2012 Travel Diary 8: Yun Isang, Sancheong and Tongyeong

Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Monday 26 March 2012. The day has been devoted mainly to exploring some of the Joseon dynasty naval history in which Tongyeong played its part. But we’re also in Tongyeong to attend the Tongyeong International Music Festival, focusing on concerts which have music by Tongyeong’s most famous musical son, composer Yun Isang. In preparation for the evening’s concert we make a detour from the Yi Sun-shin trail during the afternoon to visit the Yun Isang memorial museum and hall (윤이상 기념관), not far from the ferry terminal. The museum is an interesting and diplomatic introduction to Yun’s controversial life, of which more later.

The Yun Isang Memorial Hall in Tongyeong
The Yun Isang Memorial Hall in Tongyeong

Tongyeong is the town in South Korea with which Korea’s best known composer is rightly associated. It is the town where his father lived and where he himself grew up from an early age. But contrary to what many accounts of his life say, he was not actually born in Tongyeong (nor in Chungmu, which later became absorbed into Tongyeong)1.

The bust of Yun Isang in the Yun Isang Memorial Hall in Tongyeong
The bust of Yun Isang in the Yun Isang Memorial Hall in Tongyeong

In fact, Yun Isang was born in the small village of Deoksan-ri (덕산리) in Sancheong County (산청군), on 17 September 1917. The village, known for its dried persimmons, is now impossible to find on Google Maps: according to the search engine it has been absorbed in to the small town of Sicheon-myeon (시천면) [Map]. But if you zoom in closely on the street names you can still find tell-tale signs of the village’s identity, with the local church called 덕산교회 [Map], and the local elementary school called 덕산초등학교 [Map]

The view towards Chonwangbong from Deoksan-ri
The view towards Chonwangbong, the summit of Jirisan, from Deoksan-ri

The town is also known for its association with Nammyeong Cho Shik, the famous Confucian scholar (the main street through Sicheon-myeon is called 남명로, and nearby overlooking the Deokcheon river is the Sancheon-jae where Nammyeong spent the last 10 years of his life.

Yun’s father, Yun Ki-hyon, was of scholarly stock, but also had a small fishing business and a furniture business. He lived in Tongyeong but as part of his business he travelled to Sancheong regularly to secure supplies of good timber. It was there, when his main wife failed to provide a son, that Yun senior met Kim Soon-dal, who duly provided the desired male heir.

L to R: Lee Jae-geun (mayor of Sancheong), with Yun Isang's widow, daughter and son, during a visit to Yun's home town in Sancheong County, 2007
L to R: Lee Jae-geun (mayor of Sancheong), with Yun Isang’s widow, daughter and son, during a visit to Yun’s home town in Sancheong County, 2007 (Photo provided by Sancheong County Office)

Isang spent the first couple of years of his life in his mother’s home town, within sight of Jirisan’s bell-like peak, before moving to Tongyeong in 1920. Yun Isang’s widow, son and daughter came to visit Yun’s birth town in Sancheong in September 2007, though the actual house where he was born is no longer in existence.

But while the citizens of Sancheong might like to speculate that the gi from Jirisan gave a special quality to his music, Yun himself acknowledged a debt to Tongyeong’s unique landscape:

그 잔잔한 바다
그 푸른 물색
가끔 파도가 칠때도
그 파도소리는 내게 음악으로 들렸고,
그 잔잔한 풀을 스쳐가는
초목의 바람도
내게 음악으로 들렸습니다
The calm sea
and its blue colour.
Sometimes the waves hit,
it sounded like music to me.
The gentle breeze
softly passing by the grass
sounded like music to me.

It is therefore appropriate that it should be his name and his music that is associated with the Tongyeong International Music Festival, which grew out of an evening of his music held in 1999.

The calm blue sea of Tongyeong
The calm blue sea of Tongyeong

And how was our first concert of the TIMF?

It was a solo piano recital by Kim Sunwook, an eminent young pianist who won the prestigious Leeds Piano Competition in 2006. He plays regularly in London, but I’d never managed to get to see him live. So I travel half way around the world to see him, and, jet-lagged, snooze through most of the first half – a Beethoven Sonata and some shorter Brahms pieces. I’m more awake for the second half – the Liszt Sonata and some Yun Isang, of which more anon.

Sources:

  • Interview with Lee Jae-geun, Mayor of Sancheong County, 28 March 2012
  • Captions in Yun Isang Memorial Hall, Tongyeong
  • Tongyeong International Music Festival Foundation website
  • Keith Howard, Creating Korean Music: Tradition, Innovation and the Discourse of Identity, Ashgate, 2006
  • Jee Yeoun Ko, Isang Yun And His Selected Cello Works, Dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2008
  • Articles in Korean media:
    • http://news.naver.com/main/read.nhn?mode=LSD&mid=sec&sid1=115&oid=001&aid=0001920603
    • http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/view/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0000725238
    • http://www.busanilbo.com/news2000/html/2007/0928/0D0020070928.1012104317.html
    • http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/view/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0000724594
Wrong. The common error about Yun Isang's birthplace perpetuated in his memorial museum in Tongyeong
Wrong. The common error about Yun Isang’s birthplace perpetuated in his memorial museum in Tongyeong

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  1. The error is made by Wikipedia, among others http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isang_Yun (accessed 21 May 2012), and indeed the biographical information in the Yun Isang Memorial museum is also wrong. But the Tongyeong International Music Festival Foundation gets it right http://timf.org/found_e/found_intro.php (accessed 21 May 2012). []

5 thoughts on “2012 Travel Diary 8: Yun Isang, Sancheong and Tongyeong

  1. Hello from Seoul, Philip. It’s already been a long time. I have become known about a small city of my own country and it’s heritage more than before all thanks to you. Amazing articles!

  2. Well Insoon, I wouldn’t have covered nearly so much ground without you. Thanks so much for your help and your company down in Tongyeong. Next time, Kangwondo ^_^

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