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Eastern and Western Sounds Combined: Korean Composer Yun Isang

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
Portrait of Yun Isang
Yun Isang (1917-1995)

The library has recently added its first scores by the Korean composer Yun Isang (윤이상 / 尹伊桑) to our collection. There are currently seven scores and three books on Yun in our system, and several more scores will be added in the next few months. Yun's music can also be heard through our eMedia services, Hoopla and Freegal. Though he is one of the major composers of the second half of the twentieth century, outside of doctoral dissertations surprisingly little has been published in English about Yun Isang's life and work.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month provides a chance to review this major twentieth century composer whose life and work reflect on the recent history of Korea, and the interaction between Eastern and Western culture. Often called a "Korean-born German composer", Yun saw himself as a mediator between East and West. Spending the first half his life in Korea, Yun's philosophical and musical aesthetics were firmly grounded in East Asia, but his musical style was reshaped and matured by his studies in Europe. Yun explained, "I was born in Korea and project that culture, but I developed musically in Europe. I don't need to organise or separate elements of the cultures. I am a unity, a simple person."

His compositional style is a unique amalgamation of Asian philosophy, aesthetics and musical styles with Western avant-garde compositional techniques. Critics have described his musical style as, "stream of sound", "euphonious dissonance" and "expressive cantando". Among more than 120 compositions by Yun Isang in chamber, orchestral and vocal media are included four operas, thirteen concerti and five symphonies. In lectures Yun emphasized three main threads which create his musical language: 1) The "Hauptton" technique, Yun's personal adaptation of musical theory concepts based on Korean court music filtered through Western notation and the twelve-tone technique; 2) The adaptation of Korean instrumental figurations and playing techniques to western instruments; and 3) Musical or textual presentation of East Asian thought, specifically Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Korean shamanism. In his later works he took extra-musical themes from his own life to express in his compositions his humanitarian beliefs and his longing for his divided home country from which he was exiled.

First Period (1917-1958)

Yun Isang was born September 17, 1917 in Deoksan-myeon (덕산면 / 德山面), an administrative district in Sancheong County (산청군), South Chungcheong Province (충청남도). Yun's father, Yun Gi-hyeon (윤기현), was a poet who owned a fishery and carpentry workshop, and a member of the scholarly yangban class. A story associated with Yun's birth claims that while pregnant with him, his mother dreamed of a wounded dragon writhing around her body, unable to take flight to the sky. The story is said to have presaged Yun's fate as the most internationally-renowned Korean composer of his time, yet imprisoned by his homeland for years, and then spending the greater part of his life in exile. This image is so closely identified with Yun that the first book on his life, written in German by Luise Rinser, was titled Der verwundete Drache (1977), translated into Korean as Sancheo ibeun yong (상처입은 용) and into English as The Wounded Dragon.

From the age of three, the Yun family lived in Chungmu (충무) now Tongyeong (통영 / 統營), in South Gyeongsang Province (경상남도), a center of traditional musical and artistic culture on the south-eastern coast of Korea. Prominent people associated with Tongyeong include Park Kyung-ni, author of the renowned 16-volume novel, Toji (토지, The Land), and famed 16th century Admiral Yi Sun-shin who made his headquarters near the city. The Japanese had annexed Korea in 1910, and made a policy of suppressing Korean cultural identity during the occupation period which lasted until the end of World War II. Nevertheless, in Tongyeong Yun was surrounded by a mixture of Buddhist, Confucian and Christian influences as well as native Korean shamanism, traditional Korean court music, and Korean folk music. He heard the traditional singing of women and fishermen going about their daily work, as well as open-air theatrical performances and the rites and exorcisms performed by mudangs-- Korean shamans. The musical life which Yun experience in Tongyeong was to have a lifelong impact on his compositional style and philosophy.

Yun gained a grounding in Eastern thought, studying Confucianism, Taoism and the Chinese classics beginning at the age of five, when his father enrolled him in a school run under the traditional Korean system. Taoist and Buddhist mysticism had a profound effect on Yun, and he was later to claim that over seventy percent of his compositions were inspired by these influences. At the age of eight, Yun transferred to a Japanese-run Western-style school, where he had his first encounters with European music. Comparing the organ music he heard at school and in a Christian church to the Korean music he had known previously, Yun recalled, "It was surprising, exciting, loud and massive, and it played so many tones at one time. I was totally confused. Our instruments play a single tone with no harmony, and the tones are much softer. People listen to each tone individually. Here, however, people listened to many tones simultaneously. It was very exotic."

Recordings of the great Russian operatic bass, Feodor Chaliapin instilled in the young Yun a love of opera, and further intrigued him in the new music. Yun took violin lessons from the age of thirteen, and began teaching himself to compose soon after. In 1931, at the age of 14, his first piece was performed during an interlude at the local silent film theater. Yun wished to study music formally, but, though poetry was considered an appropriate subject for a member of the yangban class, music was a subject for the lower classes of Korean society. In accordance with his father's wishes, Yun attended a commercial college in Tongyeong between 1932 and 1934. Nevertheless he made trips to Seoul for music lessons during this time, and, against his father's objections eventually decided to pursue a musical education in Japan. He studied cello and counterpoint at the Osaka School of Music from 1935 until 1936 when his mother's death forced his return to Korea. He composed and self-printed a collection of Korean children's songs, Mokdong ui norae (목동의 노래 - "Shepherd’s Song") in 1937. After teaching for a few years in Korea he returned to Japan to continue his studies in musical theory and counterpoint in Tokyo with Tomojirô Ikenouchi (池内友次郎; 1906 - 1991) between 1940 and 1941. As Asia became embroiled in World War II, Yun returned to Korea in 1941 to join the Korean independence movement and fight against the Japanese occupation of Korea. For these activities, as well as for writing songs in the forbidden Korean language, he was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese, and sentenced to forced labor until the end of the war. With the end of World War II, Korea, one of the first victims of Cold War politics, was divided into the Soviet-influenced North and American-influenced South.

After the end of War II, Yun taught music in Tongyeong and Busan. He composed children's songs for the schools, and published a set of six art songs in 1949 under the title Dalmuri (달무리 - "Lunar halo"). These songs were in the 5-tone pentatonic scale of Korean folksong, with Western harmonic accompaniment. When North Korea invaded the South, instigating the Korean War in 1950, Yun was teaching in Busan. Believing in the unity of Korea, he refused to participate in this conflict, later stating, "I would always join the war against Japanese invasion, yes, but not a civil war. I could not believe that the conflict could not be resolved peacefully. I did not understand this dreadful assassination of our own people. So I did not want to fight."

Yun Isang with his wife, Lee Soo-ja, and their two children

Yun Isang with his wife, Lee Soo-ja, and their two children

During the early days of the Korean War, Yun married Lee Soo-ja (이수자 / 李水子; 1927 - ), who was the Korean literature teacher at his school, and their first child was born. Even while the war was raging, Yun remained active in concert music. He founded the Association of Korean Composers, a choral society in Busan, and the Tongyeong String Quartet. He performed cello with the quartet, and wrote a patriotic piece, Nakdong River (낙동강 - Nakdonggang), for the choral society. At this time he also wrote an opera based on a story by Yu Chi-jin (유치진 / 柳致眞; 1905-1974), a famous Korean poet and playwright during the era of the Japanese occupation, and a native of Tongyeong. Though Yun later withdrew this early work from his catalog, it is significant as the first Western-style opera composed to a text in the Korean language.

In order to help earn money for his family during this tumultuous time, Yun also provided soundtracks for some films, including Nakdong River (낙동강; 1952), directed by Jeon Chang-geun (전창근; 1907-1972). Jeon is known as the screenwriter for the first post-liberation Korean film, and the earliest surviving feature film in the Korean language, Hurrah! For Freedom (자유만세 - Jayu manse; 1946), and for Boxes of Death (주검의 상자 - Jukeom ui sangja; 1955) an early film by the great cult director Kim Ki-young (김기영; 1919-1998). The only other film soundtrack Yun is known to have composed after this period is to a 1975 Japanese documentary on Koreans living in Japan.

After the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953, Yun's life became less difficult. He lectured in music theory at universities in Seoul and Busan including Seoul National University. His compositions of this period showed the influences of such European composers as Richard Strauss, Debussy, and Bartók, with Korean folk-influenced melody. His cello sonata was performed in Seoul in 1953, and he debuted a string quartet with the First Composition Conference of the Association of Korean Composers in 1955. For these works as well as a piano trio he was awarded the fifth Seoul City Cultural Prize (서울시 문화상) in 1955.

In spite of these early successes and the increased comfort of his life, Yun was dissatisfied with his music, feeling that he lacked a structured approach to composition. "I remember my compositional style of this period was very pathetic," he said, "all uncertain, in style, also in compositional technique: now quite progressive, now sentimental – cheap atmospheric elements which did not content me at all."

A Japanese translation of Josef Rufer's Die Komposition mit zwölf Tönen inspired Yun to further explore twelve-tone composition, which he saw as lending music "a strict organization, a strict compositional frame". Since serialism was not taught in Korea at the time, at the age of 39, Yun decided to uproot his life, use his Seoul City Cultural Prize money to move to Europe, immerse himself in the study contemporary music, and find a new compositional style.

Second Period (1959-1974)

Yun Isang

Yun Isang

During his European studies, Yun devoted a great deal of energy to re-thinking his compositional philosophy, and seeking a personal musical style. He withdrew the tonal, Romantic and folk-music influenced works he had written in Korea and Japan before 1956, though current interest in Yun has led to the re-examination, publication and performance of some of this work, including the first string quartet. His main purpose in going to Europe was to study the serialist techniques promulgated by Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School during the 1920s, and expanded upon by the younger composers of the European avant-garde in the 1950s. The Paris Conservatory, where he studied first, did not give Yun the focus on twelve-tone technique he desired, so he transferred to the Hochschule für Musik in West Berlin where his teachers included Boris Blacher and musicologist and Schoenberg disciple, Josef Rufer, author of the book which had piqued Yun's interest in serialism. He also took courses at Cologne, Donaueschingen, and Darmstadt, gaining the acquaintances of John Cage and leading members of the European musical avant-garde.

Yun counted his earliest works in the 12-tone style as his first mature works. The Five Pieces for Piano of 1958 and the Music for Seven Instruments of the following year, were both premiered successfully and awarded prizes. His encounters with the most prominent young European composers of the time helped satisfy Yun's thirst to explore new musical techniques. His music took on an uncompromisingly modernist voice such as that usually associated with the Darmstadt School, but he continued to think about what direction he wished to pursue in his own composition. The successful adoption of the 12-tone technique was only one step towards a personal technique of composition. Yun explained, "The twelve tone row is just a skeleton of my music." He recalled, "Should I begin to compose in a radical way like these people who belonged to the avant-garde movement or should I follow my own path according to my Eastern music tradition?"

Boris Blacher, who was born in Manchuria and spent his childhood in China, advised Yun against abandoning native Asian musical traditions and aesthetics even while composing in the twelve-tone technique. Cage's musical experiments based on the study of Asian philosophy and writings such as the I Ching also encouraged Yun to explore a systematic integration of eastern and western musical concepts. Though composers such as Cage, Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman had employed ideas from Asia in some of their compositions, the idea of blending Eastern and Western styles in concert music was still new at the time. Tôru Takemitsu reported that members of the New York Philharmonic burst into laughter a decade later, during the 1967 rehearsals of his November Steps-- one of his early pieces to mix traditional Japanese instruments with the western orchestra. Rather than simply adapt native instruments or melodic style to his compositions, Yun sought a deeper influence by looking to the theoretical foundations of Korean music.

Korean Music and Hauptton Technique

Akhak gwebeom (악학궤범) by Bak Yeon (박연 / 朴堧; 1378 – 1458)

Akhak gwebeom (악학궤범) by Bak Yeon (박연 / 朴堧; 1378 – 1458)

In his mature compositions, Yun did not imitate traditional Korean music stylistically, but adapted Korean compositional principles and applied them to his own music in a personal way. Rather than folk music, Yun studied the musical principles, forms and instrumental techniques of classical Korean court music such as A-ak and Hyang-ak and applied those concepts to western instrumental forces. A-ak (아악 / 雅樂 - "elegant music") is music for ensemble derived from Chinese Yayue, which had been imported to Korea in 1116. A-ak was the dominant form of Korean court music until the native Hyang-ak gained popularity in the 15th century. Hyang-ak (향악 / 鄕樂 - "native music") derives from Korean dance music of the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC-668 AD). Yun had known these types of music since his childhood in Tongyeong, as they were associated with Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian ceremonies, as well as native Korean shamanism.

The theoretical foundations of Korean music were codified in the 15th century by Bak Yeon (박연 / 朴堧; 1378 – 1458) in the nine-volume treatise Akhak Gwebeom (악학궤범). Bak adapted existing native Korean musical practices to Confucian philosophy, such as yeak (예악 / 禮樂), a combination of ritual and music. Bak Yeon enumerated the four main techniques of ornamentation, or sigimsae (시김새), in Korean court music as: 1) yoseong (요성 - vibrato), 2) jeonseong (전성 - grace notes), 3) chuseong (추성 - ascending glissando), and 4) toeseong (퇴성 - descending glissando). In comparing Korean music to Western, Yun observed that rather than employing harmony, repeated motifs and themes, Korean classical music emphasizes single tones, with all instruments playing one rhythmically fluid melodic line in octaves. According to Yun, "Every tone is exposed to transformations from the initial stages of action to the dying away. It is furnished with ornamentation, appoggiatura, oscillations, glissandi, and dynamic variations. Above all the natural vibration of every tone is consciously set up as the means of expression."

In Korean court music, elaborate figurations are not treated in a thematically developmental way, but as decorations of the main tone, which usually lasts about the amount of time as a single breath. Rather than functioning as a static entity brought to life by its relation to surrounding tones-- as in western music-- each tone, is enlivened by 1) preparatory ornamental phrasing to accent the main tone, 2) a development of the main tone, and 3) a denouement. Once concluded, a main tone either repeats or fades into the next tone. Similarly, Yun's compositions grow out of elaborately decorated single tones. He called his adaptation of this concept the "Hauptton" ("Main tone") or "Hauptklang" ("Main sound") technique.

Yun compared the treatment of individual tones to writing, saying, "If a note in Western music is a straight line drawn by a pen, Eastern Asian music is drawn with a thickly curved line by a writing brush." According to Yun, a brush stroke in traditional Asian calligraphy expresses the complimentary forces of yin/yang (negative/positive) in Taoist thought: Energy (yang) of the beginning of the stroke or tone, stillness (yin) of the central part, ending with the dying off of energy (yang). The Yin/Yang (Eum/Yang - 음양 / 陰陽 in Korean), conception of balance in the universe is central enough to Korean society that it is a prominent part of the Taegeukgi (태극기), the national flag of South Korea.

Unlike his younger Asian contemporaries, Tôru Takemitsu and Chou Wen-chung, who sometimes wrote for Asian instruments, Yun did not write for Korean instruments, except for occasionally using some native Korean percussion. Instead, he replicated Korean instrumental techniques with western instruments. In writing for western instruments, Yun would often have in mind analogous traditional Korean instruments or instrumental combinations. For example, in orchestral pieces he would often include flutes of three sizes: alto flute in G, standard C flute, and piccolo, to correspond with the Korean large, medium and small flutes (daegeum, junggeum and sogeum). The title of his composition, Piri, for solo oboe, refers to a Korean double-reed instrument. Other cross-cultural instrumental equivalences in Yun's music include the harp for the gayageum (가야금 / 伽倻琴), cello for the ajaeng (아쟁 / 牙箏), violin for the hae-geum (해금 / 奚琴), and trumpet for the taepyeongso (태평소 / 太平簫). Using western notation, Yun adapted and personalized traditional Korean instrumental techniques, resulting in an idiosyncratic use of trills, vibrati, glissandi, changes in dynamics and timbre, flutter-tonguing, portamenti, quarter-tones, leaping grace notes, grace note clusters, etc. For example Yun notated the wide vibrato typically used in Korean singing and instrumental playing, as measured trills or wide tremolos. His translation of Korean instrumental techniques to western instruments could make his music extremely difficult to play on instruments for which these figurations were unfamiliar and not idiomatic to traditional Western instrumental techniques.

His early works with these new compositional techniques gained Yun some popularity among audiences and critics of contemporary music, helping Yun to decide to remain and pursue a musical career in Germany. After his Third String Quartet was successfully premiered at the International Society for Contemporary Music in Cologne in 1960, Yun began receiving commissions from contemporary music organizations. Nevertheless, his financial situation was still precarious in these early years in Europe. He had, as yet, no teaching positions, and no regular assignments as a composer. A prize from the South Korean Foundation for the Development of Culture in 1961, and a position as an expert on East Asian music at a radio station helped provide a basic living for Yun and his wife, who had joined him in Germany.

In 1960 he wrote his first mature orchestral piece, Bara, for the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. The title, "Bara" is derived from Bara-chum (바라춤), a Korean dance with cymbals performed at temples before a portrait of the Buddha. Only the fourth composition Yun had written after beginning his European studies, Bara represents the first expression of his merging of the twelve-tone technique with Korean musical tradition. As his first mature orchestral work, the Hauptton technique is expanded to "Hauptklang" ("Main sound"), with flowing, athematic planes of sound evolving in methods similar to those applied to individual tones work in the chamber compositions.

Though his early works in the Hauptton style gained positive reviews from the beginning, the path to a personal style was not entirely smooth. Performers often had great difficulty in interpreting Yun's music. During rehearsals for his Colloïdes Sonores, for string orchestra (1960), some of the instrumentalists complained that his performance instructions were overly detailed, and refused to perform the work until after Yun had demonstrated how he intended the parts to be played. The elaborate ornamentation of Yun's compositional style sometimes made it appear that a passage may be too complex to be performed within the tempi markings given. He pointed out that, as in Korean traditional music, tempi are flexible, giving performers freedom in the interpretation of his compositions, and that the overall musical gesture is more important than every passing note. The premier performance of Colloïdes Sonores caused a minor scandal, with competing factions of the audience boo-ing and cheering. His Symphonische Szene for full orchestra (1961), also received negative reviews after its premier in Darmstadt, and Loyang (1962) was rejected from three competitions. He took a lesson from these incidents and made a conscious effort to simplify his approach to notation, though his music continued to be demanding on performers. Of these early struggles, Yun recalled, "I was too enchanted by my own imagination of the sound to be considerate of performers’ technique."

Kangseo Gobun and Imprisonment

Fresco image from Kangseo Gobun
Fresco image from Kangseo Gobun

In 1963 Yun accepted an invitation to visit North Korea for the purpose of viewing the Kangseo Gobun (강서고분 / 江西古墳) frescoes in Kangso-guyok, Taedong County, South P'yŏngan province. Despite the fact that it had been illegal for a South Korean to visit North Korea since 1953, Yun sought inspiration from these ancient expressions of Korean and East Asian aesthetics. The colorful frescoes in Kangseo Gobun are part of a large complex of tombs and depict scenes of mythology as well as daily life of the Korean aristocracy during the Goguryeo or Goryeo Kingdom period (37 BCE - 668 CE). Because of these masterful paintings as well as the engineering techniques displayed in the construction of the tombs, UNESCO declared the Goguryeo Tombs the first World Heritage site in North Korea in 2004. Yun described the experience of viewing the frescoes at Kangseo Gobun: "First you see an animal, possibly the tiger first. But it is also possible that you first see the dragon, phoenix or tortoise. It is up to you what you see first. Gradually you see the other animals, and finally you know that these four animals are also combined into one unique animal. Four is one, and one is four. If you stand in front of the paintings for a long time, the individual animals seem to move."

Image from Kangseo Gobun superimposed over Yun Isang manuscript to Images (1969), by printmaker Lee Cheol-su (이철수)
Image from Kangseo Gobun superimposed over manuscript to Images (1969), by printmaker Lee Cheol-su (이철수)

At least two of Yun's compositions were directly inspired by the Taoist symbolism represented in these frescoes. In Images (1968), for flute, oboe, violin and cello, Yun assigns each instrument an element, a cardinal point, a color, and one of the four animal gods guarding the coffin: white tiger, blue dragon, black tortoise, and red phoenix. For example the cello represents Metal, West, White, and White Tiger.

In 1964, after receiving a Ford Foundation Grant for artist working in Berlin, Yun decided to settle permanently in the city. By this time, his compositional technique combining twelve-tone system with his Hauptton ideas had progressed further, and his music was being regularly published by Bote und Bock. He was gaining successful performances of such new compositions as Gasa, for violin and piano, Garak, for flute and piano, and the 1965 Buddhist oratorio, Om mani padme hum.

Yun's breakthrough to recognition among the international musical community came with the premiere of his composition Réak at the Donaueschingen Festival in October 1966. Written for small orchestra, Réak shows Yun's further progress in blending western music with concepts from Korean court music. Among the Asian percussion instruments Yun included in the orchestra are the Korean bak, and a Thai gong. The Berlin Deutsche Opera commissioned Yun to write an opera based on an Asian subject for the 1966 Festwochen. He modeled his first mature opera on the style of the Changgeuk (창극), or Korean traditional opera, rather than European opera. Because of the smaller instrumental forces called for, the one-act Der Traum des Liu-Tung (The Dream of Liu Tung) is often called a chamber opera. Based on the fourteenth-century Chinese play Yellow Millet Dream (黃粱夢) by the poet Ma Zhiyuan (馬致遠; c. 1250 - 1321), the libretto concerns a Confucian scholar's conversion to Taoism. From a technical standpoint, rather than identify characters by melodies or leitmotifs, Yun attempted characterization through association with particular timbral atmospheres and instrumental combinations, an idea he was to expand on in his three subsequent operas.

Yun's name spread beyond the musical community in June 1967, when the South Korean CIA kidnapped him and his wife from their home in Germany. In total, about two hundred people were abducted in this incident, including such prominent South Korean intellectuals as poet Cheon Sang-byeong (천상병 / 千祥炳) and painter Yi Eungro (이응로 / 李應魯). Known as the East Berlin Incident, this mass abduction of overseas Koreans by Korean authorities was an early sign of South Korea's impending descent into authoritarian rule which came in the early 1970s. Convicted of treason and espionage because of his 1963 visit to North Korea, Yun was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death, commuted to life in prison. Appeals resulted in reduction of his prison sentence to 15 and then to 10 years.

During his time in prison, Yun devoted himself to Taoism and after he was granted permission to compose in December 1967, a more direct expression of Taoist thought in his music. The chamber piece Images, mentioned above, was based directly on the Taoist imagery depicted in the North Korean frescoes, the viewing of which had led to his imprisonment. Other works written during his imprisonment include Riul, for clarinet and piano, and his second opera, Die Witwe des Schmetterlings (Butterfly Widow), which he wrote on the floor of his prison cell. He completed this opera in February 1968, under guard in a hospital bed while being treated for tuberculosis and heart conditions. A single-act opera, like his first, Butterfly Widow draws inspiration from Taoism and native Korean shamanism and is based on a Chinese story dealing with dreams and the transmigration of souls. Influenced by Yun's physical condition and emotional state as a prisoner, the opera includes surreal and violent imagery. In Butterfly Widow Yun again used orchestral timbre to delineate characters, representing the spirit world with the sounds of the lower brass and percussion, and the human world with higher woodwinds and strings. Yun expressed Taoist Yin/Yang principles through the interaction between these sound worlds. Shortly before his release from prison The Butterfly Widow was debuted in Nuremberg on a double-bill with his first opera, The Dream of Liu-Tung, under the collective title Dreams. Though the composer could not attend, the performance was a marked success, garnering 31 curtain calls. Recalling this period of his life, Yun later said, "I was in prison and was not imprisoned. That is true. And I was often actually happy. I always heard music around me, a music, which was in myself, but also around me."

Igor Stravinsky and conductor Herbert von Karajan organized a petition for Yun's release which was signed by over 160 of the most prominent musicians of the day, including Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Otto Klemperer, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Per Nørgård, Ernst Krenek, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Pierre Boulez. In addition, the West German government threatened economic sanctions against South Korea because of Yun's imprisonment. After two years in prison, Yun was released in February 1969, and returned to Berlin with his wife, who had been released earlier. In a statement after his release, Yun wrote, "In the very sad long months in Seoul, in the time during which I had to give up my own life, I was constantly blessed with the thought that the world was still playing my music. Had I known that there was no wish to play my music any longer, my nerves would have been shattered, but I heard in my walled cell where I was completely isolated from other people, through secretive ways and repeatedly, that my music was being played hither, thither and yon. This whispered information gave me the strength to continue living. Much later I also learned in my prison cell that many friends and people from many lands gathered to rescue me, to help to free me, and to give me music once again. These astoundingly visible and invisible comrades, not only from Europe but also from Japan and the U.S.A., did, in fact, save me."

After his release, Yun gained teaching positions at the College of Music and Theatre in Hanover, and then at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin from 1970 to 1985, where he became a full professor of composition in 1974. He became a German citizen in 1971 and a member of the Berlin Academy of the Arts in 1973.

His composition Namo (1971), for three sopranos and orchestra draws inspiration from the singing style of Korean shamans, or mudang, in setting a Buddhist text in Sanskrit. Each singer accompanies herself with a chwago drum, as in the Korean style, against a western orchestra lacking violins, but bolstered with an array of percussion. A third opera, Geisterliebe (Love of Spirits), debuted in 1971, and his fourth opera, Sim Tjong, debuted in 1972 as part of the festivities surrounding the Olympic Games in Munich. Unlike his first three operas, which had been based on Chinese stories, Sim Tjong was based on a classic Korean fairy tale, making it the first western-style opera with a Korean subject. A fable espousing Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist values, Shim Cheong jeon (심청전), is a popular subject of novels, film and other entertainment, but is especially associated with the traditional Korean narrative singing, pansori (판소리). Examples of symbolism used by Yun in this opera include his writing for an eight-part choir (representing the eight Bagua, or Taoist trigrams), and five contrabasses in the orchestra, representing the Wu Xing, or five elements. As with Namo, Yun drew inspiration from the vocal style of Korean shamanist singing for his last opera.

Third Period (1975-1995)

Yun Isang (1917 - 1995)

"Artists cannot stay in one place, but must always move forward confronting new sources and new problems." - Yun Isang
예술가는 누구나 한 번 도달한 영역에 그대로 머무를 수는 없다. 항상 새로운 소재와 새로운 문제에 부닥쳐 전진해야 한다. - (윤이상)

Once he had found and established a personal compositional style, Yun was not content to repeat himself, instead he continuously re-examined his musical technique. From 1959 until 1975 Yun worked within the twelve-tone system, creating works that stood apart from contemporary European practitioners of serialism in their employment of Asian-influenced thought and techniques. In this period Yun's music was generally abstract, not overtly programmatic, taking titles which referred to Korean musical forms, styles or aesthetics. His compositional and public activities entered a third period in the mid-1970s. After 1975, Yun's compositions often take traditional European formal titles, such as symphony, concerto, sonata or cantata.

The largest part of Yun's output was in chamber music-- music for small ensembles or solo instruments. His use of the Hauptton technique can be easiest heard in these works for smaller groups or soloists. During his last 20 years he wrote extensively in the large orchestral forms of concerto and symphony. For these later orchestral works, Yun further adapted his Hauptton technique into what he had termed "Hauptklang", or main sound-- rather than tone, treating larger accumulations of pitches in a manner comparable to the individual tones in the chamber works. The first expression of this change in his compositional style is heard in his Cello Concerto of 1975-1976, which dealt thematically with his imprisonment. This was the first in a series of thirteen instrumental concerti Yun composed in the 1970s which set up a more concrete musical language, expressing non-musical, political concepts more openly than in the earlier works.

Yun had not been an especially politically-minded artist in the earlier part of his career. He had participated in the fight against the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, but had refused service in the Korean War, believing only in the unity of Korea, and not wishing to take sides in the internecine destruction of a civil war. The East Berlin Incident and Yun's kidnapping and imprisonment in 1967 as well as the increased authoritarianism of the South Korean government in the 1970s pushed Yun to take a more politically active stance. He began to express overtly political views in his music and to participate in political activities. He became more vocal about humanitarian issues such as anti-authoritarianism, the easing of the divisions between peoples, poverty, women's issues, particularly as these issues impacted the divided Korean peninsula. He reflected, "A composer cannot view the world in which he lives with indifference. Human suffering, oppression, injustice... all that comes to me in my thoughts... I want to have my say through my music."

These changes in his political philosophy were reflected in changes in his compositional style as well. He continued exploring the possibilities of his Hauptton technique, but, with an eye towards broader communication and easier comprehension, Yun made a greater effort to soften his musical voice and simplify his writing. Significantly, he abandoned the twelve-tone system at this time and his sound-world took on more lyrical, consonant and melodic traits. He explained, "I had determined to put my political experiences in my works. For that I needed a musical language that included humanitarian themes. Therefore, I selected classical Korean stories. For example, the Flute Concerto depicts a nun dancing in the moonlight, and the Double Concerto is concerned with the issue of the division of Korea. And my Cello Concerto, which reflects the reality of my imprisonment, has to do with life and death. Actually, the music concerns itself with these facts: what is death, what is life, and what are their origins?"

Yun was especially concerned with the reunification of Korea. He continued to visit North Korea to attend performances of his works, but refused to affiliate himself with either the North or the South Korean governments, considering himself a Korean nationalist. He was chairman of the Korean Democratic Unity Union in Europe between 1977 and 1984. This organization was formed in Japan in 1973 with the purpose of helping Korean expatriates, and working towards the re-unification of Korea. In 1976, while attending a conference in Tokyo, the South Korean government made another attempt to kidnap the composer, however his bodyguards prevented this abduction.

The political situation in South Korea became especially grim between 1979 and 1980. General Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian ruler of the country since 1961, was assassinated in 1979. Chun Doo-hwan overthrew the succeeding Choi Kyu-hah government in a military coup d'état, and brutally suppressed a student-led Democratic Uprising in Gwangju in 1980. Official reporting had the death toll of the 10-day Gwangju Massacre at 170, while unofficial estimates are closer to 2,000. Music that Yun composed in response to the Gangju Massacre include the solo cantata Night, Be Parted (1980; to poetry by Nelly Sachs), the orchestral Exemplum in Memoriam Kwangju (1981), and his Fifth Symphony.

In the mid-1980s Yun devoted himself to writing a symphony a year, totaling five symphonies for full orchestra and two chamber symphonies. Musically, the symphonies are an inter-related summation of Yun's decades of exploration of the Hauptton technique, and represent somewhat of a return to concepts in the sound world of the works of the 1960s, though expanded by the more directly communicative language explored in the concerti. Thematically the symphonies are expressions of his opposition to authoritarianism and his work towards peace and reconciliation. Yun stated, "The five symphonies were my greatest compositions. They combined the Asian style that I had been developing since 1960 into the world style."

Yun's First Symphony, written between 1982 and 1983, was premiered in 1984 as part of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's 100th anniversary celebrations. The direct inspiration for it was the peace movement opposing nuclear weapons, particularly the deployment of nuclear rockets in Germany. The first movement serves as a warning against nuclear disaster. Yun took his personal experiences as a theme for the more modestly-scaled Second Symphony, which was composed and premiered in 1984. His stated goal in his Third Symphony (1985), subtitled "Philosophical", was to inspire reflection on humankind's place in the universe, "human blindness and egocentrism", and to express the notion that harshness can be overcome by kindness.

Yun's Fourth Symphony was premiered in Tokyo in 1986 in a dedication concert for the opening of Suntory Hall. The symphony's subtitle, "Im Dunkeln singen" ("Singing in the Dark") was taken from the diaries of the German author and survivor of Nazi prison camps, Luise Rinser (1911-2002), a friend of Yun's. Yun's theme in this symphony is the exploitation and oppression of women in patriarchal societies, particularly by Japan during World War II. In this symphony Yun adopted a declamatory style based on the recitation of the Korean poetic form and art song, sijo. Yun's Fifth, and last symphony, was commissioned for the 37th Berlin Festival, in celebration of the 750th anniversary of founding of Berlin, and premiered on his 70th birthday. Yun makes his non-musical intentions explicit in this work by adding a text to the orchestra. Sung by a baritone voice, the text is compiled from eleven poems by Nelly Sachs (1891–1970), who had been exiled from Germany during the Nazi years to avoid imprisonment. Here Yun makes an appeal for peace and reconciliation through confronting the past.

Though his relationship with the South was more troubled, Yun was one of the few contemporary individuals celebrated in both North and South Korea. During the 1980s and 1990s Yun organized concerts to promote Korean reunification. He hoped to arrange a concert involving musicians from both Koreas, but this was not achieved until after his death. In the years following his imprisonment his music had been banned in South Korea, however his fame as the most internationally prominent Korean composer lead to a lifting of this ban in 1982 with a two-night festival concert performance. In September of that year, concerts of his music were held in both Seoul and Pyongyang, and annual concerts of Yun's music have been held in Pyongyang ever since.

The last decade of Yun's life was filled with international recognition, honors, and awards. Among the honors bestowed on him were the Goethe Medal of the Goethe Institute in Munich, the Distinguished Service Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and an honorary doctorate from the University of Tübingen. Kim Il-sung, first leader of North Korea, established the Isang Yun Music Institute in Pyongyang in 1984 with the goal of promoting Yun's music, as well as promulgating Western classical music in North Korea. In 1987, in recognition of Yun's 70th birthday the book Der Komponist Isang Yun was published in Munich. He was given the Distinguished Service Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1988. Yun's 75th birthday was celebrated in Japan with a week and-a-half concert festival in 1992, and cities throughout Europe gave concerts and seminars in his honor. He was awarded the Goethe Medal in 1995.

I was teaching in Seoul in 1994 when South Korea held Yun Isang Festivals in Seoul, Busan, and Kwangju. I had the pleasure of attending several of these concerts, including performances of his first two operas, which, if I remember correctly, had been translated from German into Korean for this occasion. Mr. Yun wished to be present for these concerts, and efforts were made by festival organizers to enable his visit, but, due to continuing disputes with the South Korean government, he was never to return to his homeland in his lifetime.

Always a prolific composer, in his last year alone Yun wrote Angel in Flames for soprano, three-part women's chorus and orchestra, an Epilogue to this work, a Quartet for Oboe and String Trio, and his second Clarinet Quintet. Yun died at the age of 78 on November 3, 1995. The Senate of Berlin gave him a grave of honor at the Landschaftsfriedhof Gatow cemetary.

Yun's wish for a concert made up of musicians from both South and North Korea was finally realized three years after his death, in an event in his honor called The Isang Yun Reunification Concerts. In the two decades since his death, Yun's reputation has continued to grow, and studies and recognitions have continued to accrue. The International Isang Yun Society was established in Berlin in 1996 and the Isang Yun Peace Foundation was founded in Seoul in 2005. In 2007 these two organizations jointly established the Isang Yun International Composition Prize. This competition for young composers has been held biennially since its founding. Yun Isang music festivals were held in Tongyeon in 2002, and in Tongyeon, Seoul, Chunchun and Junju in 2008.

Lee Soo-ja

Yun Isang's wife, Lee Soo-ja

Though in life, Yun was never able to realize his dream of someday once again "just sitting quietly and fishing on the beach" in his hometown of Tongyeong, Yun's widow, Lee Soo-ja, was able to return to South Korea in 2007 to receive a formal governmental apology and to attend a music festival in honor of the 90th anniversary of her late husband's birth. A 2006 investigation by the South Korean government had cleared Yun of wrongdoing, and stated that the abductions were the result of anti-Communist hysteria as well as an attempt to stifle political dissent. Lee Soo-ja returned to live in Tongyeong, where she and her husband had both spent their childhoods. Once the required 20th anniversary of Yun's death had passed, Lee, now over 90 years of age, petitioned the German and South Korean governments to have the composer's remains returned to Tongyeong, stating that that was where her husband had wished to be buried.

Last year, in celebration of the 100th birth of Yun Isang, memorials and retrospective concerts of his work were held in Germany and Korea. As part of the celebrations, Yun's remains were relocated to Tongyeong in March of 2018, over two decades after his death, and nearly five decades after his exile from South Korea. A small burial mound located in a memorial dedicated to him now overlooks the ocean on the grounds of the Tongyeong Concert Hall.

Yun's final statement was, "My music is a rejection of evil and praising for a victorious life. My music intends to share the sorrow of those who are suffering and help to give new hope to the human race. To all my brothers and sisters in my mother country, I hope you could find hope, comfort and courage in my music and try to bring peace and reconciliation into the nation as I have always sincerely wished for our nation’s peaceful existence. And farewell."

List of Works

  • 1945 Fragment, for organ
  • 1955 String Quartet No. 1
  • 1958 5 Pieces for Piano
  • 1959 Music for 7 instruments
  • 1959 String Quartet No. 3
  • 1960 Bara for orchestra
  • 1960 Symphonic Scene, for orchestra
  • 1961 Colloïdes sonores, for strings
  • 1962 Loyang for chamber ensemble
  • 1963 Garak, for flute & piano
  • 1963 Gasa for violin & piano
  • 1964 Fluktuationen, for full orchestra
  • 1964 Nore for cello & piano
  • 1964 Om mani padme, hum for solists, chorus and orchestra
  • 1965 Der Traum des Liu-Tung (The Dream of Liu Tung) (opera)
  • 1966 Réak, for orchestra
  • 1967 Tuyaux sonores, for organ
  • 1967-1968 Die Witwe des Schmetterlings (The Butterfly Widow) (opera)
  • 1968 Images, for flute, oboe, violin & violoncello
  • 1968 Riul for clarinet & piano
  • 1968 Ein Schmetterlingstraum, for chorus and percussion.
  • 1968 Shao Yang Yin, for harpsichord (or piano)
  • 1970 Glissées, for solo cello
  • 1971 Dimensionen, for orchestra and organ
  • 1971 Namo for three sopranos and orchestra
  • 1971 Geisterliebe (Love of Spirits) (opera)
  • 1971 Piri for solo oboe (or clarinet)
  • 1971-1972 Sim Tjong (opera) written for the 1972 Munich Olympic games
  • 1972 Konzertante Figuren, for small orchestra
  • 1972 Trio for clarinet, horn & bassoon
  • 1972-1973 Trio for flute, oboe & violin
  • 1972-1975 Trio for violin, cello & piano
  • 1972-1988 Vom Tao, for chorus, organ & percussion.
  • 1972 Gagok, for voice, guitar & percussion
  • 1974 Four Etudes for flute solo
  • 1974 Four Etudes for piccolo
  • 1974 Harmonia, for 16 winds, harp & percussion
  • 1974 Mémoire, for three voices and percussion.
  • 1975 Rondell, for oboe, clarinet & bassoon
  • 1975-1976 Concerto for cello
  • 1975 An der Schwelle [On the Threshold], for baritone, women's chorus, organ and other instruments
  • 1976 Duo for viola & accordion
  • 1976 Duo for viola & piano
  • 1976 Königliches Thema, for violin solo
  • 1976 Piece Concertante for chamber ensemble
  • 1977 Concerto for flute & small orchestra
  • 1977 Der weise Mann, for baritone, chorus and small orchestra (1977)
  • 1977 Double Concerto, for oboe & harp with chamber orchestra
  • 1977-1978 Salomo for alto flute solo
  • 1978 Muak, dance fantasy for large orchestra
  • 1978 Oktett, for clarinet (bass clarinet), bassoon, horn & strings
  • 1979 Fanfare and Memorial, for orchestra with harp & flute
  • 1979 Sonata for oboe (oboe d'amore), harp & cello or viola
  • 1980 Novellette for flute & harp with violin & cello
  • 1980 Teile dich nicht, for soprano & chamber ensemble
  • 1981 Concerto for clarinet
  • 1981 Concerto for violin & orchestra, No 1
  • 1981 Exemplum in Memoriam Kwangju, for orchestra
  • 1981 O Licht... for violin and chorus
  • 1981 Der Herr ist mein Hirte (Psalm 23), for trombone and chorus
  • 1981 Für Aki Nos. 1 & 2, for double bass
  • 1982 Interludium A for piano
  • 1982-1983 Symphony No. 1
  • 1983 Concertino for accordion & string quartet
  • 1983 Inventionen, for 2 oboes
  • 1983 Monologue, for bass clarinet
  • 1983 Sonata for 2 violins
  • 1983-1984 Inventions for 2 flutes
  • 1983-1984 Monolog for bassoon
  • 1983-1986 Concerto for violin No. 2
  • 1984 Duo for cello & harp
  • 1984 Gong-Hu for harp & strings
  • 1984 Quintet for clarinet & strings No. 1
  • 1984 Symphony No. 2
  • 1984-1985 Li-Na im Garten, 5 pieces for solo violin
  • 1985 Symphony No. 3
  • 1986 Impression for Small Orchestra
  • 1986 Quartet for flutes
  • 1986 Quintet with flute
  • 1986 Rencontre, for clarinet, cello, and piano or harp
  • 1986 Symphony No. 4, "Singing in the Dark"
  • 1986 Mugung-Dong, Invocation for winds, percussion & double bass
  • 1987 Duetto concertante, for oboe, horn & strings
  • 1987 In Balance for harp solo
  • 1987 Contrasts, 2 pieces for solo violin
  • 1987 Na ui ttang, naui minjogiyo! (My Land, My People), oratorio, for soloists, chorus & orchestra, on South Korean poetry
  • 1987 Chamber Symphony No. 1 (2 oboes, 2 horns & strings)
  • 1987 Symphony No. 5 for orchestra & baritone solo
  • 1987 Tapis, for 2 violins, viola, cello & double bass or string orchestra
  • 1988 Contemplation, for two violas
  • 1988 Distanzen, for 10 instrumentalists (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn & string quintet)
  • 1988 Festlicher Tanz, for wind quintet
  • 1988 Intermezzo for cello & accordion
  • 1988 Pezzo Fantasioso, for two instruments with bass ad libitum
  • 1988 Quartet for flute, violin, cello & piano
  • 1988 String Quartet No. 4
  • 1988 Sori, for flute solo
  • 1989 Together for violin and double bass
  • 1989 Konturen, for full orchestra
  • 1989 Rufe, for oboe & harp
  • 1989 Chamber Symphony No. 2 "Den Opfern der Freiheit"
  • 1990 Chamber Concerto 1
  • 1990 Chamber Concerto 2
  • 1990 Concerto, for oboe (oboe d'amour) & chamber orchestra
  • 1990 String Quartet No. 5
  • 1991 Octet for winds with contrabass
  • 1991 Bläserquintett; Movement I & II; for wind quintet
  • 1991 Sonata for violin & piano
  • 1992 Violin concerto No. 3
  • 1992 Espace 1, for cello & piano
  • 1992 String Quartet No 6
  • 1992 Quartet, for horn, trumpet, trombone & piano
  • 1992 Silla, Legend for orchestra
  • 1992 Trio for clarinet, bassoon & horn
  • 1993 Chinesische Bilder four pieces for solo recorder (or solo flute/alto flute)
  • 1993 Espace II, for oboe, cello & harp
  • 1993 Seven Etudes for cello
  • 1994 Engel in Flammen : Memento und Epilogue, for orchestra, soprano & women's chorus
  • 1994 East West Miniature I - II, for oboe & cello
  • 1994 Quartet for oboe, violin, viola & cello
  • 1994 Quintet for clarinet & strings No. 2