Friday, May 4, 2012

The Seven Samurai and...Jean Sibelius?

Jean Sibelius

Of course, the main focus of this blog is Akira Ifukube. However, every so often, I may feel the desire to go slightly off topic and take a look at something that may not be 100% Ifukube-centric; having said that, there will always be a connection to Ifukube in one way or another.

Thus, the following post is concerned not with Akira Ifukube, for the most part, but with another towering figure in the world of Japanese composers, Fumio Hayasaka.

Born in 1914, the same year as Ifukube, Hayasaka spent a substantial part of his youth in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Ifukube, then a university student, met Hayasaka and quickly became close friends with him; they had a mutual love for music and both aspired to be composers.

Fumio Hayasaka and Akira Ifukube in 1948

In 1939, Hayasaka moved to Tokyo to begin a celebrated career as a composer of film music. Perhaps his most famous score is for Akira Kurosawa's undeniable 1954 classic, The Seven Samurai. (Of course, that same year, Ifukube would score and equally iconic film, Gojira.)

Now, I was doing some reading up on Hayasaka this past week and noticed a few Internet forums where it was asserted that Hayasaka created the main theme of the Seven Samurai by "lifting" one of the principal themes from an orchestral work by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The work in question is En Saga (the title is Swedish and means The Tale) (1892). This discussion was of particular interest to me because, without doubt, Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, as is Hayasaka and, honestly, I had never made much of a connection between the two.

I was a little perplexed at first because I though "There is nothing in that film's music that sounds like Sibelius." And then, after giving it a bit more thought, I exclaimed to myself "Wait a minute...maybe these crazy forum people are on to something!"  

First of all, I will assume many, if not most of you reading these words are not necessarily familiar with Sibelius and En Saga for that matter. I urge all of you to hear this work in its entirety at some point; it's a wild, mysterious work and wholly evocative of a world of ancient myth.

I reference you to the following YouTube video of the acclaimed Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic in a performance from the late 1930s. (Yes, I could have found a more recent and hi-fi recording of this work on YouTube, but Beecham was one of the foremost Sibelius conductors of his time...or indeed of any time...and quality is quality, no matter how old it is.) The part I want you to listen for is the theme starting at 5:10 in the video. (And like I said, don't be afraid to listen to the rest!)

Now, let's hear the main theme from Hayasaka's Seven Samurai score as sampled from the original 1954 soundtrack recording, also courtesy of YouTube. The theme can be heard right at the beginning of the video:

Pretty similar themes, if I may say so myself! And to think, people have been chatting about this for some time on the Internet and this Sibelius and Hayasaka fan only makes this connection now, and not on my own. For shame!

So now, the question arises: did Hayasaka consciously copy/imitate Sibelius in this famous film score?

The answer: WHO KNOWS? I will, however, offer a personal theory.

It is possible and perhaps likely that Hayasaka was not very familiar Sibelius in his early musical life. Again, Ifukube and Hayasaka were close friends who had virtually identical musical tastes. That is, they were mostly attracted to the French impressionists (Debussy, Ravel), the Russian and Spanish nationalists (Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, de Falla, Granados) and the Russian "modernists" (Stravinsky, Prokofiev). Hayasaka may have had more sympathy for the late-Romantics though, while Ifukube was virtually anti-Romantic. While Sibelius is hard to pigeon-hole as either a late-Romantic or an out-and-out modernist...perhaps he can be labeled as both...his music does not seem to have played a large part in the musical self-education of either Ifukube or Hayasaka.

It's possible, though, that Hayasaka had a personal affection for Sibelius and it did not manifest itself readily around Ifukube. Again, Hayasaka was much more sympathetic to a late-Romantic idiom; his piano concerto and solo piano pieces express this the best. It's conceivable that when he moved to Tokyo and was outside of Ifukube's strong influence, he was able to study music that might not have been as readily available around his friend who remained up north in Hokkaido for several more years to come.

Of course, all of this is conjecture and none of it is proof of anything. Maybe Hayasaka was more or less ignorant of Sibelius and his Seven Samurai theme, while similar to that passage in En Saga, is just coincidentally similar? I'd say, that is more than likely the case. It is tantalizing to think, however, that Hayasaka was influenced by the Sibelius and the Seven Samurai score, as Japanese as it often is, is actually part Finnish!


  1. Thanks Erik, a good read as always.

  2. Thank YOU for reading, jezB. The blog is not as active as it once was, but I'll try to be more regular.