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Litany - In Memory of Michael Vyner

Three of Takemitsu's piano pieces are specific memorial tributes, but, in all his music, from the early sombre period (Romance, Litany, Requiem for strings), through his experimental period of the 60's, and even in the liberated sensuality and colour of his later music with its lingering walks through gardens of earthly delight, there is a prevailing tone of elegiac sadness, of dignified yet impassioned lament for the beauties that must be left behind.

For the first performance of Litany, Takemitsu wrote: "When I heard that my good friend Michael Vyner had passed away, the composition used for my first public performance immediately came to mind. This piece entitled Lento in Due Movimenti was originally composed in 1950 while I was confined to bed during my bout with tuberculosis. The feeling of death was quite close to me at that time. And this piece reflects emotional grief. Unfortunately, Lento in Due Movimenti was performed just once and the musical score had been lost for the most part with only certain fragments remaining. Therefore, I decided to re-compose this piece from the fragments and also from my memory. I have tried to avoid adding any extra embellishments as much as possible." Not only did Takemitsu not add embellishments, he, in fact, did quite the opposite. The piece remains in outline but concentrated, refined, stripped down to the simplicity of its utterance, to the tragic statement it wishes to make. Its notes (most of them) may have been written in 1950, but their disposition is very much that of a mature master.

Toru Takemitsu's music for solo piano is some of the most distinctive, distinguished and best of the second half of the 20th century, and consistently represents him at his finest. That is, already, saying a lot for his is a quite extraordinary and original oeuvre, a music that, above all, breathes differently.

To invent himself in such a way that he proved quintessentially Japanese whilst, at the same time, taking his rightful place in the hierarchy of composers of the "Western" tradition could not have been easy; there were no models - he was the first. By doing this, not only did he become the first composer from Asia, let alone Japan, to gain widespread acceptance, he taught us in the West many things about our tradition which we had, possibly, overlooked, or which we had assumed were not dominant characteristics. That he should, by his own admission, have started out from Debussy, that, although self-taught, he considered Debussy his teacher, is not surprising. Debussy was, and remains, the composer who made the most radical break with the accepted Western tradition and he did this in very large part from what he had learned from Asian culture. His 'feel' for the East was to find an eager disciple in Takemitsu's 'feel' for the West. Vibration and silence; a concentration on the 'grain' of sound, its character and length as opposed to strong metrical and rhythmic accent; everything organised around qualities of sound patterns rather than around their significance in an architectural scheme; divisions and definitions created out of a wavering flux of sound; the world of dream, water, sea, garden, rain, tree, and wind of which Takemitsu so often spoke, and which is there also in Debussy's titles - the unpredictable, fluctuating forms of nature which mirror, symbolise, are existence itself.

(c) Paul Crossley


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