Yun Isang – Korea’s best-known classical composer

yun1On Monday next week we have the rare opportunity to hear some work by possibly Korea’s best-known composer in the Western “classical” style, Yun Isang (윤이상).

Yun was born on Korea’s south coast near Tongyeong (통영) in 1917, and during the colonial period studied Western classical music in Korea and Japan. He was also involved in the resistance movement, and was imprisoned by the Japanese in 1943. After the end of the Pacific War he divided his time between Busan and Tongyeong teaching, and remained south of the border after the Korean War, ending up teaching in the University of Seoul. Having received the Seoul City Culture Award in 1955 he was able to go abroad in 1956 to get exposure to the European musical avantgarde, and studied at the Paris Conservatoire and the Berlin Musikhochschule.

A trip to North Korea in 1963 got him put on a Park Chung-hee blacklist, and just as he was gaining international attention with the 1966 premiere of Réak he was kidnapped in Germany by the KCIA in 1967 and whisked back to Seoul with his wife Lee Soo-ja to torture and prison. His international reputation (Stravinsky was among the Who’s Who of Music who petitioned for his release), and threats of economic repercussions, secured his release in 1969.

yunHis cello concerto, completed in the mid-70s is a direct response to some of Yun’s experiences, and his anti-dictatorship sentiments are clearly displayed in the title of his Exemplum in Memoriam Kwangju (1981), while his fifth symphony, first performed in 1987, deals with the “need to forswear violence and embrace peace”.1 He made several further visits to North Korea and promoted the idea of a joint concert involving musicians from both Koreas, which eventually happened in 1990 – five years before Yun’s death. The Isang Yun Music Institute was opened in Pyongyang in 1984.

Yun’s work is rarely-performed in the English-speaking world, though concerts are fairly frequent in Germany, where the international Yun society is based, promoting performances and issuing CDs of his work. Yun composed for most genres – orchestral, chamber, vocal and opera.

His musical style is post-Webern, and has been variously described as “stream of sound”, “written in an idion of euphonious dissonance” and “expressive cantando” (Alexander Liebreich, Bruce Duffie). Yun himself said of his music:

Music flows in the cosmos and I have an antenna which is able to cut out a piece of the stream. That’s why my music is always continuous – like the clouds that are always the same but are never alike one to another… I can sound very Asiatic, or very Buddhistic … I’m a man living today, and within me is the Asia of the past combined with the Europe of today. My purpose is not an artificial connection, but I’m naturally convinced of the unity of these two elements. For that reason it’s impossible to categorize my music as either European or Asian. I’m exactly in the middle.2

While it is hard to find CDs of his music in high street stores, they can be obtained from the International Yun Society or downloaded.


  1. Arnold Whittall, Gramophone Magazine, December 1994. []
  2. Source: interview with Bruce Duffie []

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