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Help Solve A Special Collections Musical Mystery

Posted for Lisa Abra McColl, Digital Library Intern, Fall 2012


The first thing that struck me about the papers that were being pulled out of a pile from the special collections department was the artwork. Shapes with gold and silver metallic color, green leaves, and an orange face all decorated the first pages of each of the three thin booklets.

Zangetsu Azuma-Jishi Unknown

The second thing that struck me was the Japanese writing on the front cover. The third came when I opened it. This was sheet music. My task was to find out what this music is: who is the composer, what instrument is it written for, what is the name of it? Confident that my music background would guide me through this task I set out to find the answers.

Weeks later, having played the melodies on my clarinet, searched for the melody in Musipedia, and in ultimate desperation, tried the Japan Goggles app to read some of the writing, and gotten nowhere, I knew I needed human intervention.

A former clarinet student of mine, now living in Japan answered my call for help on Facebook. These three pieces are traditional Japanese music that were arranged by a man named Tozan Nakao (1876-1955), a famous Japanese shakuhachi player. The shakuhachi is a wooden instrument similar to the western flute. The first piece, Zangetsu (the moon seen in the morning), has a publication date of 1906 and the second, Azuma-Jishi, has a 1907 date on it.

I could still use more information. Were these pieces intended to be played by the shakuhachi, or by a stringed instrument as some of the bowing markings seem to indicate? What is the meaning of “Azuma-Jishi”? What is the title of the third piece? Is there any reason that Guillame de Machaut, a 14th century French composer, should be penciled on the back of the last piece? How did this music come to be part of the special collections at Villanova? After viewing this music in the Villanova Digital Libraries World Collection, please contact me or leave a comment if you have answers to any of these questions, or something to add about the music. Feel free to email me at lisa[dot]abra[dot]mccoll[at]gmail[dot]com.

Listen to a performance of Azuma-Jishi:



  1. Comment by Christopher Stetson — October 26, 2012 @ 7:24 PM

    Hi, Lisa, Michael, and all. I play shakuhachi, an end-blown flute traditionally made of bamboo, though modern wooden instruments are available. I don’t have specific knowledge of these pieces, but Tozan did write for the sankyoku (“three music”) ensemble of shakuhachi, shamisen, and koto seen in the video. Tozan was a pioneer of writing music for traditional Japanese instruments in the early 20th century in an attempt to save the tradition from extinction. Usually the music is written in separate parts for each instrument, and without seeing the music itself, it’s hard to say which part you have. Your post implies that this is written in staff notation, which is unusual in my experience. Most that I’ve seen is written in traditional Japanese notation for each instrument. I can be fairly certain, though, that the music wasn’t originally for a bowed instrument, though a traditional Japanese bowed instrument, the kokyu, was used in sankyoku ensemble until the late 19th century, it being replaced by the shakuhachi at that time. Perhaps this is an edition for violin, which would not be unheard of, given Tozan’s desire to bring the tradition forward into modern times. As you already know, Tozan lived well into the 20th century, and if my memory serves he studied violin in France. There are also tape recordings of his shakuhachi playing preserved at the John Knowles Paine Music Library at Harvard University. I don’t know of any connection between Tozan and Machaut. It’s possible that an owner of the music was interested, like me, in both Asian and ancient European music. Lastly, I don’t speak Japanese, but I believe “Jishi” means “Lion Dance”, and Azuma is one of the old Japanese provinces, so “Azuma Lion Dance” would be my guess.

  2. Comment by Christopher Stetson — October 26, 2012 @ 7:45 PM

    Ah, I just followed the link to see the actual music of the “third piece”. I can’t say for sure which instrument it’s written for, but the little staves at the top give tunings for koto and shamisen, so I presume this is the part for shakuhachi, perhaps arranged for violin, though one of the features of shakuhachi is the ability to play rubato, like the violin. Again, in my limited experience use of staff notation in this repertoire is unusual, the shakuhachi parts more commonly being notated with the system developed by Tozan himself. A Japanese reader ought to be able to clarify some of the questions, though!
    Best of luck, and thanks again for an interesting question.

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Last Modified: October 25, 2012

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