Japonisme. How we fell for it.


Japanese art has inspired Western artists since it made its debut in Europe in the mid 19thc; a consequence of Japan’s opening to the outside world in 1853; known as Restoration period after centuries of self-imposed seclusion. The policies of Tokugawa shogunate, which effectively ruled the kingdom since the beginning of the 17th century allowed no contact with Europe. Only a limited trade exchange with the enterprising Dutch merchants was permitted. But as the new young emperor Meiji took power in 1853 and Japan opened to the world’s stage, ink paintings, calligraphy, woodblock prints, ceramic art, textiles and lacquerware steadily poured into Europe winning over the tastes of the public. One should not underestimate the great role of the World’s Fair of 1867 in Paris, where the artefacts of the Japanese Pavilion caught a lot of attention. The great conquest of japonisme 5.0 became a fact. A new style coming from a culture foreign and veiled in mystery became one of the most significant interests and influences of Fin de Siècle art.

That new aesthetic brought the painters, ceramists, poets (Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell), designers and composers not only new techniques, new perspectives but also an unexpectedly organic rhyme to their Impressionistic sensitivities. Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin or Vincent van Gogh to name just a few; Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, later John Cage and other greats of the 20th c. have let Japanese art influence them leaving its refined mark on their so recognizable works. In their experimentations they have taken different approaches, which led them to almost representational works, or merely faintly suggesting the origin of the influence:

“Degas avoided staging japoneries that featured models dressed in kimonos and the conspicuous display of Oriental props. Instead, he absorbed qualities of the Japanese aesthetic that he found most sympathetic: elongated pictorial formats, asymmetrical compositions, aerial perspective, spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of colour and line, and a focus on singularly decorative motifs. In the process, he redoubled his originality”5.1


In my research for the music inspired by Japanese aesthetics I have chosen to look closer at the work of the composers listed below, who have created pieces influenced by the Orient, for small and larger ensembles. I have focused on catching which Japanese inspirations would be their opus moderandi.

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971); "Three Japanese Lyrics" (1912), a musical triptych for soprano voice, flutes, clarinets, piano and strings. The composer used three short Japanese poems in their Russian (and/or French) translation, catching the imagery of spring in three different interpretations. The first part uses, just like in tanka, five vocal phrases, enclosed in thirty-one syllables (also according to tanka's framework). The somehow subdued first sketch is followed by an energetic, vivacious musical embodiment of nature's awakening after a long winter. The vocal part is dynamic and joyous, accompanied by lively and playful instrumental passages. The third part, true to the still imagery of the poem, settles in melancholic sonic paysage. The last piece stretches over four vocal phrases, medium, long, short and medium long, with no direct formal resemblance to classical tanka or haiku, nevertheless capturing the "fleeting- moment" mood and pictorial nature of those.

John Cage (1912 - 1992); "Seven Haiku " (1952), it is a minimalistic piano piece, composed using chance methods. Haiku inspired the composer to express himself through a limited five, and sometimes seven, musical events which were put together with a great sense of space (silence being a meaningful suspense element). Although the pieces have programmatic titles, they stay completely abstract and therefore, just like the haiku poetry of Basho, leave space for filling in the meanings and adding interpretations experienced by the listener. It is not unimportant to add that those pieces came into existence in the summer that Cage followed a series of lectures of Zen master D.T. Suzuki.

Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992); "Sept Haikai" (1962), orchestra and piano in dialogue in seven short pieces. The composer used gagaku sonorities (a classical court music ensemble)) and bird song. It is a colour rich instrumental piece, using the wind instruments’ interpretation of the rhythmic and melodic patterns of Japanese birds; a material scrupulously collected by the composer throughout his life. The pieces have programmatic titles that create a symmetry constructed to support the fourth part where Gagaku descends in full grace upon the listener.

Ton de Leeuw (1926  - 1996); "Haiku I" (no recording available) (1963) for piano and voice and "Haiku II" (1968), for voice and orchestra.

Haiku I is a short 5 part piece, using classical Japanese scales and melodic motives for both piano and the voice. Additionally, the voice onsets imitate the airy onsets of the flute. The duo piece is an intimate conversation that stays close to the somehow withdrawn character of the poem.

The poems are also used in the Haiku II; a piece for an orchestra and voice. At times atonal, abstract and departing from the intimacy of the poem into more extravert, Western expression, which is clearly visible in the flamboyant vocal part and very rich orchestration. 

Jack Kerouac, (1922 - 1969, American poet) , Zoot Sims (1925 - 1985, jazz saxophone player); American Haiku " (1959).  This piece exposes the idea of a linked verse/ song, where two artists dialogue on a certain theme (in this case the snapshot of the poem) and challenge each other into an ongoing exchange of ideas. The process results in a long chain of renga (linked verse) like creation where the musician answers in an improvisatory way to the text recited in-between. The listener gets the feeling of witnessing child’s play, tempo being fast, play of the voice and the saxophone being dynamic, humorous and energetic.


Jeanne Lee (1939 - 2000); "At Kamenoi Besso" (1995). A composition of a jazz pianist Mal Waldron and a singer Jeanne Lee, who is the author of the poem. The piece is an image-infused lyric (devoid of rhyme, free-form) sung as a melodic, minor pentatonic based improvisation, accompanied by a freely timed piano part. In the first part the text exposition is complete, followed by sound improvisations of the voice (with the tonguing technique resembling flute techniques) connecting to the pictures of the bamboo dipper reaching for the water, drops falling, gentle breeze. We may think of a water basin which you find at the entrance to a shrine, where you ritually drink water.

The atmosphere is melancholy and contemplative, which is expressed in sombre, dark, minor, played overwhelmingly in the lower part of the grand piano's keyboard ostinato part.

The dynamics of the piece settles gently in the last part, where the singer quotes only parts of the poem, as if showing us the snapshots of a photo album. 

Cynthie van Eijden
 (1970); "Conversations with  the Shakuhachi" (2009). It is an instrumental piece for shakuhachi and a combination of world music instruments and violins. It was written for Atlas Ensemble as a commission. The composer's main inspiration was fed, i was told, by the flute’s and the koto’s timbre and the players broad technical possibilities. In my reception the piece is lyrical in nature, with an almost romantic storytelling, controlled yet organic narrative flow letting the skakuhachi's opening statement lead into denser instrumental fabric, conversing with the koto, followed by other instruments. Despite the clear influence of Western sensibility of the composer, the piece is an enchanting take on Japanese taste 
(space, melancholy, perfect imperfection) and stays respectful of the Japanese instrument’s identity.


My observations are that:

 The composers, aside from their own creative vocabulary, have used various elements of Japanese culture and nature as their inspiration: the haiku, but also classical instrumentation, or sounds native to Japan. All of those parameters might have been feeding the process consciously, but surely also intuitively. The ingredients that seemed to have been picked up by many were:

- the compactness of the form expressed in the length of the piece; probably coming from the brevity of the poetry encountered or compactness of image in a scroll painting?

- the exoticism of sound; often coming from the inspiration of the gagaku ensemble, expressed in the instrumentation, using wind instruments, percussion instruments, and often string instruments.

- sensitivity for the visual imagination of the listener, possibly coming from the imagery of the poem itself or culture's largely visual orientation, expressed in music by the sense of space and temperament (dynamics, tempo, phrasing). In the instrumental pieces, and in the case of vocal pieces adding  the  direct communication of the words themselves.

- Japanese instruments’ own voice; their sound and technical range

- on a harmonic level: all colours of pentatonic scales, capturing the culture's inner musical psyche, you could say.


We can see various ways of approaching the compositional challenge resulting in very personal interpretations of what Japanese music channelled through our Western tradition could be. This ongoing process, an experimentation started a hundred years ago does not cease, continuously creating a musical tapestry where new narratives may unravel.


My personal creative path was from the beginning connected to the poetry itself. Let me invite you to take a closer look.


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