Music & Japan Homework Page

Writing about music is an important tool for understanding it. MusicAtOurHouse solidifies class content with a short writing assignment following each session. Homework for the live class is posted on the discussion forum. For anyone participating in recordings-only, please feel free to post on the forum on an ongoing basis.

There's a famous quote attributed sometimes to Blaise Pascal, sometimes to Winston Churchill, sometimes to Abraham Lincoln, and sometimes to George Bernard Shaw (!): "I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I wanted to write a short one but I didn't have time." In other words, being concise takes a lot of work! Please say your full thoughts about the topic you choose, but condense them to the most economical form, the smallest number of words needed. The most important thing to cover are literal sound descriptions and emotional identifications.

Homework 1

Compare the qualities of the Chinese & Japanese sensibility. How are they similar and/or different? Use our class resource pages, including the visuals of Chinese and Japanese art. Here is a famous Japanese folk song:

Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)

How is the sound and feeling of this music similar to or different from the Chinese folk music we heard? (See the examples of Chinese folk music referenced on the page here.) What scale of notes does "Sakura" use?

What overall themes are emerging as the distinctive aspects of the Japanese character?

Homework 2

What is the characteristic sound and emotion of the Japanese Shakuhachi (end-blown bamboo flute)? Listen to the following four examples of "Hon Shirabe" or "Basic Melody" and explain the way in which they all express 1) the general character of the Japanese soul, and 2) the individuality of the player interpreting the "basic melody." (You need not write about all four examples, but use the ones that you wish to comment about as examples.)

Played by Miyata Kohachiro
Played by Kirsty Komuso
Played by "FauxKomuso"
Played by Tajima Tadashi

Homework 3

Japan for centuries was closed to outsiders; in 1854 US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry suceeded in forcing Japan open to trade. Subsequently, European culture became interested in Japan and its ways. One of the products was the 1885 Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, The Mikado. Like the Gilbert & Sullivan shows generally, it is highly irreverent, amusing and silly, and delights in overturning ideas about social position, or that which is grave turning out to be unimportant after all. The music is radically different from Japanese traditional music. Here are some examples:
  • Synopsis of the Story
  • A Wanding Minstrel, I (Nanki-Poo, the son of the Emperor, with the men); Audio; Words.
  • Behold the Lord High Executioner (Koko, a cheap tailor, has been elevated to this grandiose job); Audio; Words.
  • Three Little Maids from School Are We; Audio (slower); Audio (faster); Words.
  • FINALE ("For he's gone and married Yum-Yum"); Audio; Words.
What do you like or dislike about this music or about Gilbert & Sullivan's treatment of the subject of Japanese culture?

Homework 4

Describe the sound and emotion of the music of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. In what way does this opera incorporate Japanese elements in the story and music? How is the music similar to or different from Japanese traditional music such as the "Hon Shirabe" or "Sakura, Sakura"? Here are highlights from the opera:
  • "Come, my Love!" -- Butterfly shows Pinkerton her treasures including small statues of her ancestors (notice what the orchestra plays around 1:20)
  • Love Duet -- Butterfly and Pinkerton fall in love; she sings that being scorned by her family does not matter because of her love for Pinkerton
  • The "Flower Duet" - (not to be confused with the flower duet from Lakme) Butterfly and her servant Suzuki sing of the return of Pinkerton (beautiful harmony at 3:25)
  • The "Humming Chorus" -- Butterfly waits all night for Pinkerton to arrive; she is with her servant Suzuki and her son
  • Finale -- Butterfly says goodbye to her son and prepares to committ ritual suicide (seppuku) [here is a version with staging]
Extra question: How is Puccini's treatment of Japanese culture different from that in Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado?

Homework 5