


This concert was presented as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series and in conjunction with the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night, made possible by the Anne van Biema Endowment.

Podcast coordination by Michael Wilpers, F|S manager of performing arts. Thanks to Andy Finch and SuMo Productions for audio recording and editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, Neil Greentree for photography, and especially the artist for granting permission to share his performance at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series was established in memory of Dr. Eugene Meyer III and Mary Adelaide Bradley Meyer. It is generously supported by Elizabeth E. Meyer, Melissa and E. Bradley Meyer, the New York Community Trust—The Island Fund, the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series Endowment, and numerous private donors.

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