Timeline: Otomae, Song-Mistress

Oct 14, 2019

As we’ve explored the book The Mystery of Music, by Vermont author Lewis Holmes, we’ve traveled to ancient Sumeria, two eras of Egypt, Israel, Greece and China. Today, we’ll visit medieval Japan and learn about the life of one remarkable composer/singer, named Otomae.

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We’ll start at the end. Otomae died at the age of 84, in the service of the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa. Even though she was 40 years his senior, the emperor was so saddened at her passing that he mourned twice a day for fifty days. Otomae served her emperor as a musical instructor, singing teacher, for ten years. She was an expert at a genre of song called the imayo. These were worldly, real-life songs, generally sung by women of low stature, and the emperor was obsessed with them.

When Go-Shirakawa first called on Otomae, she resisted. He was royalty and she was of a class called kugutsu. The kugutsu were known as puppeteers and prostitutes, practitioners of magic. Yet Otomae recalled what her instructor told her many years before.

Otomae was discovered in her humble province at the age of 12 or 13 by a passing government official. She was brought to the capital to begin her musical training and became part of a long legacy of performers. The kugutsu singers went through grueling training, night and day. They would often splash water on their faces, or pluck hairs from their eyebrows just to stay awake. As a singer-in-training, Otomae complained to her teacher about this punishing schedule. Her teacher urged her to think of the future.

“When you are young, you can be like this, but when you grow old and there is no one to pay attention to you, since songs are things that never disappear from the world, there may be some upper-class nobles who favor songs who… may come calling on you. Only if you know the art of song can you have such things happen to you after you grow old.”

These words basically became prophesy for Otomae. Her fate was much better than many other Japanese courtesans. As one imayo relates…

As my mirror clouds,

So my body has grown gaunt;

As my body grew gaunt,

So men become distant.

Otomae beat the odds through hard-work and talent. She became a famous singer and served the court of the emperor into her old age. In fact, after her death, emperor Go-Shirakawa composed a new work entitled “Songs to make the dust on the rafters dance.” This was in reference to a Chinese legend of two singers whose wonderful performance left the dust on the rafters dancing for three days after the songs had been sung.

Learn more about Otomae in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.