'Japan's Beethoven': Understanding the Ghost Composer Scandal

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Mamoru Samuragochi

Leonard Bernstein, Paul McCartney and Osvaldo Golijov all wrote high-profile music that wasn't entirely theirs. They used orchestrators (Bernstein in West Side Story), musical collaborators (McCartney's concert works) and assistant melodists (Golijov’s Sidereus) to help get their thoughts on paper.

But while many composers farm out tasks to students and assistants with full transparency, the scandal surrounding the Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi goes far deeper.

The man known as “Japan’s Beethoven” — because he supposedly continued to compose despite a profound hearing loss — admitted last week that he’d been paying someone else to write his music for nearly two decades. What’s more, his ghost writer also came forward to reveal how little he had been paid, and to claim that Samuragochi’s deafness was all an act (Samuragochi on Wednesday offered an apology and an explanation that his hearing had partially returned).

And it’s not only Japanese musicians who have expressed outrage over the revelations. On this episode of Conducting Business, Francisco J. Núñez, director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (YPC), tells host Naomi Lewin that his chorus is currently in a bind, trying to determine whether to go ahead with a long-scheduled performance of Samuragochi’s choral piece Requiem Hiroshima on March 26, alongside two visiting Japanese choruses.

The YPC, whose core program serves 1,300 New York City children from ages 7 to 18, performed the requiem in Tokyo last summer and briefly met with Samuragochi.

“I was very sad,” Núñez said when asked about the revelations. “I’ve been receiving texts and snap-chats from all of our singers actually. He had won our hearts with the story. It seems to me, music is always about the way you paint the picture around the actual music and a picture was painted around Samuraguchi.”

The piece in question is a choral tribute to a 15-year-old boy who died from the effects of radiation from the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. “If anyone else had given me this piece of music I would not say, ‘Wow, this is an incredible piece of music,’” Núñez admitted. “But it was because it came from someone who we thought couldn’t hear.”

Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, agrees that the outrage is not over his use of a ghostwriter, but the fictional persona he developed to create the ruse. “I feel the outrage is about the personal fraud – the deception, the pretending to be deaf, pretending to be a genius,” she said. “If he had been open about the collaboration, I think there would be no outrage at all because this kind of collaboration is a normal part of the artistic process these days.”

The case comes as a culture of borrowing and collaboration has opened up new gray areas in music, says Richard Elliott, a cultural musicologist at the University of Sussex in England. “In popular music it’s become kind of accepted that what we’re hearing is a fabrication," he noted. "Authorship goes far beyond the composer and the lyricists and involves all kinds of technologists – engineers, mixers, producers."

Núñez said his choir is still debating whether to perform the Requiem Hiroshima with a correct attribution – or pull it from the program altogether. “I have received many e-mails from Japan asking me to no longer perform this piece of music,” he noted. “Even I don’t understand what actually happened here – that someone is able to deceive so many people for so long.”

Listen to the full segment above, subscribe to our podcast on iTunes and share your own thoughts on this case in the comments box below.

Photo: Takashi Niigaki, ghost writer of deaf composer Mamoru Samuragochi dubbed 'Japan's Beethoven,' leaves a press conference in Tokyo on February 6, 2014.