The Tale of the Heike『平家物語』

The Tale of the Heike is the great classic of medieval Japanese literature. It is an epic account of the glory and final destruction of the Heike clan (also called Taira clan) at the end of the 12th century. From the early 13th century, many stories of the Heike compiled by a courtier, Fujiwara no Yukinaga, were narrated by blind minstrels known as biwa h˘shi to the accompaniment of the Biwa. This collection of stories abounds with heroic deeds, romance and tragedy.

1. Gion Sh˘ja (Gion Temple) 祇園精舎

Arranged in 1994 by Suga K˘ka from old Chikuzen repertoire. Voice and Chikuzen Biwa by Yoko Hiraoka.

The central theme of The Tale of the Heike is the Buddhist law of impermanence (muj˘ in Japanese), which is beautifully encapsulated in the opening passage of the first chapter; “The sound of the bell at the Gion Temple echoes the impermanence of all things...”

Libretto translation

The sound of the bells at the Gion temple
Echoes the impermanence of all things;

The color of the sala flowers
Reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.

“...Closer to home, there have been Masakado of Shohei,
Sumitomo of Tengyo, Gishin of Kowa, and Shinrai of Heiji,
every one of them proud and mighty.
But closest of all, and utterly beyond the power of mind
to comprehend, or tongue to relate,
is the tale of Taira no Ason Kiyomori,
the Rokuhara Buddhist Novice and Former Chancellor...”

Blossoms form haze like nine-folded clouds,
In the past, they ‘d say,
“if you are not Heike, you are less than human.”
Heike’s clan fled the flowing capital to the Western sea,
with flames and flowers illuminating their retreat.
It was their fate to perish.

-- It lies ruined now
the old capital of Shiga
yet the cherry trees bloom as in days gone by.--
(poem by Taira no Tadanori)

A Taira poet who wrote the refined poems
and a young nobleman who played elegant flute music,
all perished.

The proud do not endure,
They are like a passing dream on a spring night;
The mighty fall at last,
They are as dust before the wind.

2. Aki no Kotonoha (Poetry of Autumn) 秋の言の葉

Composed ca. 1877 by Nishiyama Tokumoichi (1857~98), lyrics by Ikeda Mochimasa. Voice and two Koto parts by Yoko Hiraoka.

“Aki no Kotonoha” artfully evokes the sentimental beauty of the Sagano area on the outskirts of Kyoto by musically suggesting the sounds of autumn insects and distant kinuta fulling blocks. The lyrics are inspired by the story of Lady Kog˘ from The Tale of the Heike. She was the favorite lady of Emperor Takakura but fled his palace because of political intrigue. She was pursued to her hiding place in Sagano by a personal aide of the heart-broken Emperor.

Libretto translation

The leaves of the empress tree begin to fall, one by one.
Cool air breathes through one’s sleeves in the morning and evening.

Dew fall on a thousands grass leaves in the fields
Evoking sadness from Lady Kog˘*1
As she recalls Emperor Takakura’s affection was as warm and moist as the dew.

The pine crickets chirp, pining for a visit,
Like the gentle ring of the bell cricket, the sound of Lady Kog˘’s koto playing resonates across the field.

Drawn to those sounds was a warrior, Nakakuni,
Riding on a horse along the voices of stirrup beetles.

Amongst the humble homes in a remote village,
Grasshoppers chirp as if to say
“Darn raggedy clothes.”
Weaver crickets call here and there,
matched by the sound of the fulling block.

<instrumental interlude>

As dusk falls,
A pure light shines from the clear harvest moon.

As sung in the great poem by Minamoto no Shitag˘ of long ago
One realizes that tonight is truly high autumn, by counting the months.
His poem was passed down to us
as a majestic example of the way of poetry.


3. Yashima八島

Composed ca. 1782 by Fujio K˘t˘ (fl. 1772-81). Voice and Jiuta Shamisen by Yoko Hiraoka.

“Yashima” is based on a Noh play of the same title written by Zeami in the 15th century. A monk traveling to Yashima Bay encountered an old ‘fisherman’ who gave a strangely detailed account of the epic battle of Yashima from centuries ago. While the monk was asleep that night in the old man’s hut, the ghost of Yoshitsune, a famous warrior, appeared and spoke of his endless battles. The monk awoke at daybreak and the ghost disappeared into the white waves, with the wind blowing amidst the voices of seagulls.

Libretto translation

Fishing keeps us tossing on the waves.
All veiled in haze the ocean deep
Where fishing-craft gleam, vague in lingering light.

The shore winds blow on, soft and mild,
Neither shining clear, nor clouded quite,
a veiled moon makes a spring night
peerless in all the world.

Priest Saigyo’s poems might
Implore poignant sighs,
But it is the moon that inspires
Midnight reverie,
Darkness is a friend of stealth.
The south wind is rising,
Bring it on, and the clouds as well,

Again, war cries from the Ashura Realm
And archers' yells shake the earth.
Who today is my Ashura foe?
What? Noritsune, Lord of Noto?
A great one, and well-tried, I know!
On the mind's eye bursts Dan-no-ura,
That mighty sea fight whence I now come
Back to this world,
back to birth and death.
The sea and mountains quake.
From the ships, war howls;
Ashore, shields like waves;
Glinting, moon-struck,The fire of swords;
Salt-side mirrored,
Helmet stars.Water and sky,
Sky running on in cloud billows,
Thundering clash, counterclash,
The fleet's struggle, sally, retreat,
Lift and plunge, rage on:Until the spring night waves yield up dawn,
Foemen the eye saw were flocking gulls,
War houwls the ear heard,
Wind down the shore through tall pines rushing; Wind down the shore through tall pines raging;
A morning gale, no more.


The Tale of Genji『源氏物語』

The Tale of Genji is one of the earliest novels in human history. This classic book was written at the beginning of the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting in the imperial court. Hikaru Genji, the protagonist of the tale, was born the second son of the Emperor by his consort, Lady Kiritsubo. Genji was nicknamed “The Shining Prince” (Hikaru Genji) because of his peerless beauty and genius. Pursuing the ideal of his mother, who died when he was only three years old, he became involved with many women during his lifetime. The book is an account of his many romantic liaisons and the accompanying court intrigues.

4. Kiritsubo (Paulownia Pavillion) 桐壺

Composed ca. 1664 by Yatsuhashi Kengy˘ (1614~85). Voice and Koto by Yoko Hiraoka.

This suite of six songs predominantly expresses the loneliness of the night. The first song is based on the opening chapter of The Tale of Genji, “Kiritsubo.” It expresses the Emperor’s grief after losing his great love, Lady Kiritsubo, to premature death. The fourth song is based on the chapter of “Utsusemi” (Cicada Shell). Resisting Genji’s pursuit, the wife of an official slipped out of her chamber before Genji entered. She left her robe, which resembled a cicada shell, on the floor.

Libretto translation (by Tsuge Gen'ichi)

The emperor's vow
Of everlasting love
With the lady of the Paulownia Court -
To share a wing in the sky and
A branch on earth -
How sad to see it
An empty dream,
The fate of this transient life.
Awake from a dream
Of a mid-summer night,
I seem to see her still.
Longing burns
In my heart, like a firefly,
And radiates about me.
How can I tell it
To others?
The autumn night
Grows old,
And the moon sinks
Towards the west.
How lonely the sound
Of the wind in the pines,
The roaring of waves,
And the cry of a deer.
Guided by a boy,
The younger brother
Of the lady of the Locust Shell,
Genji stole into her room
Only to find
That she had slipped out.
How sweet the scent
Lingering on her empty robe.
Who is that,
So late at night,
Tapping at my brushwood gate?
A visit from
The wind blowing down
Off the mountain peak,
Or the cries
Of a solitary water rail?

The warbler
Spins threads
Of green willow
As he sings.
The warbler
On a plum branch
Sews blossoms
On a bamboo hat.

5. Momiji no Ga (Celebration beneath the Autumn Leaves) 紅葉の賀

Composed in 2008 by Yoko Hiraoka for The Tale of Genji Millennium Celebration at JapanFest 2008 in Atlanta, sponsored by the Consulate-General of Japan. The lyrics are from the Yamada Koto School piece, “Momiji no Ga.” Voice and Chikuzen Biwa by Yoko Hiraoka.

This piece is based on the chapter, “Momiji no Ga.” Genji adored his stepmother, Lady Fujitsubo, who strikingly resembled his deceased mother, and this initially childish affection turned into forbidden love. In the autumn, the Emperor, Genji’s father, arranged a private event for the now-pregnant Fujitsubo. Genji’s dances were so beautiful that he brought tears to everyone’s eyes.

Libretto translation

His Majesty’s visit to the Suzaku Palace took place
in the tenth month, the season of rain showers.
The royal palace was busy.
A full rehearsal of music and dance
in front of his majesty was exceptionally brilliant.

The adorned stairs glowed even more
with the presence of Shining Prince Genji.
He danced beautifully, waving his sleeves of damask and brocade, with an unearthly quality.

The Emperor was profoundly entranced
seeing Genjis dream-like elegance.

Deeply touched with Genji’s beauty, all the attendants, old and young, nobles and lesser, drenched their sleeves with tears.

His Majesty’s visit was carried out
with great magnificence.

The coloured leaves were radiant.
Leaves scattered and faces sparkled with delight.
As the dancers came on stage, their sleeves displayed many colours, including ocean blue.
Famous music: “Blue Sea Waves” was played.
With chrysanthemums in his hair, Genji’s presence was full of fragrance.
Harmonious music played as the dancers left the stage.

---- My unhappiness made me hardly the man
to stand up and dance;
did you divine what I meant
when I waved those sleeves of mine?-----
(Genji’s poem to Fujitsubo)

The glory of those nobles who danced on that day
will shine down the generations.
This story will be handed down to posterity.
This story will be handed down to posterity.

6. Yugao (Moonflower) 夕顔

Composed ca. 1814 for voice and Shamisen by Kikuoka Kengy˘ (1792~1847), Koto part by Yaezaki Kengy˘ (1776?~1848). Voice, Jiuta Shamisen and Koto by Yoko Hiraoka.

The song text is based on the chapter of “Yűgao.” Prince Genji, whilst admiring moonflowers in Goj˘, received a fan with a poem written on it. Curious to know the female author, Genji encountered Lady Yűgao and immediately fell in love with her. One night, as they slept, the jealous spirit of Genji’s lover, Lady Rokuj˘, appeared and Yűgao died from the shock.

Libretto translation (by Tsuge Gen'ichi)

Who lives here?
He has a servant inquire
In the twilight,
Genji's cart comes to a halt.
Let's peek
Through a crevice
In the high hedge-fence
By this tasteful house
To which persons rarely come.

Holding a fan
Permeated with faint scent
Of fragrant incense,
The owner of the house
Offers Genji a blossom
Of the 'Evening Faces'
Glittering with pale dew.

In a brief dream, he is
Bound together with Yugao,
A flower ever more beautiful.
When he awakes,
He feels keenly
The chilly winds of midnight.



Yoko Hiraoka

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