• 3(pic,afl).2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/4331/timp+4perc/hp.cel.pf/str
  • 27 min

Programme Note

First performance:
August 6, 1995
Pacific Music Festival Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Sapporo Art Park, Sapporo, Japan

Composer note:

Shówa/Shoáh is a work for orchestra written for the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra on the occasion of the concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The piece was inspired by the sound of Heiwa No Kane, the bell which is rung at Hiroshima's annual ceremony commemorating the most tragic event of the Shówa Era, the time of "Bright Peace." On a previous visit to Hiroshima I noticed that the bell seemed to produce different tones according to how hard and where it was struck as well as where the listener was standing in relation to the bell. I imagined a crowd of people standing at the ceremony hearing the bell and it sounding differently to each one of them. I imagined the sound evoking different musical and emotional associations within each listener. Some of the listeners might be Japanese, some American, some Western, some Eastern, some old, some young. To each it is different.

This ceremony of remembrance in Hiroshima has always made a great impression on me. Likewise, I have been very deeply moved on those occasions when, in Israel, I have been present on the Day of Remembrance, when the entire country comes to a complete stop and people stand silently in the streets in tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, which in Hebrew is called Shoáh. The coincidence of these two similarly sounding words, associated with the commemoration of such deep loss of peoples so far apart was the second main inspiration of this piece.

All the themes of Shówa/Shoáh come from the sounds of the bell. From its notes arise four songs without words; a meditation, a lament, a lullaby, and a prayer. These songs constantly transform themselves between eastern and western musical vocabularies. In my mind, I imagined three singers, one from Japan, one from Israel, and one from America, singing old songs of remembrance and consolation. Singing lullabies for those who have been lost for children who are living now, reassuring them that we will never allow this to happen again. I imagined one singer beginning a song and his colleagues from around the world hearing similarities with their musical traditions continuing in their own musical language. A dialogue of musical responses results which blends together in a united song. In this way, the piece is also inspired by the Japanese word Shówa, meaning "many people repeat the words after one person speaks," somewhat in the manner of a Greek chorus.

The piece moves in a sort of dream state, on the border between meditation and sleep, searching for resolution and peace. Along the way, there are many opportunities for orchestra soloists to take up and vary the songs. I have written these solo parts with many members of this year's Pacific Music Festival Orchestra, none of whom were born when the tragic events took place, specifically in mind.

The piece has come into existence very quickly. Two months ago, I had planned to present a different piece, my Street Song, as the first work on this program. But Shówa/Shoáh seemed to come more and more into my mind, making its first strong call to be heard during my first trip to Japan this year, in May. I began to realize that I must write this piece. In June, I elected to stay on after a concert tour in Israel so as to work on the piece in Jerusalem. Being in Jerusalem, a city which is now struggling to find peace, strongly reaffirmed my feelings of the shared symbolism of these two cities. Most of Shówa/Shoáh was written in ten days in Jerusalem and finished the following two weeks in Hokkaido.

I hope to have succeeded in writing a piece which is one, long song whose melodic turns can convey the enormous compassion I feel for all those who have lost family--regardless of nationality, religion, or race--and who we all pray may have learned something from the tragic events of Hiroshima and the last world war. I respectfully dedicate this piece and offer its premiere as my gift to the people of Japan in their commemoration of the tragedy of Hiroshima and to the continuing and constant friendship between Japan and the United States and the family of all nations.

Finally, I would like to thank Robert Osborne, Colin Matthews, and Diana Jaensch for their invaluable assistance in helping me bring this piece to completion.

—Michael Tilson Thomas, July 19, 1995

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