“The Japanese Beethoven”

Written by Richard Murison

Modern popular music differs most significantly from classical music in that the original performance is considered to be the definitive expression, and any others that follow are generally considered to be ‘covers’.  Furthermore, it is considered bad form for a ‘cover’ version to attempt to replicate the original – a ‘cover’ is expected to provide some variation, innovation, or other interpretive departure from the original.  With classical music, the emphasis is on the composition itself – a specific recipe that sets out the notes each instrument has to play, and how to play them.  Individual performances, therefore, tend to concentrate on the more subtle aspects of phrasing, rubato (tempo variations), tonal palette, and sonority.  New arrangements and other major departures from the score are generally frowned upon.

A consequence of this – and this is perhaps more true from a historical perspective than from a practical one today – is that the composer’s involvement with a composition tends to be completed when he has finished writing it, rather than when it is first performed.  In fact, many of the world’s greatest classical works were never even heard performed by the composers who wrote them!

In classical music, therefore, the written or published score – rather than a particular recording of it – is considered to be the work’s definitive encapsulation.  By contrast, in modern popular music that honor is typically bestowed on the original released recording, such as Time Out, Revolver, Dark Side Of The Moon, Straight Outta Compton, or OK Computer.  In other words, in modern music the specific performance is held to be more definitive than the original score … and in fact, in many cases – including all of the above – a definitive “score” as such doesn’t even exist.

This is important, since if we wanted to discuss the merits (or otherwise) of the song, ” Brothers In Arms”, we would play it, listen to it, and exchange opinions based on having heard the exact same recording of it.  And if I were to venture that it was a fundamentally flawed opus, based on having listened to a cover of it by Jay-Z, or Rage Against The Machine, you might consider that it was my opinion which was fundamentally flawed!  But that’s exactly how we face the world of classical music.  To what extent can I validly expound a critique of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony by listening to Carlos Kleiber’s recording of it, or would that be solely a critique of Kleiber’s recording?  How can we assign merit to the notes on the page, as opposed to a recording of somebody trying to play those notes?  It is a subtle but important distinction.

Let’s consider the symphonies of Mahler.  He wrote nine of them, and left a tenth unfinished.  Suppose I produce a hitherto unknown manuscript which I declare to be a previously unknown 11th symphony.  Let’s say that there is absolutely no way of knowing whether or not this manuscript is genuine, and that nobody is willing to take my assertion at face value.  Furthermore, let’s suppose that I persuade a major orchestra to perform the piece, under the baton of a sympathetic Mahlerian conductor, and that the general reaction is that it sounds like a genuine Mahler symphony, and a great one at that.  What are we to make of this?

The core question here is this one.  Does a composition have any more or any less merit if it turns out it was written by someone else?  Particularly if the presumed composer has a notable reputation, and the ‘someone else’ most pointedly does not.  What if it turned out that the famous symphonies of the immortal (and stone-deaf) Beethoven were all in fact written by his housekeeper?  How would that impact our view of them?

These questions and more crystallize into high-definition reality in the bizarre case of the Japanese Beethoven, Mamura Samuragochi.  Born in 1963 to parents who were Hiroshima survivors, as a young man in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s Samuragochi had found himself a gig as a composer of music incorporated into Japanese video games, and was by all accounts quite successful at it.  His compositional aspirations expanded and deepened, but at the same time he developed a profound deafness.  Undaunted, in 2003 he released his Symphony No 1, “Hiroshima”, to great public and critical acclaim.  The work was received as a compositional tour-de-force, and Samuragochi began to be lauded and revered as the “Japanese Beethoven”.

However, all was not as it seemed.  In 1996, whether through a crisis of confidence or as a shrewd business decision, Samuragochi had teamed up with Takashi Niigaki, a young music teacher with a cripplingly severe case of low self-esteem, but a talent for composing.  He persuaded Niigaki to write his music for him, freeing himself up to promote and market it.  However, Samuragochi insisted that he himself would always be the official “composer” and Niigaki would remain very much out of the public eye.  It seems that Niigaki may even have provided his service unpaid, as an opportunity to actually compose music and have it played.

They say that in order to maintain a lie, you have to live it in perpetuity, and so it became for Samuragochi.  He was a tireless and shameless self-promoter, so as his career took off quite dramatically – still dominated by video game soundtrack work – he became more and more concerned that he would be unable to keep up his subterfuge under the glaring eye of the media.  His solution, bizarrely enough, was to assume the pretense of having gone deaf!  He could then introduce Niigaki the music teacher into the picture as an assistant who could also answer the more difficult musical questions from interviewers and other interested parties.  Amazingly, Samuragochi was able to pull this off, with Niigaki, the ultimate shrinking violet, as a willing accomplice.

The Samuragochi story was proving to be very popular in Japan, a country which had developed a proud western classical music heritage, but which yearned for its own compositional native son.  The “Hiroshima” symphony was performed at a grand concert to celebrate the G8 meeting in Hiroshima in 2008, and a contract was signed with Nippon Columbia to record the work and distribute it on CD.  Meanwhile, Samuragochi put more pressure on Niigaki to continue to write major works for him.  Something had to give, and eventually, it did.

The pressure on Niigaki was intolerable, but the shrinking violet was becoming more and more his own man.  The last straw for him came when Japanese figure skater Daisuke Takahashi, already an Olympic bronze medalist, announced that he would use a Samuragochi composition for the Olympic games of 2014 in Sochi.  Niigaki called a press conference and blew the lid on the whole thing.  Even so, it took a full two months for Samuragochi to come forward with an apology of his own, after which he abruptly vanished from public life.  Niigaki, by contrast, took full advantage of his 15 minutes of fame, quit his teaching job, gained confidence through appearances on the talk-show circuit, and even launched a career as a pianist.  Readers interested in a more detailed treatment of the whole episode may enjoy reading Christopher Beam’s excellent piece in “New Republic”.

In the wake of the scandal, Nippon Columbia withdrew its recording of Symphony No 1 “Hiroshima” from the catalog, and it is now a remarkably difficult CD to find.  However, much to my delight, I recently discovered that it is freely available on TIDAL, and I have been playing it of late.  It is very Mahlerian indeed, and in fact Japanese composer Takeo Noguchi noticed at a very early stage that the work contained adaptations of music by various late-romantic composers, including Mahler (although that in and of itself is by no means unacceptable).  But even if it is unmistakably Mahlerian, it is eminently listenable, even quite riveting at times.  I personally will continue to listen to it for a while until I settle on a considered opinion.  Here is a YouTube video of the finale performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Naoto Otomo, which gives you a sense of the scale of the piece (Mahler’s 3rd, anyone?) – and Samuragochi himself comes to the podium at the end to receive the audience’s applause.


So there are a number of questions that come to the fore as we try to decide into which box to assign this symphony.

  • Regardless of its merits, how do we receive a symphony written in 2003 in the manner and style of the late romantic period of 100 years earlier? Can such an endeavour be considered artistically valid without some explanatory knowledge of the composer’s motivations?
  • Is the work to be considered so tainted by fraud and scandal that it is unworthy of future performance, as seems to be the present status quo? Alternatively, how many years must pass before it will be possible to evaluate this work (and other works from the same pen) on its own merits?
  • Was it composed by Mamuro Samuragochi or Takashi Niigaki? The genesis of the composition remains murky, with Samuragochi continuing to claim significant input, and Niigaki continuing to deny or downplay it.

It may be another 100 years before these questions will ever receive a consensus view.  But I can’t help but think that, if the truth had never come out, it is not inconceivable that this column could instead have been about a composer of some significance – “The Japanese Beethoven”.

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