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The History of Recording Japanese Orchestras

Masato Mori

Music critic

 Japanese audiences first became acquainted with wind and stringed instruments through gagaku (traditional court music) performed in the Heian period. In the Meiji period, when Western music became de rigueur for ceremonial music, gagaku was performed with Western instruments, and eventually drives to introduce orchestras emerged from both military and civilian bands. Before Japan’s involvement with World War II, a number of currently existing professional and amateur orchestras were formed, and regular concerts were held. In addition, orchestras were established in many forms, not just symphony orchestras.

Images provided by Masato Mori.
English version released on March 26, 2019.

 Before and after the war, the New Symphony Orchestra (Abbreviated as "Shinkyo (New Symphony)". Now, the "NHK Symphony Orchestra".) was the vanguard of the Japanese music world. Here, we will look back at history up to the birth of the New Symphony Orchestra. In 1915, Kosçak Yamada (1886-1965) conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Society Orchestra founded by Yataro Iwasaki. The Philharmonic Society Orchestra lasted for a short period time, and later, Yamada and Hidemaro Konoye (1898-1973) cooperated to found the Japan Symphonic Association in 1925. The Japan Symphonic Association got off to a flying start by inviting Russian musicians from Harbin, China, holding "Japan-Russia Friendship Orchestral Music Concerts (Nichiro kokan kangen gaku ensokai)", and beginning to have regular concerts. In September 1926, however, Hidemaro Konoye withdrew, taking the majority of musicians with him to found the New Symphony Orchestra. The New Symphony Orchestra steadily grew under the conducting of Konoye, but Konoye left once again after a reorganization dispute in 1935, and Joseph Rosenstock became the regular conductor after that.
 In 1942, it was renamed the Nippon Symphony Orchestra and became the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1951 after the war.

1. Johann Strauss II, composer An der schönen, blauen Donau (The Blue Danube), Kosçak Yamada (conductor), Japan Symphonic Association, Nipponophone 16030/ Recorded February 1926

Kosçak Yamada and the Nihon kokyo kangendan

Kosçak Yamada and the Nihon kokyo kangendan
(Nitto Times, July 1924)

 This recording of Kosçak Yamada conducting the Japan Symphonic Association is under the Nitto (under the name Nihon kokyo kangendan) and Nipponophone labels. Kosçak Yamada is said to be the first to put on a performance of Johann Strauss II's "The Blue Danube" in Japan.

2. Gabriel Pierné Composer "Marche des petits faunes"/ Maurice Ravel Composer "Bolero" (both arranged by Hidemaro Konoye) Hidemaro Konoye (Conductor) New Symphony Orchestra Columbia 28694 / Recorded February 1936

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 As the founder of the New Symphony Orchestra, Hidemaro Konoye invested his very own funds into outfitting the orchestra with instruments, arranging scores, and expanding the orchestra. While Hidemaro’s conducting style is suave and romantic, he also demonstrated his understanding of contemporary music and introduced Pierné, Ravel, and Kurt Weill to Japan. In addition, the influence of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) can frequently be seen in his musical interpretation. This recording was produced on February 27, 1935.

Kosçak Yamada

Kosçak Yamada
(Kaikan geijutsu ("Entertainment Hall Arts"), June 1935)

Hidemaro Konoye

Hidemaro Konoye
("Ongaku sekai" (Music World), April 1931)

3. Kosçak Yamada (composer) Symphony "Kachidoki to heiwa (Triumph and Peace)" Kosçak Yamada (conductor) Japan Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra, Columbia Recording Number 196-200/ Recorded September 10, 1940

 Kosçak Yamada's "Kachidoki to heiwa (Triumph and Peace)" has been called the first symphony composed by a Japanese artist. The performance broadcast from the Uchisaiwai-cho Broadcasting Hall Studio Number 1 on September 10, 1940 and recorded via wire-relay by Columbia Records of the same location is a valuable sound recording with Movements 1, 2, and 4 of the four total movements recorded. The Japan Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra was the name the New Symphony Orchestra performed under at the time of the radio broadcast. Kazuo Yamada (1912-1991) is mentioned as the conductor in some sources, but this is actually a performance conducted by Kosçak Yamada of his own work.

 Before Japan's involvement with World War II, the Chuo Symphony Orchestra (renamed the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in 1941) worked alongside the New Symphony Orchestra. The Chuo Symphony Orchestra is currently the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the oldest orchestra in Japan. It started off in 1911 as the "Itoya Youth Band" organized by a kimono-shop in Nagoya. Later, it transitioned into the Matsuzakaya Orchestra, the Nagoya Symphony Orchestra, and the Chuo Symphony Orchestra before expanding into Tokyo. The orchestra grew under the guidance of Yazaemon Hayakawa, then Kunihiko Hashimoto, Manfred Gurlitt, and Hideo Saito wielded the baton after it expanded to Tokyo. Many records by the Matsuzakaya Orchestra still exist, starting with "Nagoya-shi-ka (The Nagoya City Anthem, 1929)", but valuable recordings were made in the days of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

4. Akira Ifukube (composer) "Kokyotanshi (Ballata sinfonica)" Kazuo Yamada (conductor) Tokyo Symphony Orchestra Victor VH-4084, 4085/ Recorded December 1943

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 "Kokyotanshi (Ballata sinfonica)" is an orchestral work composed by Akira Ifukube (1914-2006), famous for movie scores such as "Godzilla". In August 1943, it was awarded first prize in the "Second Orchestral Music Prize Competition" held by the Victor Company of Japan. The "ballata" in "Ballata sinfonica" means "ballad" and this musical composition is composed of a "Prima Ballata" and a "Secondo Ballata". With conducting passionate in rhythm and rich in lyricism, Kazuo Yamada lends the musical composition a dynamism that brims with vitality and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra's level of performance conveys the standards of the 1940s through today.

 Unfortunately, not a single recording still exists of major orchestras in Western Japan such as of Joseph Laska (conductor) and the Takarazuka Symphony Orchestra or Emmanuel Metter (conductor) and the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. Student orchestras like the Tokyo Music School (now Tokyo University of the Arts) Orchestral Music Department made recordings of a number of large-scale works such as Haydn's oratorios, Wagner's operas, and Kiyoshi Nobutoki’s cantata "Kaido-tosei (Along the Coast, Conquer the East)" under the conducting of instructors Charles Lautrup and Klaus Pringsheim Sr. In addition, professional orchestras such as the National Symphony Orchestra (Kokumin kokyo gakudan) made a small number of recordings with Komatsu Heigoro (1896-1953) presiding, but the "Itsutsu no O-hanashi (Five Fairy Tales)" that follows is a rare record that conveys the trajectory of Japanese contemporary composers during the 1930s.

5. Masao Oki (composer) symphonic suite "Itsutsu no O-hanashi (Five Fairy Tales)" Masao Oki (conductor) Konseru obu (Concerts Aube) Symphony Orchestra, Teichiku 8000 / Recorded July 1935

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 While six symphonies of Masao Oki (1901-71) still exist, he exhibited his unique style most prominently in orchestral works such as symphonic poems and film scores. "Five Fairy Tales" was first performed in October 1934 at a composition recital of the modern composer's group Reimei sakkyokuka domei (Dawn Composers Alliance) led by oki. In 1937, it won a special prize in the "Felix Weingartner Competition" established in honor of world-famous conductor, Felix Weingartner. "Itsutsu no O-hanashi (Five Fairy Tales)" is comprised of"Yoru no O-hanashi (A Night Tale)", "Kawaii O-hanashi (A Cute Tale)", "Fushigina O-hanashi (A Strange Tale)", "Okashina O-hanashi (A Funny Tale)", and "Mohitotsu no O-hanashi (One More Tale)". The recording was able to come to fruition through the efforts of Masao Koga, an executive and composer at Teichiku Records who took a liking to this work. "Concerts Aube" is the name attributed to the Reimei sakkyokuka domei (Dawn Composers Alliance). ("Aube" is French for "dawn")

 In 1940, the "Symphony Orchestra in Celebration of the 2600th Anniversary" was organized, and commemorative compositions by Richard Strauss (Germany), Ibert (France), Pezzetti (Italy), Sándor Veress (Hungary) were performed on a grand scale in Tokyo and Osaka. Later, they were broadcast on the radio and made into records. This orchestra was formed into a large organization by adding 163-164 musicians from the People's New Symphony Orchestra, the Chuo Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Radio Orchestra, and the Seio Brass Band to the Music Department of the Imperial Household and the Tokyo Music School Orchestra. Their performance also demonstrates the high-water mark of Japanese orchestral music in 1940.

 From the Meiji period through the Showa period, the musical accompaniment for silent films was performed by orchestras under the immediate control of movie theaters. While there were orchestras to perform the musical accompaniment for Western films, for Japanese film genres such as historical period films, Western-Japanese ensembles were adopted which had approximately twenty performers and included performers of traditional Japanese instruments such as the shamisen, taiko drums, and the yokobue bamboo flute. Film orchestras performed not only musical accompaniment, but also musical performances during the interlude much to the delight of audiences. Musical performances in movie theaters were the most familiar Western music entertainment for the masses.

6. Toyoaki Tanaka (arranger) Wayo Gasso (Japanese-Western Ensemble) "Kanda jocho (Kanda Mood)" Toyoaki Tanaka (conductor) Nikkatsu wayo kangen gakudan (Nikkatsu Japanese-Western wind and stringed instrument orchestra) Victor, 50285-A/B Recorded April 1928.

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 Toyoaki (a.k.a. Homei) Tanaka (1880-1934) was a conductor from the Imperial Navy Band. After conducting the accompaniment music at the Kanda Nikkatsukan Theater from the Taisho period to the Showa period, he moved to the Shinjuku Teitoza Theater. This work evokes the ambiance of Kanda symphonically by weaving medleys of songs like "Meiji daigaku koka (Meiji University School Song)", "Echigo jishi (The Lion of Echigo)", "Nikorai-do no kane (The Bells of the Holy Resurrection Cathedral/ Nicholai-do)", "Iso bushi (a genre of folk songs from the coast of Japans Ibaraki region)", "Dekansho-bushi (Dekansho Folk Song)", the sword fight shamisen accompaniment played at the Fuji Theater, and music from Western dramas (incidental music such as "Farandole" from Bizet's L'Arlésienne.).

 The late-Meiji period through the Taisho period witnessed a boom in plucked string instruments (instruments from the lute family, such as the guitar and mandolin). Particularly active in this development was Baron Morishige Takei (1890-1949) who invested his private wealth to form the Orchestra Sinfonica Takei. Aside from organizing regular concerts, he put his efforts into raising public awareness and promoted the mandolin and guitar by holding competitions and publishing the magazine, "Mandorin to gita (Mandolin and Guitar)". Guitar and mandolin fan clubs enthusiastically formed even in rural areas. Even among students, mandolin performance groups such as the Keio University Mandolin Club (1912 -) and the Meiji University Mandolin Club (1923 -) were established that continue to be active to this day.

7. Morishige Takei (composer) Morishige Takei (conductor) Natsu no kumikyoku (Summer Suite): "Yoiame no machi (Town in the Evening Rain)", "Furinya (The Wind Chime Shop)", "Umi ni utau (Singing to the Sea)", and "Hanabi miru kora (Children Watching the Fireworks)". Orchestra Sinfonica Takei, Victor 50732/ 50733/ Recorded June 1929.

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 To spread the joy of music from plucked string instruments, Morishige Takei wrote compositions himself, including many solo works for guitar and mandolin, as well as songs for mandolin orchestras. Composed in 1928, "Natsu no kumikyoku (Summer Suite)" is a suite comprised of four songs that depicts the mood of summer not only musically, but also manifests it through mental imagery.


  • Tokyo firuhamoni kokyo gakudan hachiju-nen-shi (An 80-year History of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra), Tokyo firuhamoni kokyo gakudan (Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra). 1991, p. 271
  • Keiji Masui, Kiyotatsu Miyoshi, and Goto Kazuhiko. Yogaku hoso go ju-nen (Fifty Years of Western Music Broadcasts) (Collected from the monthly serialized publication, Ongaku no Tomo (Friend of Music) April 1974 to December 1975).
  • Zadankai (Roundtable discussion), Nihon fukikomi rekodo to sono shorai. (Japanese Record Production and Its Future). Rekodo ongaku (Record Music) April 1941.

(Masato Mori, Music critic)

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