Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Music about war : Hiroshima Symphony - Ohki

Today is the anniversary of Hiroshima but what has the world learned ? Just look at the news......There is of course the much underrated Hiroshima Symphony by Masao Ohk.. We take Hiroshima for granted but in 1952 Japan was still under military occupation and Japanese people weren't allowed official news of the bombing. News leaked out as small horrible hints : people who knew people who knew first hand. And the Japanese were still reeling from the shock of defeat, total carpet bombing, firestorms in cities of wooden houses.

Ohki's Hiroshima Symphony is carefully constructed, as if "boxes within boxes" can make sense of the chaos. The Prelude starts with unsettling calm, tense cello and bass pizzicatos gradually adding a sense of time ticking away urgently. Ohki is too subtle to "depict" the actual impact. Instead, the second part is a meditation in the lowest registers of winds and strings, a solo trumpet adding a sort of cry of anguished disbelief. He titles it Ghosts – it was a procession of ghosts, referring to the images of survivors and wounded walking silently and mindlessly through the flattened landscape. Suddenly driving strings introduce the next section, where at last percussion and brass surge powerfully. Ohki’s mental picture was of waves of fire, expressed by rapid chromatic runs and trills, tremolos and glissandos. This is also the imagery of wind, and transformation for in those moments, Japanese life was changed forever. Another darkly meditative section develops the themes in Ghosts, before the strange and disturbing fifth section, Rainbow. Ohki quotes a description of the time, when "All of a sudden black rain poured over them and then appeared a beautiful rainbow". A plaintive solo violin, then a solo clarinet evoke the unworldly half light. Ohki isn’t depicting the rainbow as such, but perhaps the survivors inchoate response to it, which is far more complex.
The seventh section is Atomic desert: boundless desert with skulls. Against a background of "flat-lining" strings, keening and wailing, the disembodied sounds of flute, piccolo and clarinet rise tentatively. It’s a bizarrely abstract piece, strikingly modern, particularly when considering how Ohki had been cut off from western mainstream music for a good fifteen years since the Japanese regime, allied to the Nazis, suppressed "modern" music. The final movement, Elegy, draws in themes from the earlier sections, yet also develops them with deeper emphasis. As Morihide Katayama writes in the booklet of the CD (Naxos) notes: "the conflict is unresolved, and whether the terror is broken down or not depends on subsequent human conscience".

The composer wasn’t to know, in 1953, that survivors would suffer illnesses even into subsequent generations, or that bigger and deadlier bombs would be developed within years. As we face a world still fond of sabre-rattling and leaders who haven’t learned, the message of Hiroshima is, if anything, even more important. This is a deeply felt symphony, all the more moving because of its objectivity and universal qualities. It should take its place in the repertoire of music written in response to war and its devastation. "History repeats itself for those who don’t listen".

Please also follow the labels on the right of this blog, because there is a LOT more about Hiroshima, music about war, anti war issues, China, Japan, agit prop films, Henze, Zimmermann, Eisler and history. READ about the man who survived both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and what he wants the world to know. Also, for 2010 I have written about Masako Koybayashis The Human Condition, an epic film about a Japanese in Manchuria and how he keeps faith in being human, despite all odds. And also BLACK RAIN,  (Kuroi Ame) a film based on a novel by a Hiroshima resident, with soundtrack based on Toru Takemitsu's Requiem for Strings.

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