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Loneliness and sadness in Ancient Japan – “Lady Murasaki”

Released today: “Lady Murasaki (Biwa to Kyoto)”

Who were the world’s first novelists? In Japan, the first person to write a work of fiction in the form of a novel was Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who lived in the 11th century AD/CE and wrote the famous work of Japanese literature, “The Tale of Genji”. She was quite a woman, exceptionally accomplished and creative, and a rather unusual person for the era in which she lived, the Heian Period, and the place where she worked, the Imperial Court. When I wanted to write a song from the Far East for my album, “Divan”, on which all the songs are inspired by ancient texts, I immediately thought of Lady Murasaki and the waka that she had written. I chose a few of the huge number she had written, translated them, set them into verses, and fitted them to the composition. I changed the words of the waka, and the order in which she wrote them, to tell Murasaki’s life story. She really was a most extraordinary person.

A drawing of Lady Murasaki doing her writing, made on a gilded paper fan, by an unknown artist. It dates from 17th century Japan (Edo Period), and is kept in the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

In about the year 1005 AD/CE, when she was about 30 years old, she was appointed by Fujiwara no Michinaga, head of the ruling clan, to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi at the Imperial court in Kyoto. After five or six years, she left court to accompany Empress Shōshi into retirement in the Lake Biwa region. This is what the name of the song refers to; Biwa and Kyoto. By all accounts, she was not happy being so far away from Kyoto.


Bearing in mind the sadness of many of her waka, the song had to sound somber as well. The deep, darkly resonant tone of the song was created by Luke Garfield, the bass instrumentalist. It is performed in a heartfelt and refined manner by lead vocalist Ben Alexander. The instruments used in this composition include the Japanese koto, moon guitar, guzheng, and shakuhachi flute. These instruments are not tuned to the Western, Heptatonic scale and have degrees of pitch bending. The shakuhachi flute, in particular, has a plangent, melancholy sound, which suits the lyrics. These differences result in a few instances of atonality that are resolved, but do create a sense of tension-and-release in the composition.


Waka and haiku were, at the time, produced as frequently as ordinary writing, and was a common activity amongst the nobility as signs of sophistication and education. A waka poem typically consists of 31 syllables, in 5 lines of 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7 syllables each, with the final 2 lines being an extended metaphor or simile. This of course does not work for the typical Western music structure of 4 or 8 notes per bar. I therefore made the lines of my waka-type lyrics 4 – 4 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 4 – 6 syllables in 7 lines, also totalling 31 syllables.

I had to rearrange the number of syllables per line to fit the song’s rhythm and arrangement, and to make the lines rhyme. (Luckily, romanized Japanese writing and English words are both constructed in syllables.)

Lyrics of “Lady Murasaki (Biwa to Kyoto)”

The lyrics are in the video, as well as below. The table shows the lines of the waka as well as the syllable count for each line.

The video includes the spoken lyrics of one of the verses, in Japanese, as Murasaki had written them.

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