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RENTARŌ TAKI (1879–1901)

Kojo No Tsuki (“The Moon over the Ruined Castle”) arr. Anne Akiko Meyers

April 14, 2019: Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Jason Vieaux, guitar

Rentarō Taki studied at the Tokyo Music School where in 1901 he set a melody to Bansui Doi’s poem Kōjō no tsuki and entered it into a competition for the Education Department of Japan. Intended as a simple tune for students to sing without accompaniment, “Kōjō no tsuki” won the competition and was published in the school’s song book along with two other songs Taki had composed. Recognizing his talent, the Meiji government sent him to study at the Leipzig Conservatory—only the second Japanese musician they had sent abroad.

Sadly, Taki contracted tuberculosis within two months, and by September 1902 he had to return home under a doctor’s care. His ship made a one-day stopover in London on the way to Japan, which by happy coincidence enabled Bansui, who was studying English literature in London, to meet the composer who had so beautifully set his poem to music. Back in Japan, Taki died the following June at age twenty-three. Because of the threat of the spread of tuberculosis, all of his papers were burned including what he had composed in Leipzig, and so only a few of his compositions—piano pieces and songs—remain. His legacy, however, lives on in “Kōjō no tsuki,” which became legendary both in Japan and abroad.

Anne Akiko Meyers describes her very personal relationship with the song: “My grandmother’s favorite piece of music in the world was a Japanese song called “Kōjō no tsuki.” I first heard it when I was a teenager and I understood straight away why she loved it so much; it’s a hauntingly beautiful, nostalgic piece that has an infinite amount of soulfulness and poetry within it.

“I’ve always associated it with memories of my grandmother; when she heard me playing it in the house, or in my hotel room while I was touring, it would always move her to tears—and when I hear it now I find it very hard not to cry as well.

“The song’s title translates as ‘Moonlight over the ruined castle,’ and it’s inspired by a view of the ruins of Oka Castle on Kyushu, Japan’s most southerly main island. In the sixteenth century, during Japan’s feudal era, it must have been one of the most impressive castles in all Japan, and the song evokes memories of the parties enjoyed by the samurai and shōguns, all drinking and carousing within the castle walls.

“Now the castle sits in despair, with nothing to be seen but the moonlight beaming down on the ruins as their sole constant companion. That moonlight has remained the same throughout the centuries, and the song gives the impression that time has essentially drained the castle of its life. It was written in 1901, long after the end of the feudal era, by a brilliant twenty-one-year-old composer named Rentarō Taki—who died just two years after writing the piece.

“As far as I know, I’m the first person to play “Kōjō no tsuki” on the violin. I had it arranged in 1993 by the Japanese composer Shigeaki Saegusa, and then adapted it myself to my own way of playing. I find that it’s incredibly ripe for expression: technically it’s not at all hard for me to play, but the challenge is in finding how you want to express yourself each time. Whenever I play it I give it a different kind of nuance.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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