Music Mondays: Akutagawa: Trinita Sinfonica

As with many modernist composers, especially those working outside of the European/American limelight (such as it is/was), there's not a ton of readily available information out there about Akutagawa Yasushi (芥川 也寸志 for those of you who read kanji). He was born in 1925 to the novelist Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (who appears to be rather better known), and studied music at the Tōkyō Conservatory. Beginning in 1954, he made many trips to the Soviet Union, during which he befriended Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and Dmitri Kabalevskii, all of whom had an impact on his musical style, as did Sergei Prokofiev, tho he died in 1953, so Akutagawa never met him in person.

Keenly concerned with matters of musical copyright, Akutagawa spent the last twenty years of his life (1969-89) involved in the upper levels of the administration of the Japanese Federation of Composers, while also serving as the president of the Japanese Society of Rights of Authors and Composers from 1981-9. Perhaps in part due to this extensive service career, in 1990 the Akutagawa Composition Award was established in his memory.

Undaunted by this lack of exhaustive biography, let us proceed to the music. Today, we feature the Trinita Sinfonica from 1948. One of the things I find fascinating about this piece is that even tho it doesn't sound much like his later output, many of the hallmarks of his style are already in place, from the crisp, splashy orchestrations to the subtle and complex use of ostinati (repetitive "motor rhythms" that propel the work forward). You can hear this right from the get-go with a bouncy bassoon paving the way for a florid clarinet solo. The rest of the first movement proceeds in a similar vein, with brash outbursts alternating with somewhat more pensive interludes. The pensive moods don't quite win out, but the movement still ends more with a sigh than with a bang.

The second movement bears the title of "Ninnerella", an appellation I have never seen used anywhere else. It also begins with the solo bassoon, tho in a somewhat more melodic vein than before. (Confession time: I really want to play that solo someday. Just saying . . . ) This provides the basis for an extensive and heartfelt rhapsody, which builds to an impassioned climax that wouldn't sound out of place in a movie score. (And indeed, Akutagawa wrote several film scores over the course of his life.) As the waves of emotion ebb away, the bassoon returns briefly and returns things to a somewhat happier place, but the music is still tinged by melancholy and regret.

And then, with a burst of enthusiastic chords, we're off to the finale. If I'm being honest, despite the earlier bassoon solos, this movement is the real reason I'm sharing this work. Like the first movement, it's generally upbeat and positive, but there's a biting edge to its cheer. It's as tho this music looks out on the world and says "Ah yes, it's all very tragic, isn't it? Still, one must press on, no? Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. Smile through your tears; we must make our own meaning in the face of it all, so let us choose to hope.". It's a celebration shot thru with a keening, piercing sense of brevity and loss, a joy that is intimately wrapped up in the knowledge that it is imperfect and impermanent, but still worth singing over. There's a desperation to it, but it's exquisitely balanced with the fierce urgency of the moment. It's passionate and honest and deeply deeply human. It's a magnificent end to a masterful piece, and well worth many a repeated listening.