Despite their historical achievements in music, some Koreans continue to undermine Ahn Ik-tae, left, Isang Yun, center, and Hong Nan-pa for their personal and political past. / Korea Times file
By Do Je-hae
Koreans are depriving themselves of the music of one of the most prolific classical composers ever to emerge from Korea — Isang Yun (1917-1995), the tragic musician whose legacy is overshadowed by political misfortunes of the 1960s.
Yun's music is rarely played by Korean orchestras or musicians. For the local audience, it is primarily through performances of foreign artists that they get to hear Yun's works. When Heinz Holliger — arguably the most respected oboist of his generation — performed in Seoul last month, he programmed Yun's taxing oboe concerto. Yun had dedicated the piece to the oboist. During an interview with a local daily, Holliger expressed his regret toward Koreans' continued indifference toward Yun's music and wished to spread its beauty.
The great violinist Midori plays Yun's violin sonata in her recitals and has written an eloquent introduction on her website about the work that contains Korean traditional music elements. There are music competitions held in Yun's honor in his home town of Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, but these events are low-key compared to some of the other music festivals that have snatched a lot of press in recent years.
The near silence about Yun's achievements as a musician in the Korean media is a unique phenomenon, given how the press loves to make a fuss about Korean-born musicians with international recognition. It shows that much of Korea is still not able to separate musicians from their political inclinations.
Yun was involved in a highly publicized espionage scandal in the late 1960s, which prevented him from returning to his native country. Because of a visit to Pyongyang in 1963, Yun was seized by the South Korean secret service in 1967 and eventually was condemned for espionage and threatened with life imprisonment. After he was released with the help of a petition signed by Igor Stravinsky and Herbert von Karajan, among 200 artists, he returned to Berlin and died a German citizen. But he continued to serve as an activist for the unification of the two Koreas.
During the Pyongyang visit, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-sung gave him a hearty welcome and praised him as the "the pride of the Korean people."
But do these events justify labeling Yun a "Communist" and shunning his music as many Koreans have done? And why should we as audiences allow his political beliefs and inclinations influence our perception of his music?
Yun is not the only pioneering classical musician suffering from a bad reputation to this day for circumstances that had happened years ago.
When a young composer recently refused to accept a prestigious award named after Hong Nan-pa (1897-1941), it caused quite a stir in the press and the music community, not to mention classical music fansites that re-ignited a hostile debate about whether Hong was indeed a pro-Japanese collaborator during Japan's occupation of Korea from 1910 through 1945.
The Hong Nanpa Memorial Award has been among the most coveted honors for Korea's classical musicians since its inception in 1968. It would have gone to composer Ryu Jea-joon this year but instead he became the first person to boycott the award, saying that he didn't want to be associated with a prize that honors a musician who was involved in pro-Japanese activities.
"I have come to be doubtful of the fairness and integrity of this award, since it was founded to honor a musician who sympathized with Japanese rule," Ryu said. The award committee subsequently announced a different winner, soprano Im Sun-hae, but she also turned it down for the same reasons. For the first time since the award's establishment, the committee was not able to name a winner.
One would assume a Korean musician would only feel humbled to win an award with such an illustrious list of past recipients; some of Korea's most renowned instrumentalists, composers and conductors have received the award, including violinists Chung Kyung-wha, soprano Sumi Jo, pianist Paik Kun-woo and cellist-turned-conductor Chang Han-na.
Hong was famous for many compositions, including his 1919 song "Bongseonhwa," that are considered Korean versions of "Lieder." But by 1930, Hong was participating in pro-Japanese activities through composing and newspapers contributions. In 1940, he wrote a column for the Maeil Sinbo, urging people to be patriotic toward Japan through music.
It seems that musicians like Lim and Ryu seem to be placing Hong's personal and political circumstances of the 1940s ahead of the pioneering achievements he made as a musician. Not only was he a gifted composer, he was also the nation's foremost violinist at the time. He had been a principal violinist with what is now the NHK Symphony Orchestra, which is a benchmark for all Asian orchestras.
The composer and violinist sparked controversy in 2009 when he was included on a list of pro-Japanese collaborators. This list includes many renowned musicians of the times like Kim Saeng-ryeo, the founder of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Hyun Jae-myung, the founder of the music department of Seoul National University.
Also found on this list is Ahn Ik-tae (1906-1965), the composer of the national anthem "Aegukga." He was the first Korean musician to conduct the philharmonics of Berlin and Vienna, a feat that has been achieved by only two other Asian musicians — Japan's Seiji Ozawa and Chung Myung-whun.
Labeling such an important musician with a title as shameful as "pro-Japanese" is disrespectful to someone who has done so much for Korean music. This kind of impudence is a contrast to how North Korea is honoring the composer of its national anthem, also called "Aegukga." Kim Won-gyun wrote the song in 1945 and to honor his achievements, North Korea named its most prestigious performing arts school in Pyongyang after him in 2006. The Kim Won Gyun University of Music and Dance has produced the country's finest artists, including violinist Mun Kyung-jin, the Russian-trained concertmaster of the Unhasu Orchestra that was recently rumored to be disbanded.
Musicians are, after all, inevitably affected by the times they are living in.
Local experts have been voicing caution about politically-motivated assessment of groundbreaking musicians.
"Some people associate Yun with politics, but the arts should be accepted for what it is," said Kim Dae-jin, a pianist and teacher at the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul.