Takashi Yoshimatsu: White Landscapes

Context

Takashi Yoshimatsu was born in 1953 in Tokyo, Japan where he is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest Western classical composers. Interestingly, he did not learn music from a young age, in fact it wasn’t until his teens that he became interested in music at all. The symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven appealed a lot to Yoshimatsu in his mid-teens, which spurred him on to learn the keyboard and start to compose his own works.

He studied in the department of technology at Keio University, although he always kept music near the forefront of his life. His first work, Threnody to Toki was premiered in 1981, and received very positive reviews. Since then he has written 6 symphonies, 10 concertos and a wealth of other orchestral and chamber works. His style is described in a free neo-romantic style, which centres around atonality. Yoshimatsu draws a lot of influences from jazz, rock and Japanese classical music. Yoshimatsu is also known for his writings on music and musicology essays. He is also a keen artist, which definitely explains some of his music.

 

The Music

White Landscapes was composed in 1991. The piece is scored for flute, cello, harp and string orchestra. The work is in three movements:

I. Divination by Snow (Adagio)

II.Stillness in Snow (Moderato)

III. Disappearance of Snow (Largo)

Just by the titles of these movements there are some interesting facts we can decipher. Firstly, the title gives this away a bit, but these titles emphasise the idea of snow and weather being a crucial theme within the work. Secondly, the three tempo markings for the movements are all slow, which means there is no conventional fast-slow-fast framework. It’s essentially slow-slightly faster but still slow-very slow. The calmness of the atmosphere is certainly emphasised by the slow tempos that are directed by Yoshimatsu.

 

I. Divination by Snow

The first movement begins with the flute playing very quietly and growing into the F#. In the second bar the harp enters with a counter-melody, which the flute answers with a sextuplet which leads to a note bend, which could represent a sign of wind or a change of direction. The string orchestra act as an accompaniment underneath. The texture is very sparse and the next section sees the cello double with the flute with a beautiful counter-melody. Fast sextuplets are used to create texture in and around the more sparse sections.

The metre changes from 3/4 to 5/8, which gives it a rocking compound time feel. If any kind of nuanced dissonance is heard, it is soon resolved. The adagio section is in 6/8 and the harp plays a shimmering scalic pattern with the flute and cello playing different simple melodies. This section is the fastest of this movement.

The 5/8 motif returns again, though this time on harp alone. The harp is usually used to modulate back to the tonic chords and release any tension. A calmingl 6/4 section begins, with the cello playing a variation of the main melody. The flute then shadows this and the motif is passed between the two ‘soloists’. The string orchestra and harp play long chords, which feel static. The 5/8 sections returns, and is repeated first loudly, and the second time very quietly. The movement ends on the resolved chord played by the whole ensemble.

 

II. Stillness in Snow

The second movement is the fastest of all three sections, however the tempo is still very slow. The strings ensemble play a static chord progression, with the harp playing the moving part within the accompaniment. On top of this the cello is playing a simple glistening solo.

The metre changes a lot between different compound times, although this is not always obvious. The flute then plays a variation of the solo, which leads us back into the cello solo and a reprise of the introduction. The metre goes back into a simple 3/4 and the flute has the moving part now. The texture becomes thicker and the whole ensemble have a moving part and the two soloist double each other with the main theme and variations are also heard.

The 3/4 section returns, with the cello now playing the moving part. The flute then plays in its lower register on chord changes. The movement ends with a magical glissando by the harp.

 

III. Disappearance of Snow

Marked Largo, this movement is the slowest of the trio. It begins with the harp on its own, playing a simple melody based around an arpeggiated motif. The snow is melting and leaving the world at this point in the narrative. After this, the string ensemble and cello enter with the harp repeating the introductory pattern. The flute enters with a semiquaver and triplet pattern, which perfectly embellishes the rest of the ensemble. The work ends with every instrument holding a tied note except for the harp, which then plays one more quaver arpeggio before ending the piece.

 

Final Thoughts

The very subtle story line of this piece of music can be described in a simple weather cycle: the snow falls, the snow settles and the snow disappears. With these ideas in mind, it offers a whole new dimension to the, what seems to be, rather simplistic music. There are deeper messages of sadness, nostalgia and hope woven into this music. White Landscapes is a fantastic work for meditation, mindfulness and getting into a very calm zone.

 

Happy Reading!

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