MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (2008) – Suite Analysis

By Mikko Ojala (original post)

The Suite from Memoirs of a Geisha is a concert work based on John Williams’ 2005 film score of the same name. The piece is written for a symphony orchestra and a cello soloist. Williams wrote it specifically with the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma in mind, who had also performed on the original soundtrack of the film. The suite is in classic Williams tradition a significant reworking and reimagining of the thematic material found in the score presented in six movements. Each movement is a self-contained development of a single theme or a few musical ideas where the composer showcases the cello as the main solo instrument but significant solos are assigned to violin, oboe and flute.

The suite premiered in the autumn of 2008 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma as the soloist and John Williams himself conducting. It was recorded live at the event and has been since released on Sony Masterworks label (the old Sony Classical) on two different occasions, first as a part of the Yo-Yo Ma: 30 Years Outside the Box (a 90 CD collection!!!) and then in 2010 on a John Williams compilation album The Music of America John Williams.

The suite utilizes for the most part a standard Western symphony orchestra but is enhanced by Japanese instrumentation, most prominently the percussion. However in these pieces Williams has recorchestrated the music for the symphony orchestra, filling now the roles of Japanese ethnic instruments, so colourfully used in the film score, with the sounds of the traditional symphonic ones. He succeeds exceedingly well in mimicing the timbral aspects and sounds of koto, shakuhachi, shamisen and erhu with the strings and woodwinds. The brass section seems to be comprised of mainly French horns as it was in the soundtrack recording.

This suite can be said to be a product of a long development period as Williams prepared his music from the film to be performed by orchestra and different ensembles several times before creating the 6-movement piece. He had ample time and reason to revisit and rethink the musical ideas in the intervening 3 years after the film had come out and before the suite was created. After the film’s release in 2005 Williams, who obviously felt a special affinity for this music and film, arranged an exclusive suite from the film score for the “President’s Own” Unites States Marine Chamber Orchestra which performed the selections on the 29th of May in 2006. This suite included nearly unaltered versions of soundtrack counterparts of Sayuri’s themeGoing to SchoolChairman’s Waltz and Sayuri’s Theme and End Credits but arranged for a chamber orchestra. During the same year Williams also composed duets for piano and cello that developed his thematic material further, Sayuri’s theme and Going to School receiving considerable expansion and embellisment. He recorded these two pieces with Yo-Yo Ma (third selection being a solo cello piece A Dream Discarded) and those were made available in iTunes along with a special 10-minute interview. It was this version of the Sayuri’s theme Williams performed with Yo-Yo Ma at Late Night with Jay Leno during the pre-Oscar PR efforts to promote his score in the early 2006. Later he orchestrated this version for symphony orchestra and it was performed in several concerts and finally became part of the Suite from Memoirs of a Geisha for Cello and Orchestra.

As mentioned above the Suite is divided to six movements. It does not follow any particular classical formula but in his typical fashion Williams has arranged the material so that the programme creates variety, contrast and a dramatic arc for the work.

1st Movement: Sayuri’s theme
Here Williams weaves together his two themes for the main character. He mirrors in his music the dual role of the character, the young girl and the woman, the innocence and the maturity, the true person and the outward facade.
The piece opens with the cello intoning Chiyo’s theme, a fragile, lyrical melody that glides along with the rest of the string section to Sayuri’s actual theme. The cello carries the strong and mature central theme forward over flowing string figures, music opening slowly into a grand lyrical statement of the material
Chiyo’s theme returns on flute passed on to oboe, the cello commenting on the statements, snatching the melody, developing it but yet again singing out Sayuri’s theme. Here Williams pushes the melody further, opening it into a more emotional statement than any heard in the film. Yo-Yo Ma performs an extended solo cadenza backed softly by the strings and french horns. Here Williams has written a passage where the cello unites both of the themes, weaving fragments of both into a poignant finale where Chiyo’s theme seems to have the last word.

2nd Movement: Going to School
In the film this movement is a self-contained setpiece and here Williams extends the musical ideas further, adding longer and more demanding cello passages, new accompaniment from the orchestra and a new middle section for the piece. The original soundtrack piece was noted to be a very close cousin to a section from the Last Emperor score composed by David Byrne but this concertized version of Going to School eschews much of the similarities and especially the middle passages with extended cello solos and new orchestral backing with its chimes and flowing luminous quality sounds fresh and new.

3rd Movement: Chairman’s Waltz
This thematic idea for Sayuri’s love interest, the chairman, is now cast as an amorous duet for violin and cello with an orchestral accompaniment. The rather unadorned violin solo line of the original piece is partly retained but used more as a starting point and now it is decorated with lyrical passages where cello and orchestra act as a counterpoint to the violin. The ending of the piece has now an extensive coda where the violin weaves a rapturous duet with the cello. Williams also gives in to the dramaticism inherent in the waltz and lets it build to a dramatic peak unlike anything heard in the film. This does indeed create a truly ravishing piece of music that even more strongly than before reveals its Slavonic influences. And as the music sheds its outward calm the valse triste becomes valse d’amour even though the piece ends with a mysterious feel, almost musical equivalent of a question mark.

4th Movement: Brush on Silk
Another setpiece from the film receives embellishment in this movement. Williams has reworked the instrumentation in such a fashion that the cello and the rest of the instruments in the orchestra take up the role of the Japanese ethnic equivalents heard in the film. Yo-Yo Ma’s solo could be called athletic, so deftly the cello leaps and bounds, frolicing over a percussive landscape accompanied by solo flute. The use of percussion and escpecially bass (and perhaps taiko) drums add the music a powerful momentum. The piece surges forth in stops and starts, gathering speed and culminating to a frenzied and near triumphant crescendo of full orchestra whirling in a dazzling wild dance. After this high point the flute and the cello obviously triumph over the rest of the orchestral forces and continue their dance together until a sudden percussive rumble brings the piece to a close. Noteworthy in this piece is the use pizzicato by the string section and the soloist in imitating the sounds of koto, the Japanese plucked string instrument.

5th Movement: Chiyo’s Prayer
Williams used many musical ideas to convey fate and destiny in his score. In this movement he presents the most central of those ideas. The piece is a hybrid of new material and a bridging of two separate passages from the score (namely Chiyo’s Prayer and A Dream Discarded) to form a slow and ruminating movement. The piece opens with a beautiful oboe solo, something Williams seems to be able to write with such ease. This musical idea is joined by a swaying string figure, which represented fate and destiny’s path in the film. For a moment the oboe duets with cor anglais and the string motif but then cello steps in, taking its cue from the oboe line but developing the material parallel to it. Finally the cello and the orchestra give away to a solo flute that is accompanied by sharp low rhythmic plucked notes from cello and harp (yet again mimicing koto). A short luminous harp and chimes interlude plays with cello hinting at the swaying destiny motif. From here the piece moves to a long cello solo, presenting a deconstruction of Chiyo’s theme (on the OST called A Dream Discarded or as Williams himself calls it The Handkerchief scene) that feels at the same time extremely moving and inconsolable. Yo-Yo Ma’s skill here is tremendous as is Williams’ writing, to be able to say so much even with so few notes, where even the empty spaces between the notes gain a meaning.

6th Movement: Becoming a Geisha
Despite its name the finale movement does not correspond with the track of the same name on the OST. Instead it is a new take on the musical ideas of the end credits. Chiyo’s theme and Sayuri’s theme go through a series of permutations and are joined by a rhythmic figure from the end credits. This motoric figure passes through all the sections of the orchestra and comes to dominate the proceedings and grows in the course of the piece to thunderous proportions, the percussion rumbling underneath the full orchestra in determined cadences, the french horns rising nobly, the strings whirling in triumph. Twice the music rises to a crescendo but is both times tempered by the appearance of the solo cello that in the end wins and after a short soliloquy accompanied by tapped chimes glides to a silence thus bringing the suite to a calm close. Williams offers a satisfying conclusion to the suite with this piece which is energetic but lyrical and imparts a sense of finality at the end. Playing against the expectation he ends the suite not in a huge crescendo but in the solo voice of the main character, Sayuri, whom the cello represents throughout the music.

-Mikko Ojala- ©