Yun Isang (尹伊桑), more often known as Isang Yun, is South Korea’s most internationally celebrated composer. Born in 1917 in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, Yun initially studied composition in Japan. While there, he got into trouble with the Japanese authorities over his pro-Korean Independence activities and was imprisoned. He resumed his musical career and later moved to Germany where he resumed his studies.
He quickly made a name for himself among the European avant-garde. His works were performed at some of the most prestigious festivals. In the early 1960s, Yun made a trip to North Korea. This was definitely illegal for South Korean citizens. Eventually, the KCIA (now known as the National Intelligence Service) caught up with him and kidnapped him in Berlin. He was taken back to Seoul, put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to death. His death sentence was eventually commuted. Thanks to a great deal of outrage on the part of Germany and many prominent musicians, including the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, he was returned to Germany but permanently barred from visiting South Korea. He would never see South Korea again. His works were banned here. Yun Isang was not the only composer to run into trouble with the South Korean government. One of Korea’s greatest masters of traditional music, Hwang Byungki, found one of his works banned by the authorities, as they deemed it “too shocking”. Hwang writes both traditional-style music and very avant-garde compositions.
Meanwhile in North Korea, Yun became celebrated and well known. He was granted German citizenship and travelled between Germany and North Korea several times. A research institute into his life and work was subsequently set up by the North Korean government. His works have been performed there, something which is puzzling, as Communist countries really don’t care for avant garde music. Given that in B.R. Myers’ brilliant analysis, North Korea is not really a Communist country but an extreme fascist state, it makes the Great Leader’s embrace of Yun’s compositions equally puzzling. During Hitler’s Germany, avant-garde music was seen as “degenerate”. Schoenberg’s works were banned because he was both Jewish and wrote atonal music. His students Alban Berg and Anton von Webern weren’t Jewish, but their music was banned all the same. Even as tame a composer as Paul Hindemith found his works banned. He fled to the USA.
Yun’s works have been performed in South Korea again and there are festivals in his honour. However, his music is not easy to listen to. Some in Korea are not happy with the honours which have since been accorded to Yun. A Korean studying in Germany, O Gil-nam, met and married another Korean there. They had two daughters. In 1985, having been convinced by North Korean agents that defection was the right thing to do, the O family defected to North Korea. Mr O says that the composer Yun Isang also persuaded him and his family to move to North Korea. Mr O soon realised he had made a horrible mistake and escaped North Korea, leaving his wife and daughters there. He has not seen them since.
He comes from the same town as Yun Isang. Quite understandably, he is not happy with the honours now accorded to the late composer and his family, given Yun’s close ties with North Korea. You can read more about this sad story by clicking here.
Here’s a pretty representative work by Yun, namely Tapis pour cordes.