Tōru Takemitsu, Cassiopeia

By Frank J. Oteri

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Percussionists have only recently emerged as viable soloists with orchestras. Throughout the twentieth century there have been a few top-shelf concertos for marimba—including works by Milhaud, Creston, and Takemitsu—and even occasional works involving timpani soloists, a format actually dating back to an eighteenth century musical curiosity attributed to Johann Wilhelm Hertel. But polyglot concertos requiring soloists to perform on a wide variety of instruments are a very recent musical development, though they are becoming more commonplace nowadays, thanks in large part to being championed by risk-taking virtuosos. However, the flowering of such concertos over the past generation is not completely without precedent. While technically not a concerto, Helmut Lachenmann’s 1969 orchestral work Air features a very prominent percussion solo, as does Aulis Sallinen’s Symphony No. 2 (1972). But Takemitsu’s 1971 Cassiopeia is the work that deserves acknowledgement as the earliest bona fide percussion concerto by a prominent composer. Unfortunately, as a result of both its legendary complexity and current obscurity, the work is something of a percussionist’s Holy Grail.

Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) is arguably the most important Japanese composer of the twentieth century. His output encompasses solo, chamber, and orchestral works, over a dozen of which involve soloists and orchestra, plus compositions for traditional Japanese instruments, some of Japan’s earliest electronic experiments, and over 100 film scores. Among his most important compositions are: Requiem for string orchestra (1957) which Stravinsky hailed as a masterpiece; November Steps, a double concerto for biwa, shakuhachi, and orchestra (1967); In an Autumn Garden for traditional Japanese gagaku ensemble (1979); and All in Twilight for solo guitar (1987). In 1994, he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his 1991 clarinet concerto, Fantasma/Cantos.

Takemitsu composed Cassiopeia as a result of a joint commission from the Ravinia and Tanglewood Festivals to showcase the prodigious talents of Japanese percussion star Stomu Yamashta (b. 1947), who during the heyday of his career worked with everyone from Peter Maxwell Davies and Hans Werner Henze to Al Di Meola and Steve Winwood. Yamashta premiered the work at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Seiji Ozawa on July 8, 1971, and even recorded the work with Ozawa in Tokyo for EMI shortly before the premiere. However, as a result of a manager double-booking him, Yamashta was not the soloist for the subsequent performance at Tanglewood, and the solo part, deemed unplayable by a single person, was taken up by two Boston Symphony percussionists.

Part of what makes Cassiopeia so daunting is how many things the soloist is required to play—a total of 44 instruments ranging from castanets and tambourine to Trinidadian steel drum and African karimba, to steel sheet, to pedal timpani and two bass drums operated by foot pedals. The orchestration is also somewhat unwieldy. Taking a staging cue from the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, Takemitsu surrounds the soloist with four instrumental groups, each containing five or six players plus a percussionist who also requires a significant batterie. Inside of this W, there are two 25-piece string sections. And in back of everyone, there’s a brass choir. Atmospheric sonorities, some of which are indeterminate, waft between the various subsets of the orchestra for approximately twenty minutes. (To further complicate things, the conductor’s score—issued by Takemitsu’s then French publisher Editions Salabert—is an un-engraved manuscript on oversized paper notated vertically on two pages per system but bound horizontally, requiring page-turning pyrotechnics.)

Perhaps because of all of this, Cassiopeia has not yet attained its rightful status in the percussion concerto pantheon. However, the work was a direct antecedent for Takemitsu’s 1990 From Me Flows What You Call Time for five percussionists and orchestra, a work which is slowly entering the repertoire. Robin Engelman, John Wyre, and Bill Cahn, three of the five members of the percussion ensemble Nexus which premiered Takemitsu’s later Concerto, were in the audience for Cassiopeia’s Ravinia premiere and Wyre was a soloist for the Tanglewood performance. According to Cahn, Cassiopeia “beckoned the full attention of every listener.”