Click to follow
In a time when the concept "World Music" has become almost a musical cliche, and when exoticism and the travelogue aspects of music have become attractive in their own right, the music of the Korean Isang Yun is well worth examining.

In Britain Yun was never well known, but in several countries, especially in Germany and Japan, he is considered a leading figure. In Japan he is described as a "continental composer". For the Japanese the Continent is China and the surrounding lands, and the word represents vastness, wildness, grandeur, torrents and waterfalls, as well as the ancient traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism and, more relevant to Yun, Taoism.

All these qualities can be felt in Yun's music - by its sheer physical and sensuous impact on the one hand, and its ethical profundity on the other. Yun was a composer and humanist equally. The music was the man. He followed no ideology. He was not a Communist, as has been claimed, but he was able to integrate his spiritual inheritance from the Far East into the European humanist tradition, which, of course, includes the Marxist analysis. He was a man who cared greatly about personal suffering and those world events which cause suffering.

In 1967, the year after his first important work for orchestra (Reak), he was kidnapped from West Germany by the dictator Park Chung Hee's South Korean secret police. He was tortured and sentenced first to death, then to life imprisonment, for alleged espionage. After the intervention of the West German government and appeals from many of the world's leading musicians, including Igor Stravinsky, Elliot Carter and Karlheinz Stockhausen, he was released in 1969. During his imprisonment he wrote Die Witwe des Schmetterlings ("The Butterfly's Widow"), the second of his four operas, on the stone floor of his prison cell.

Yun's music is highly ethical. If we can adjust ourselves to see it as such it is nothing less than overpowering. He was a master of protest: the Cello Concerto of 1975-76, first performed by Siegfried Palm, is a protest against imprisonment, both physical and spiritual. It is very direct music: the cello is the voice of the imprisoned spirit, the orchestra that of the oppressor, which, being human itself, can turn to love and reconciliation. In many other works protest is very much in evidence: Teil Dich Nacht (1980) is a setting of poems by Nelly Sachs; Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju (1981) rails against the massacre of Korean pro-democracy demonstrators the previous year. In the first of his five symphonies, written for the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982-83, we find a protest against conditioned existence itself, with its massive cycles of change and decay.

What keeps Yun's music from being merely hysterical or dark and gloomy is a technique which he called Haupttone ("main-notes") . He once demonstrated this to his masterclass at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste (where he was a full professor from 1972 to 1985) with a hefty chalk imprint, or so it seemed, on a blackboard, of the Chinese character for "tree": the sweep of the chalk was strong, full of energy, yet light and playful.

His music (he wrote over 150 works) can be very playful indeed. The slow movement of the Violin Concerto No 1 (1981) is a veritable Asian fairy tale; and I recall with great affection his works for oboe and harp he wrote for his friends Heinz and Ursula Holliger.

He came to Britain professionally only once, in 1988, thanks to the director of the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music, Richard Steinitz. His last big work was Engel in Flammen ("Angels in Flames") for soprano, chorus and orchestra; it was premiered in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, almost a year before his death.

Keith Gifford

Isang Yun, composer: born Tong Yong, South Korea 17 September 1917; married 1950 Soo-Ja Lee (one son, one daughter); died Berlin 3 November 1995.