‘Ukrainian Night’ in Sendai – in 1903?

My last blog took at its starting point a performance at a concert in Sendai in 1916: It’s a Long Way to Tipperary (billed as ‘Tipperary Song’).

The piece I’m writing about today is a bit of a mystery: with regard to the title, the connection with Ukraine seems to be the only certainty. The concert in question took place in Sendai on 31 January 1903. It was the first to be organized by the newly-founded music club at the Second High School, one of the government’s prestigious numbered’ high schools. It may even have been the first concert in Sendai featuring almost exclusively Western music. The institution of the public concert originated in Europe, but in many of the early concerts in Japan traditional Japanese genres dominated.

The programme was published in English in the school’s Shôshikai Association Magazine. Here it is:*


Item twelve is written in what I (and Google) took to be Cyrillic, written by someone who hasn’t got a clue or a typewriter with the required characters:

12. Violin Ykpauhckar Hozß Mr. Y. Okamoto

(who may well be Fusao/Husao 岡本房雄Okamoto, with the Y. being another instance of botched Cyrillic)

A friend who has a degree in Eastern European studies and Russian friends whom she could ask, informed me that the most likely transcription was Украинская ночь (Ukrainskaja notj) meaning ‘Ukrainian Night’. My own search produced two Russian operas that include an aria of that title: Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, May Night (1879), ‘Ukrainian Night and Levko’s Song’ in Act 3; Tchaikovsky, Mazepa (Мазепа), also known as Mazeppa (1881-3), based on a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin, Mazepa’s Monologue in Act 2, Scene 1, Тиха украинская ночь (Tikha ukraynskaya noch; ‘Quiet is the Ukrainian Night’).

I’m not sure that either of them fits the bill: partly because I cannot not find a published transcription for violin (so far), and partly because ‘Mr. Y. Okamoto’ was almost certainly a pretty awful violinist (this is suggested by other sources, including Kate Hansen’s writings), so the transcription would have to be fairly undemanding. At this point Youtube came up with: Pavel Baransky – “Moonlit Night” (Ukrainian folk song):

Given the frequently imprecise titles in programmes, this seems a real possibility. The tune has going for it that it’s dead easy to reproduce on the violin (I tried, of course). And when I mentioned the song to a Ukrainian friend, she knew immediately which song I meant. ‘What a Moonlit Night’, was composed by Mykola Vitaliyovych Lysenko (1842–1912) to lyrics by Mykhailo Petrovych Starytsky (1840–1904). The song’s popularity is also suggested by a more recent upload to Youtube of a super-romantic, mega-performance of the song, “Dedicated to All Brave Ukrainian People”:

For all I know (I don’t), Mr. Okamoto studied violin with one of the Russian Orthodox missionaries – one of his contemporaries in Sendai certainly did: Maedako Shinkin/Nobuchika 前田河信近, who likewise performed in the concert (No. 16,  H. Maidako is almost certainly him, the ‘H’ may well be another case of ‘Cyrillic’; it could also be his daughter Haruko春湖 or 春子, who would have been very young at the time, however). – Incidentally, Iakov Tichai, who taught music, including violin, first in Hakodate (from 1873) and then in Tokyo at the Russian Orthodox seminary, came from the area of present-day Ukraine, as did Dimitrii Livosvski, who likewise taught violin.

The (pseudo-) Cyrillic title suggests that Okamoto didn’t learn the tune by ear. But did he use published sheet music? It’s not inconceivable that his teacher just wrote down the notes himself – in which case there is no way of determining the piece for sure. If Okamoto did not learn from the Russian missionaries, he may have studied with one of their pupils. Kate Hansen believed that he had studied in Tokyo. He does not appear in the records of the Tokyo Academy of Music, but he may have studied at the seminary of the Russian Orthodox church, or else privately with one of its teachers.

One possibility would be the violinist Kisu Yoshinoshin 金須吉嘉之進 (1868–1951). Born in Sendai, he enrolled in the seminary of the Russian Orthodox church in Tokyo in 1881, at a time when the seminary’s music department offered more advanced training than almost any other institution in the country. From 1891 to 1894 Kisu studied in St. Petersburg, where his teachers included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, thus becoming one of the first Japanese to study music at a conservatoire abroad. After his return he taught and performed in Tokyo where he opened a private music school. After the earthquake in 1923, he temporarily relocated to Sendai and taught there until 1939.

All this, unfortunately, must remain speculation until further evidence emerges. Nevertheless, like Tipperary, the musical composition with the mysterious title, represent one of many examples of how the outside world was increasingly represented in the once relatively remote town of Sendai.

More details about concert culture in Sendai in the early twentieth century will feature in my forthcoming book, tentatively entitled, Music and the Rise of Modern Japan.

References and Further Reading:

* Concert programme in Shôshikai zasshi, No. 55 (Meiji 36.6.20), p. 77; the programme is in English: I have left the original spelling

Kisu’s return from Russia was announced in the magazine Ongaku Zasshi 50 (January 1895), p. 34. The claim that he had graduated from the conservatoire was probably exaggerated.

Kisu and Maedako (but not Okamoto) are treated in: Nakamura, Rihei. Kirisuto-kyô to Nihon no yôgaku. Tokyo: Ôzorasha, 1996.

Author Bio

Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen