You can’t truly understand the subject of “Ghosts of Hiroshima,” our podcast episode, without giving a listen to the Hiroshima Symphony. Here is a recording of the Japan Philharmonic performing Masao Ohki’s most famous work, followed by notes from the American Record Guide (as printed on the Naxos website).
Listen to the Hiroshima Symphony: Notes from the American Records Guide
“The Hiroshima Symphony is in mostly atonal language without the influence of folk music, though there is a spiritual element from the Japanese Noh plays. Katayama describes it as “characterized by chromatic melodies in narrow ranges, dissonant harmonies, tonecluster-like sounds generated by the accumulation of semitones and special effects by strings and wind”. It ranges from eerie to bleak to stormy (mainly the explosive clusters). I know very little music by Ligeti, but the more eerie parts of Hiroshima remind me of what I have heard. Some might think it “difficult” from this description. On the contrary, it is an expressionist piece that is cinematic in its images and moods.
The Prelude introduces most of its elements. The names of the interior movements go a long way toward describing the work: ‘Ghosts’ is a procession of ghosts depicted by treading low strings with ominous trumpet fanfares in the background; ‘Fire’ is depicted by storm music set in a higher register than usual with shrieking downward chromatic scales; ‘Water’ produces bleak contrasts, with extreme registers painting eerie clouds above and burdened, exhausted seekers trodding below; ‘Rainbow’ has a cloud formed by a chordal outburst before a high, creaky violin solo evokes a ghoulish rainbow; ‘Boys and Girls’ has a winding flute melody producing the children’s calling out to the emptiness of a dark string melody; and in ‘Atomic Desert’ screechy high string harmonics and piccolo create a whistling wind, and intervening clusters seem to picture skulls. ‘Elegy’ alternates a dark Bartokian string passage with thundering chords in the low brass and percussion, signifying morbid sadness, terror, and finally, a burst of tutti and percussive anger.
This symphony employs a common array of modern techniques that convey emotional and geographical devastation well enough to reward repeated listening. It stands well alone but would be a terrific sound track to a movie about atomic devastation or Hiroshima itself.” – American Records Guide, 2007.