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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

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YUN Isang (Ysang)

born 17th September 1917 at Tongyong

died 3rd November 1995 at Berlin


The major Korean composer Isang Yun, the son of a well-known Korean poet, had a prolific compositional life dogged by political oppression and controversy. He was jailed in 1943 by the Japanese authorities in Korea, and left Korea for Paris and then Germany in 1956. In 1967 Yun and his wife Sooja Lee were kidnapped by the South Korean authorities in Berlin on grounds of treason (for failing to return to South Korea), and released in 1969, following international pressure; the South Korean authorities made another failed attempt in 1976. He became a German citizen in 1971.

Some of this experience has been reflected in Yun's music: the Cello Concerto (1975-1976) reflects his imprisonment, the cantata On the Threshold (1975) was based on the poetry of Nazi victim Albrecht Haushofer, and Exemplum in memoriam Kwang ju (1981) for orchestra was a musical reaction to the suppression of a South Korean popular uprising. However, much of his music has been essentially abstract, if permeated by Taoist philosophy, and overall Yun has blended the European avant-garde and orchestral mainstream with influences of Korean music, particularly court music, without the direct quotation of Korean folk-music and only the occasional use of a Korean instrument.

Yun disowned his earlier music, reportedly conservative in style; his earliest acknowledged works, dating from the late 1950s, reflect the avant-garde developments he encountered in Europe. A number of stylistic features emerged that have permeated his output. An overall duality contrasts slow-moving, generally meditative but often tense ideas (whose pace and tone are influenced by Korean court music) against shorter bursts of more intense activity. Harmonically, Yun uses `principal tones' that provide an aural harmonic foundation. A streak of lyricism often surfaces, with inflections of Eastern music (especially flute music). Orchestral textures are usually dense, but with brighter percussive sounds again drawn from the heritage of Eastern musics.

Yun's works in the 1960s concentrated on tone-colours, often used in overlapping swathes, exemplified in the long phrases and overlapping events of Loyang (1962, revised 1964) for chamber orchestra. Gasa (1963) for violin and piano and Garak (1963) for flute and piano illustrate the basic duality, the soloists generally having longer lyrical lines against the nervous restlessness of the piano writing. Réak (1966) for orchestra, which includes a sharp-sounding Korean instrument (the `bak') among the percussion, is perhaps the most effective of the tone-colour works.

In the 1970s Yun produced a number of instrumental concertos and works based on Western texts. At the same time the more avant-garde aspects of his idiom became diluted into a more direct style, the tone-colour emphasis being partially replaced by less dense textures and an emphasis on solo lyricism, which was subsequently further developed in such works as the Chamber Symphony No.1 (1987). The dramatically varied and fervent Flute Concerto (1977) uses a small orchestra, and has a programmatic content based on an old Taoist tale of a young Buddhist neophyte who casts off her training to dance naked in front of the statue of the Buddha before returning to her original state. Much of the writing has the spirit of the dance, from the throbbing rhythm of the opening, unusual in Yun's output for its regularity. The abstract Octuor (1978) for three wind and five strings is one of Yun's most effective works, the two instrumental groups sometimes opposing each other, and coming together for the more solemn and subdued central section. With its colour effects, such as the series of delicate upward string slides, its clear structure, and its sure sense of instrumental emphasis, this octet would make an interesting and appealing modern contrast to those octets (such as Schumann's) written for the same forces.

In the 1980s Yun embarked on a series of five symphonies that draw on the experience of both the tone-colour works and the instrumental concertos. The basic duality between the turbulent and the ruminative remains, but the structure of the `principal tone' has broadened into a harmonic palette closer to traditional harmony, dissonance caused as much by contrasts of orchestral colour as by the clash of harmonies. Compared with Réak, the overall impression is of a reversion to a more conventional idiom, as if Yun had absorbed Mahler and Shostakovich (and, in the third symphony, Strauss) along the way. Although they vary considerably in structure and instrumentation, the general tone and idiom of the symphonies is consistent; the particular virtues of these symphonies are the detailed sound images that Yun invokes, the potency coming from the local focus rather than the overall impression. The dramatic Symphony No.1 (1982-1983) warns against the horrors of nuclear disaster (especially in the first movement), though it works perfectly successfully as abstract music, if marred by a tendency for the strings to produce Hollywood-like figures. The more effective Symphony No.2 (1984) contrasts two oppositional forces, the positive represented by the strings, the destructive by the brass, the woodwind acting as intermediaries, the whole characterized by a restless lyricism and regular shifting around the orchestral blocks. The third of four movements sounds (by complete coincidence) as if it is a development of a passage of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. The Symphony No.3 (1985) is the most inspired and effective of these symphonies, cast in one movement with three sections. Following the Taoist precept of the unity of heaven, earth, and humanity, there are three musical entities: the strings (heavenly purity), the brass and timpani (earth) and the woodwinds (humanity), each of which are assigned different tempi and pulses, while being drawn into an overall cohesion. The effect is of constant shifts of overlapping emotional swathes and areas of orchestral colour, sometimes turbulent, sometimes delicate, sometimes almost triumphant, in a structurally interesting and emotionally beautiful work. The harsher Symphony No.4 `Singing in the Dark' (1986) was accompanied by a programmatic commentary, the first of two movements representing the conflicts of human society, the second a song for and by the oppressed; the first movement is influenced by Korean art song, and the ending has a quiet beauty before a traditional climatic close. The lengthy, five-movement Symphony No.5 (1987) for baritone and orchestra sets poems by Nelly Sachs.

Yun was appointed professor at Seoul University in 1954, and taught in Hanover (1969-1970) and at the Berlin Academy of the Arts (1970-1985).


works include:

- 5 symphonies; Chamber Symphony No.1

- cello concerto; clarinet concerto; flute concerto; flute and harp concerto; oboe concerto; violin concerto

- Dimensions, Exemplum in memoriam Kwang ju, Fluctuations and Réak for orch.

- Glissées for cello; Cinq Études for flute; Piri for oboe; Garak for flute and piano; Gasa for violin and piano; clarinet quintet; Octuor for octet and many other chamber works

- Toyaux sonores for organ

- cantata On the Threshold; Om mani padme hum for soloists, chorus and orch.

- operas Butterfly Widow, Geisterliebe, Liu Tung's Dream and Sim Tjong


recommended works:

Octuor (1978) for octet

Réak (1966) for orchestra

Symphony No.3 (1985)



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