A Korean-German composer gains belated recognition in his homelandIn the lobby of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, the names of “the greatest musicians in history,” selected by teachers at the performing arts center, adorn the walls. Among the 44 names are those of 20th century composers George Gershwin, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky and Isang Yun (1917-95), a Korean-born German musician.
Mr. Yun was highly regarded as a composer in Europe but was not recognized much in his home country. Instead, his life related to Korea was marked by abduction, torture and imprisonment for political purposes.
Political turmoil in his homeland left a deep scar on his life, earning him the nickname “the wounded dragon” from his friend Luise Rinser, a famous German novelist, after a particular incident called “Dongbaengnim” (the East Berlin Spy Incident) took place in 1967.
It was the major crisis of his life. From that time until his death, Mr. Yun could not set foot in his homeland, which is finally recognizing his work.
In Berlin, there is an Isang Yun association called “Internationalen Isang Yun Gesellschaft.” Wolfgang Sparrer, chairman of the association, said he wanted to study Mr. Yun’s music, since he found it enchanting despite its difficulty.
Mr. Yun’s life as an artist in Germany was successful. “Sim Tjong,” his opera based on a famous Korean folk tale, was performed to celebrate the opening of the Munich Olympics in 1972.
During his lifetime, Mr. Yun composed 150 works, including “Butterfly Widow” (1968), “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” (1981), and “My Land, My People” (1987).
Political issues, however, prevented Mr. Yun from achieving recognition in Korea. But, on March 18, the Isang Yun Peace Foundation will be officially opened with the objective of giving Mr. Yun his due as an artist and a patriot. A concert of Mr. Yun’s legendary works, such as “Gopunguisang,” “Li-na Im Garten,” and “Duo For Violoncello And Harp,” will be performed. The foundation is attempting to bring Lee Su-ja, 77, Mr. Yun’s wife, from Pyeongyang to Seoul for the event.
In January, Ms. Lee sent a letter to the foundation describing her husband’s feelings about his homeland.
“In the 70 years from my husband’s birth in 1917 to his death, our nation was never once peaceful. The country, which was once colonized, was torn in two and went through a devastating war. Under Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship, he suffered through abduction and torture, and under Chun Doo Hwan, he participated in democratic movements,” she said in the letter.
“In this series of tragedies, he couldn’t be an artist who merely sang about the beauty of nature and dreams,” she added. “Spending his life in a foreign country, his heart was always aimed toward his homeland. How do you imagine it felt when people were celebrating the reunification of the two Germanies?”
Mr. Yun’s house in Germany is about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Berlin. His grave, seven kilometers from his house, has a tombstone that reads, “Under all circumstances, always stay clean.”
Mr. Yun’s musical success continued until he was abducted in 1967, when he was 50, by the Korean secret police during the military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee.
In his homeland, Mr.Yun was condemned as a spy, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment, but the international arts community, led by conductor Herbert von Karajan and Igor Stravinsky, constantly pressured the Korean government. Two years later, Mr. Yun was released, and he returned to Germany in 1969, obtaining German citizenship in 1971.
Before he was released, he composed the opera “Butterfly Widow” in his cell.
Now, a movie about Mr. Yun’s life is about to be made. LJ Film, the producer, consulted with Mr. Yun’s family and plans to make a documentary film titled “The Wounded Dragon.” Meanwhile, Mr. Yun’s autobiography under the same title, consisting of dialogues with Luise Rinser, will be translated into Korean and published this month.
The dramatic life of the composer began during World War I, when he was born in Tongyeong (formerly known as Chungmu), South Gyeongsang province. Mr. Yun spent his youth there until he was 18, when he went to study music in Osaka, Japan for two years.
After returning to Korea, Mr. Yun participated in protests against the Japanese occupation and became a political prisoner in 1943. After World War II ended, he became a teacher and a lecturer at a South Korean high school and university, but left for France in 1956 to study composition in Paris.
He began to gain recognition in Europe a few years later, when he presented “Music for Seven Instruments” at the Darmstadt Music Festival in Germany. He moved to Berlin in 1964.
In the last 20 years of his life, Mr. Yun concentrated on the concerto, but also composed five symphonies.
The “East Berlin Spy Incident”
“Dongbaengnim,” or the “East Berlin Spy Incident,” occurred in 1967, when the South Korean government alleged that artists, intellectuals and students in Europe with differing political views were involved in spying for North Korea, by regularly visiting the North Korean Embassy in East Berlin.
Those targeted included Mr. Yun, as well as Lee Ung-no, a well-known Korean painter, and Cheon Sang-byeong, a poet. Among 66 key people in the incident, two received the death penalty and four, including Mr. Yun, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The South Korean government forcefully repatriated these people from West Germany, although there was no extradition treaty between the two countries, which caused a serious diplomatic row.
The government released Mr. Yun after two years in prison. There is still a dispute about whether he was involved in espionage. Some argue that the Korean government fabricated the entire affair, and that Mr. Yun merely had a good relationship with North Korea, having a different political viewpoint.
Hometown provides composer’s inspiration
To Isang Yun, his hometown of Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang province, was an eternal source of musical inspiration.
In a message to Tongyeong citizens in 1994, Mr. Yun said, “I’ve been carrying all the precious mental and emotional elements from Tongyeong all my life while writing music. During my 38-year stay in Europe, I’ve never once forgotten Tongyeong.”
This town was where the composer as a child was exposed to various musical styles, ranging from Korean traditional to Buddhist and exorcist dance music.
Mr. Yun had a prolific career as a composer, and enjoyed worldwide stature. He created his own original musical language by linking Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism with the composition methods and instruments of the West.
Regarding the art of composing, Mr. Yun, while educated under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of the 12-note technique, came up with his own method, called “Hauptton,” or “the central note.” This technique, which makes the most of each tone while also being accompanied by various tonal colors, takes its characteristics from a-ak, Korean court music.
Mr. Yun earned a worldwide reputation at the Darmstadt Contemporary Music Festival in 1959, where he first presented “Music for Seven Instruments.” While thoroughly grounded in Western composing skills, Mr. Yun at the same time orchestrated a mysterious grace from a jumble of notes. The “movement in the center of silence” spirit from the East moved the European musicians and critics, cementing Mr. Yun’s status.
This does not make Mr. Yun’s music easy. First-time listeners might be bewildered, while playing it is even more demanding. Hong Eun-mi, a music critic, says, “Mr. Yun’s music is armed with avant-garde skills and thorough logic, yet it also contains an unlimitedly deep mental world, which transcends the skills and the logic.”
Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer, the head of the International Isang Yun Society, divides Mr. Yun’s world of music into three periods. The first is characterized by the East-meets-West theme, when the composer polished his own style of music. In the second stage, in the 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Yun remained more faithful to Korean traditional music while pursuing an avant-garde style. As time went by, however, Mr. Yun’s style began to soften and became easier to understand. In the last stage, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Yun showed most interest in composing pieces accompanied by vocals, and symphonies.
What cannot be ignored in Mr. Yun’s music, however, is politics. His eventful career, in which he suffered at the hands of the Korean military regimes, played a great role in giving his music a political color.
Musical institute in Pyeongyang established to honor Yun I-sang
The Isang Yun Music Institute was established in Pyeongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 5, 1984, to support Mr. Yun’s musical career. Initially, the research center studied Mr. Yun’s work and music theory, but in 1990 it formed an orchestra named after him to perform his work and opened a concert hall two years later.
The Isang Yun Concert Hall occupies a 15-story building with an area of 17,000 square meters (182,990 square feet). There are two concert halls, a lounge, an international conference hall, recording studio, library, and exhibition hall.
The Isang Yun orchestra performs four times a month and holds a three-day “Isang Yun music festival” every November. It performs Mr. Yun’s works and pieces related to unification by other composers.
In North Korea, Mr. Yun is credited for his efforts toward reunification. He visited North Korea for the first time in April 1963. After he saw Sasindo (The Painting of Four Gods) in an ancient tomb in Gangseo county, South Pyeongan province, in 1968, he began composing a chamber piece, “Image.” The flute, oboe, violin and cello are featured in the piece, representing four mythical symbols in the painting.
Lee Chang-gu, a senior official at the music institute, said in a publication in March 1994, “The Korean ethnic quality and humanity contained in Yun Isang’s music sounded an alarm to the extreme abstractionism and intellectualism that ignored ethnicity and the life of the common people, and gave the hope of rebirth to Europe’s avant-garde music, which had reached the end-of-the-century dead end.”
Mr. Yun began to frequently visit Pyeongyang after the Dongbaengnim espionage case concluded in South Korea. Mr. Yun received special attention in North Korea, which was considered to have a political motivation. The North’s leader, Kim Il Sung, even built a summer house on the outskirts of Pyeongyang for Mr. Yun in 1990.
Mr. Yun often suggested holding a North-South joint concert to promote cultural exchanges between the two Koreas. During the eighth Yun Isang music festival in October 1989, he proposed composing and distributing songs that Koreans could all sing, regardless of their ideology and religion.
The institute followed through on his suggestion and published “The Book of 100 Unification Songs.”
by Lee Jang-jik