Gesine Denker / Yomiuri Shimbun Frankfurt Bureau
"Old Europe" is the cradle of classical music. Lots of
Japanese music students go abroad to take singing lessons,
especially in Germany and Austria, home of many famous
composers of classical lieder like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert
The work of these old masters is well known in Japan. Songs
like "Lorelei" are translated into Japanese and used in music
classes in schools there. But it has been a one-way flow:
There is not a single song from Japan commonly known in
A new project has been started to offset this imbalance.
Pianist Matthias Graff-Schestag, 45, and a Japanese friend,
Toru Tanabe, 42, a classical baritone who has lived in Germany
for about 16 years, want to publish a book of Japanese songs
translated into German.
"We want to open this one-way street to oncoming traffic,"
says Graff-Schestag, who teaches at colleges of music in
Frankfurt and Darmstadt in central Germany. Advancing the
process of mutual cultural exchange is the aim of their
project: "I want to bring Japanese culture closer," Tanabe
says, "and make it more comprehensible."
Both men are convinced that the language
barrier--compounded by totally different writing systems--is
the main reason that Japanese culture plays a minor role in
Germany, and in Europe in general. This has been Tanabe's
experience as a professional Japanese singer in Germany.
"If you have the opportunity to sing Japanese songs, people
like it, but they like it because it's exotic," he complains.
"If you don't understand the language of a song, you don't
understand the music. You can only feel the atmosphere--and
from my perspective I've always thought this was not enough."
Consequently, the two musicians decided to put together a
selection of 31 songs that they translated together over the
course of a year.
An earlier effort had been made by Swiss tenor Ernst
Hafliger. Around 1990, Hafliger recorded a CD of classical
Japanese art songs translated into German.
However, Tanabe and Graff-Schestag's project has a
different objective. "We want Germans to actively use this
Japanese songbook, sing the songs themselves," Graff-Schestag
They had no interest in producing a dusty museum piece. "We
want people to compare something vivid from everyday Japanese
life with their own everyday lives," Tanabe says.
Hence, the book consists of more than the equivalents of
classical lieder, and presents a cross-section of songs from
the repertoire of common people. The content ranges from
traditional songs like "Sakura, Sakura" (Cherry Blossoms) and
"Kojo no Tsuki" (Moon at the Ruined Castle) to emotional enka
songs and modern karaoke hits like "Kita no Yado Kara" (From
the Old Inn in the North) or "Ii Hi Tabidachi" (Good Day for
Public reaction to a recital in May last year, where Tanabe
and Graff-Schestag presented a bilingual program for the first
time, gave an initial hint that their concept of cultural
mediation might work. Tanabe recalls, "While I was singing in
Japanese people listened with some kind of curiosity, but when
I switched into German, they visibly began to understand and
started nodding their heads approvingly."
This concert led to the idea of compiling Japanese songs
into a German-language songbook. Graff-Schestag, who founded
his own small music publishing company, Thiasos, in 1996, was
enthusiastic about the idea, especially since he is more
interested in the "cultural mission," he says, than in
economic gain from this enterprise.
While working with Tanabe on the translating, he soon felt
the linking of the cultures. Graff-Schestag shaped Tanabe's
literal translations into words matching the rhythm of the
music by playing and testing around 100 variations. Sometimes,
however, he could not grasp the associations inherent in the
original text. The song "Kita no Yado Kara," for example,
required some explanations by Tanabe.
In this award-winning song by Harumi Miyako, the heroine
makes herself up alone late at night, longing for her absent
lover. "I could not understand why this woman should put on
makeup for the night. So without further ado I eliminated
that," Graff-Schestag laughs.
Later, he realized that this was essential to understanding
the song's protagonist's yearning for death. "We consider it
important to maintain these Japanese associations in the
translation and not replace them with German ones," he
The songbook Alte und neue Lieder aus Japan (Old and New
Songs from Japan: ISMN M-50087-920-6) will be published in an
edition of about 250 copies distributed via the Internet and
music shops. It will debut in a concert in Frankfurt Thursday.
There are plans to follow up with a CD as well.
With the language impediments sorted out, and the music
itself "not as exotic as I had expected," Graf-Schestag says,
"people might even join in."
Tanabe at least is confident: "Any German can sing Japanese