Classical Western Music in Contemporary Korea
Among the many theories about the introduction of Western music to Korea, the most commonly accepted is that it was through the hymns taught by foreign missionaries. Accordingly, 1885, the year American missionaries Horace G. Underwood and Henry G. Appenzeller arrived in Chemulp'o Port (today's Inch'on), may be regarded as the beginning of Western music in Korea. From that time, music from the West began to permeate Korea's musical culture. It flourished so well that around the turn of the century, conflicts between pro-Western and pro-Korean musical viewpoints began to arise. Many asked why Koreans should indulge in Western music. There was not much development nor refinement during the Japanese colonial rule, but some pioneer musicians did sow the seeds for future growth.
While traditional Korean folk songs formed the musical mainstream from the 1920s to the 1945 liberation, Western-style songs like "Pongsonhwa," composed by Hong Nan-p'a in 1919, enjoyed increasing popularity. Some of the most popular composers during that time were Ch'ae Tong-son, Hyon Che-myong, Yi Hung-yol, Kim Se-hyong, Kim Tong-jin, Cho Tu-nam, and Kim Song-t'ae. Many of their songs remain popular.
In 1948 Chong Hoe-gap presented a composition of his own entitled String Quartet No. 1 at a concert commemorating the graduation of the first class of the Music College of Seoul National University. Two years later an opera composed by Hyon Che-myong called Ch'unhyangjon, based on a traditional love story by the same name, opened and was enthusiastically received. These two events gave rise to expectations of active production of new works in composition; however, the Korean War (1950 - 53) brought a brutal halt to any new development.
Korea's music world was introduced to modern compositional techniques in 1955 when the country began to recover from the devastation wrought by the war. Around that time, composer Na Un-yong began to present to the public works based on a 12 tonesystem and soon other musicians began to join the mainstream of world music. In 1958 the members of the Composition Department of the Music College of Seoul National University formed a composers club that played an important role in the creation of new music in Korea. Composers like Yun Yi-sang residing in West Germany, and the late Ahn Ik-t'ae, composer of the national anthem of Korea, won worldwide fame for their distinctive musical talents in composition.
More and more composers turned to chamber music during the 1970s, increasingly employing the techniques of their Western contemporaries. Leading musicians at this time included Chong Hoe-gap, Yi Song-jae, Kang Sok-heui, Paek Pyong-dong, Kim Yong-jin, Pak Chae-yol, Na In-yong and Yi Yong-ja. A group of young composers centered around Kang Sok-hui won prizes in competitions sponsored by the World Association of Modern Music, demonstrating the level to which composition in Korea had risen.
Korea's first symphony orchestra was established in September 1945 under the name of the Korea Philharmonic Orchestra Society. The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra was inaugurated in 1957 and the KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1956. There has been a rapid growth of orchestras in the provincial cities as well in recent years: the symphony orchestras of Pusan, Taegu, Inch'on, Kwangju and Suwon hold regular concerts, and the Korean Symphony, a privately operated orchestra, held its inaugural concert in 1985.
The quality of music performed in concerts, however, has been weak, given the large number of orchestras, ensembles and other groups. This is due in part to the interruption of musicians' instrumental training caused by the Korean War. In addition, only since the mid-1960s have there been quality performances by musicians who have returned home following musical training abroad. The first opera performed here was Verdi's La Traviata in January 1948. Since that time, many opera groups have emerged and disappeared in the past 40 years. The National Opera Group, the Kim Cha-kyong Opera Group and the Seoul Opera Group led by Kim Pong-im are the most active. The National Opera Group opened in 1965 with a performance of Puccini's La Boheme. The Kim Cha-kyong Opera Group opened in 1968 with La Traviata.
Several Korean operas have been performed, including Ch'unhyangjon by Hyon Che-myong, Prince Hodong by Chang Il-nam, Shimch'ongjon by Kim Tong-jin, Non-gae by Hong Yon-t'aek and Ch'obun by Pak Chae-yol, as well as many foreign operas including La Traviata, Tosca, Madam butterfly, Aida, Manon and Le Nozze di Figaro. Church choirs have long led chorus activities. The first professional chorus came into being in 1973 with the formation of the National Chorus, followed by the Seoul City Chorus in 1978 and the Daewoo Chorus, a privately operated chorus, in 1983. Na Yong-su, one of the nation's foremost chorus conductors, contributed greatly to raising the level of choral music.
An increasing number of Korean musicians are performing in concerts and other fields abroad. Many have won highest acclaim from foreign critics and audiences. A number have taken top awards in international competitions, and some have assumed prestigious posts as conductors or in other functions. Among them are Chong Kyong-hwa (Chung Kyung-hwa), one of the world's foremost violinists; violinist Kang Tong-sok, a prize winner at the Elizabeth Concours; and violinist Kim Yong-uk, who is based in New York. Pianists performing abroad include Han Tong-il, who resides in the United States, Paek Kon-u, who resides in Paris, and So Hye-gyong and So Chu-hui. Baritone Ch'oe Hyon-su won top honors in the voice section of the Ninth International Tchaikovsky Musical Competition in July 1990 in Moscow. He also received the Tchaikovsky Award, a prize for the best interpreter of Tchaikovsky's music. Conductors working abroad include Chong Myong-hun who was appointed as the music director and principal conductor of the French National Bastille Opera.