The cliché is that “fact is stranger than fiction.” It isn’t, of course. Fiction is unbounded by place, time, space and the laws of physics. Yet when truth presses against the limits of reality, the effect can seem larger than fiction, overturning what we think we know. Magical realism in literature stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. It gives us a view of something fantastic yet mirrors reality in a way that makes it appear real. In “Phantom of the Orchestra,” Christopher Beam tells a true story out of Japan that falls within that spectrum. It recounts a series of events that are so remarkable they seem unbelievable. (New Republic, March/April, 2015, pgs. 46-55.)
Momouri Samuragochi was a young man with two ambitions. He wanted to be a great a musician, like Beethoven, and to revive Romantic music. The problem was, Samuragochi had little music talent. He was a genius at selling himself, however. He used that talent to give himself a Beethoven-like persona. He grew his hair long, wore dark glasses to soften the pain of a non-existent eye problem and professed he was a deaf composer. He made himself even more sympathetic when he revealed his parents were caught within two miles of the atomic bomb blast that decimated Hiroshima in World War II and supposed his hearing loss was the result of a genetic defect. That he lacked music training was an impairment he solved by making friends with Takashi Niigaki, a musical prodigy who began composing at the age 8. Niigaki was shy and self-effacing, a young man who at 25 still lived with his parents. Samuragochi used his new friend’s reticence to further his own ends, hiring Naiigaki to write a few musical pieces for him, anonymously. The young man was happy for the opportunity to earn a little money because, as one college classmate said of him, “I don’t think he’s really capable of doing anything besides writing music.” (Ibid, pg. 49)
What began as a small collaboration, grew. Niigaki wrote music; Samuragochi claimed the work and took the bows — a partnership of musical and promotional genius. News of the deaf and nearly blind composer ignited the public’s imagination. In 2012, Niigki’s Hiroshima symphony, attributed to Samuragochi, became a national sensation. What followed was a documentary and several television interviews. Soon, Samuragochi’s name was on everyone’s lips. Demands for more compositions followed, so many, Niigaki began to fear the pair would be unmasked and suffer public shame.
The composer was right to worry. Some critics were growing suspicious but not until 2014 did Niigaki, pressured by friends who knew of the arrangement, step before a national audience to publically apologize for his deceit. Instead of being shamed, he became an overnight sensation. Samuragochi, on the other hand, was forced to learn the lesson of Icarus. He lived to see his fame and fortune plummet to earth. Left with no choice, he too, offered a public apology. His justification for his deceit was that he wanted to revive Romantic music. In a way, by exploiting his artistic temperament and his imagination, he did. Unfortunately, he lacked talent. (Ibid pg. 55.)
Niigaki’s fortunes continue to rise because he is gifted. Samuragochi, on the other hand, lives in shadows. Ironically, his deception was the seed from which great music has sprung. The Hiroshima Symphony, is considered to be a musical treasure and will be featured in the 2015 performance of The Estonia National Symphony Orchestra. One could argue that Samuragochi was an artist of sorts. He did raise Romantic music from disfavor. But, I wouldn’t ask him to make change for a hundred dollar bill.