Japanese little girl. Click for attribution and to zoom in

In the previous post we have shown two little Japanese girls capable of perfectly playing some music of the classical period.

Which surprised me in many respects and made me reflect.

Germany, Vienna and Italy

First of all by ‘classical style’ we mean the music created from the mid 1700’s until the first decades of 1800 thanks to contributions from Germany (Southern Germany – Mannheim etc. –  but not only), Vienna and Italy, which changed the spirit & the technique of music into something inspired by the ideals of ancient classical art.

In other posts we’d mused about this magical region where many centuries earlier Roma and Germania met (and clashed,) ie the Roman provinces (Germania Superior, Raetia, Noricum and Pannonia) along the axis of what was once the limes germanicus or frontier of the ancient Roman Empire (look at this map!) that separated the world of Rome from the un-romanized Germanic (and non Germanic) tribes (read more: 1, 2, 3.)

It may be a simplification (and an obsession,) but that ‘classical music’ in its narrow sense (in the broad sense it refers to all Western art music since its beginnings) was much later to be born in such cultural crossroads – well, it didn’t happen in our opinion by mere chance.

[Roman & non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this duality in today’s societies? – we had asked ourselves]

Haydn. Portrait by Thomas Hardy. Wikipedia image

Now this ‘classical music’, that followed Baroque and developed before the spread of Romanticism, is characterized by formal balance, a certain restraint and a terse simplicity attained with extreme economy of means together with a very refined taste: which makes the performance of such art daunting despite its apparent easiness. Its model is in fact that of Hellenic art, although adapted to modern times (and to modern music, since we know so little of ancient music.)

This may be a reason why playing Mozart, Haydn or Boccherini and Clementi ‘well’, that is, with the necessary purity, is often more difficult than rendering subsequent and technically harder pieces of the Romantic and contemporary repertoire. I saw pianists who could easily play Brahms and Scriabin but sweated their way through the end of a Mozart adagio.

The Japanese and the Russians

Now, that these Japanese children, coming from a different planet, are able to do this extremely well – isn’t it amazing?

Classical balance and taste is nothing one can improvise. One needs to have breathed such air.

Take the Russians, such formidable musicians. Not completely European ok but closer to us than the Japanese for sure, they have traditionally always hesitated before the classical repertoire (and when they didn’t … the result was often not among the best.)

So, the Russians fail where the Japanese don’t – there must be something in those Eastern cultures I am not aware of.

Some readers have got any ideas?


In the meanwhile, as an Italian, I know the Japanese – a few I’ve met who study bel canto in Rome – love Italian opera quite a lot whose style always resisted the complexity of the romantic and late-romantic German harmonies and voicing (Verdi Bellini and Donizetti etc. on one hand, Wagner or Richard Strauss on the other hand: two different universes altogether! Roman & non Roman?)

Once more. What these oriental people may find in the Western ‘classical’ style of music?

Mario: “By the way, I heard that classical music makes hogs as fat as whales.”

MoR: “What?? Are you kidding me?”

Mario: “It is true! This Vietnamese pig farmer, Nguyen Chi Cong, found a new way to make his 3,000 hogs eat more quickly and happily by having them listen daily to the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. It seems the soothing effect is also working for other domestic animals!”

MoR: *Rolling eyes*


Related posts:

Music, Politics and History

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

See also the series dedicated to the notions of ‘classic’ & ‘classical’ (1, 2 and 3)

34 thoughts on “How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

  1. The secret is hidden in your own text: “formal balance, by a certain restraint and terse simplicity attained with extreme economy of means together with an extremely refined taste”

    Observe Japanese culture — one of the paintings of Hokusai, perhaps, as they are pervasively reproduced and sold.

    The Japanese aesthetic, so far as I have been exposed to it — and being taught to sing Brahms by a lady from Tokyo has to qualify me — incorporates a detachment that reduces even passion to its component parts. Perhaps this has something to do with the samurai-class embrace of Zen in the Japanese feudal period?


    1. Fascinating, thank you. I had reached the same conclusions (or kinda) by intuition although my knowledge of Zen and of Japanese culture being so close to zero it is very difficult for me to say anything useful on this matter.


  2. Some names come to me as I read your post and Jenny’s and Sledpress’s comments. Kimura-Parker, a pianist and Kiri Te Kanawa, a soprano, also our Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s conductor Kent Nagano. K.-P. is mixed Japanese and Canadian from British Columbia, Kanawa is Japanese and Nagano mixed USAer and Japanese. They embody the quintessence of classical music interpretation.
    By the way, Japanese also outperform USAers in baseball and basketball. Do you know of any outstanding Japanese classical guitarists?


    1. Kimura-Parker … Kiri Te Kanawa … Kent Nagano …They embody the quintessence of classical music interpretation.

      Thank you very much for your reference. I’ll hunt them down on Youtube and find some of their performances. As for USAers, as you call them, I’ve been for some time addicted to this US pianist, Murray Perahia, specialised in the classical repertoire. Great guy. He studied with Rudolf Serkin not by chance, among the rest. But I confess for this repertoire I still prefer Austrians, Italians and Germans. The French are not bad either. Now, time to consider the Japanese. Weird.

      No, I don’t know any outstanding Japanese classical guitarist.


      1. Aha! My late and ex husband, a connoisseur of musical performance (he forced me to pay more attention to WHO was playing), had a joke.

        “What sits at the bottom of the Amazon and plays the piano?” “Murray Piranha.”

        This was one of our mutually favorite piano performers — technically deft but still with a contained, headlong energy that always sounded as if the notes might just all start falling thicker and faster till you were engulfed, like Danae under the shower of gold. His rubatos might not be for everybody, I suppose, but they make the music somehow conversational.


    2. Sports alert!

      Um, Japanese outperform Americans in baseball and basketball? Basing that on what exactly Paul?

      The Americans firmly dominate baseball (World Cup baseball classic notwithstanding) and ESPECIALLY basketball. Japan has no basketball presence.

      Lithuania, Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Spain, Germany, France, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Italy, China and Brazil all come before Japan with America the uncontested champion.

      As for baseball, you have more of a case as Japan produces great players as do Latin America. But again, the Americans rule.


  3. I was going to offer an opinion, as unlearned as I am (especially on this subject), but I see that “sledpress” did a better job than I could have. The Japanese culture is one of precision and a love of beauty in all its forms.

    And I want to extend my best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year.


    1. Thank you Douglas. A prosperous New Year to you too and all the rest! I’d love to know more about Japanese culture. But life is too short.


  4. Fine. Consensus.

    I’ll just grab my balalaika and go home.

    By the way, MoR, I have some disagreement with you about the mood of Così fan Tutte, also. More on that later.


    1. Later. I have to fetch some friends at Stazione Termini (Rome’s train station). Russian music is *FANTASTIC*. That’s my final word. Read what I commented over at Sledpress 🙂


    2. Well, ‘Così fan Tutte’ almost disappeared from the stages for more than one century because considered too osé. Of course it is not osé today.

      In *this post* I wrote what I think about Russian music and I also compare it (or kind of) with Austrian and German music. As I told you, Russia is very present in my blog.

      Here the *discussion* over at Sledpress about Konstantin Sherbakov, which epitomizes in my opinion this new generation of formidable eastern-European musicians who have literally swept the international musical scene after 1989 (another big novelty are though the Japanese and especially the Chinese).


      1. Thanks. Reading and listening. I was pleased that you began with Shostakovich. I, too, want to write something about him. I have no expertise in music like you (and Sled), but of osé, I got plenty.

        In any event, I appreciate the links here and at Sled’s place.


        1. Ah women, women …eternal croce, e deliziosa tentazione. Now I better understand why in the Middle Ages the men who – like myself – wanted to keep their virtue intact avoided such devilish creatures 😉


  5. Interesting post and comments MOR. Hope you are doing well and wishing you and your readers a happy new year. I hope to be more active in the blogosphere in 2011.


    1. Thank you Devinder. I wish you also a wonderful new year, to you and to all the Canadian and Indian bunch. You’ll be more active in your blog if you feel the urge for it. Ciao.


  6. Interesting point about the origin of classical music being this “liminal” Romano-Germanic region.

    Did the liminality produce the classicism?

    (I note, btw, that the region also produced Lederhosen, sausages and yodeling. Could I somehow blame that on you Romans?)


    1. @Andreas

      Did the liminality produce the classicism?

      A psychological moment of confusion? Ah ah ah.

      No, seriously. In the 1750s the prevailing German and Italian musical idioms merged into the ‘classical’ in that area.

      The Mannheim school influenced by Italy bounced back on Italy and Vienna. Mozart wallowed in Italian music. Clementi in German music. Christian Bach himself (Bach’s son) studied in Bologna and wallowed in Italian girls (he married one). The list (of wallowings) is endless.

      I always thought a probable stupidity: Beethoven being the only North outsider in the circle – his origin was Flemish – made for this reason the harmonious classical edifice collapse (as Olympian Goethe foresaw).

      Beethoven is certainly also to be blamed for the yodelling.

      He brought it from Flanders (originally a war cry) and making it melodious raised such enthusiasm among the Alpine peasants it stuck there forever 🙂 🙂

      Sausages, hard to say, but Lederhosen they surely come from our legions: I am wearing them even now 😉


  7. hello MoR!

    yes please do a post on Saturnalia – inspired by richard’s musing about christmas i just discovered the term “In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. ”

    sounds like fun!

    sorry, again, i can’t comment on anything that has to do with history… i’m a dunce in this regard.


    1. Hello Dafna!

      I am drinking and eating with friends now Dafna. I will write it. I am thrilled you are here. Tomorrow we have a party at our home for New Year’s eve, so you’ll have to wait a few days (and of course I’ll have to survive the revels). But I wish you all the best at any rate for 2011, to you and to your son!


  8. Fascinating and fun post. The music school of our university now has a paper entitled “Turning Points in Western Music” designed to give Asian musicians, who have amazing technical skills, some of the historical (and emotional) background to the music.


    1. Welcome back Thomas!

      I always wondered how Asian people can succeed with such alien-to-them repertoire. A paper may help but possibly it all also has to do with globalization. They get more and more into our culture(s), and us into theirs – philosophies, martial arts and so forth.


  9. Lord, am I late to this dance…again.

    It doesn’t just apply to music. When it was time to modernize, the Japanese undertook a project where they would combine aspects of Western culture into their own. Remember how we used to hear about the Europeans were “innovative” and Japanese were “copy-cats.”

    I remember talking to a guy in a motorcycle shop about Japanese and Italian bikes. The Japanese according to him learned the art of making bikes by copying the Italians.

    Don’t know if it’s true but I reckon it ties in to your question overall.


    1. One is never late. It does tie in. The Japanese were at first copy-cats because they had to catch up, not for lack of creative power, since in the 1850s they were still in the Middle ages. But they proved to be a great culture, like most Han related cultures, India etc. Which doesn’t diminish us Westerners although it fatally will soon put the world in a different perspective. I know you dislike the idea. And it can or it cannot happen (more yes than no in my view). I just fear the possible consequences (as for our living standards etc.), but am no fan of this or that.


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