Isang Yun
Yun Isang.jpg
Background information
Born(1917-09-17)September 17, 1917
Sansei, Chōsen (now Sancheong, South Korea)
DiedNovember 3, 1995(1995-11-03) (aged 78)
Berlin, Germany
GenresTraditional korean music, Avant-garde music
Years active1935–1995
Isang Yun
Revised RomanizationYun Isang
McCune–ReischauerYun Isang

Isang Yun, also spelled Yun I-sang (17 September 1917 – 3 November 1995),[1][2] was a Korean-born composer who made his later career in West Germany.

Early life and education

Yun was born in Sancheong (Sansei), Chōsen (today part of independent South Korea) in 1917, the son of poet Yun Ki-hyon. His family moved to Tongyeong (Tōei) when he was three years old.[3] He began to study violin at the age of 13 whereupon he composed his first melody. Despite his father's opposition to pursuing a career in music, Yun began formal music training two years later with a violinist in a military band in Keijō (present day Seoul). Eventually his father relented once Yun agreed to enroll in a business school while continuing his musical studies. In 1935 Yun moved to Osaka where he studied cello, music theory, and composition briefly at the Osaka College of Music. He soon returned to Tongyeong where he composed a "Shepherd's Song" for voice and piano. In 1939 Yun traveled again to Japan, this time to Tokyo in order to study under Tomojiro Ikenouchi. When the Pacific War began in December 1941, he moved back to Korea where he participated in the Korean independence movement. He was arrested for these activities in 1943 and was imprisoned for two months. Yun was interned at Keijō Imperial University Hospital for complications resulting from tuberculosis when Korea was liberated from Japanese rule in August 1945.

After the war he did welfare work, establishing an orphanage for war orphans, and teaching music in Tongyeong and Busan. After the armistice ceasing hostilities in the Korean War in 1953, he began teaching at the Seoul National University. He received the Seoul City Culture Award in 1955, and traveled to Europe the following year to finish his musical studies.

At the Paris Conservatory (1956–57) he studied composition under Tony Aubin and Pierre Revel, and West Berlin (1957–59), and at the Musikhochschule Berlin (today the Berlin University of the Arts) under Boris Blacher, Josef Rufer, and Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling. In 1958 he attended the International Summer Courses of Contemporary Music in Darmstadt and began his career in Europe with premieres of his Music for Seven Instruments in Darmstadt and Five Pieces for Piano in Bilthoven. The premiere of his oratorio Om mani padme hum in Hanover 1965 and Réak in Donaueschingen (1966) gave him international renown. With "Réak" he introduced the sound idea of Korean ceremonial music as well as imitations of the East Asian mouth organ saenghwang (Korean), sheng (Chinese) or shō (Japanese) into Western avant-garde music.


From October 1959, Yun had been living in Krefeld, Freiburg im Breisgau and Cologne. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, he and his family settled in West Berlin in 1964. However, due to alleged acts of espionage, he was kidnapped by the South Korean secret service from West Berlin on 17 June 1967. Via Bonn he was taken to Seoul. In prison he was tortured, attempted suicide, forced to confess to espionage, threatened with the death sentence – and in the first instance sentenced to life imprisonment.[4] A worldwide petition led by Guenter Freudenberg and Francis Travis was presented to the South Korean government, signed by approximately 200 artists, including Luigi Dallapiccola, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Mauricio Kagel, Herbert von Karajan, Joseph Keilberth, Otto Klemperer, György Ligeti, Arne Mellnäs, Per Nørgård, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Igor Stravinsky, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Yun was released on 23 February 1969, returning to West Berlin at the end of March. In 1971, he obtained German citizenship. He never returned to South Korea. From 1973 he began participating in the call for the democratization of South Korea and the reunification of the divided country.


Yun taught composition at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover (1969–71) and at the Hochschule der Künste in West Berlin (1977–85).

Among his students are Kazuhisa Akita, Jolyon Brettingham Smith, In-Chan Choe, Conrado del Rosario, Raymond Deane, Francisco F. Feliciano, Masanori Fujita, Keith Gifford, Holger Groschopp, Toshio Hosokawa, Sukhi Kang, Chung-Gil Kim, Wolfgang Klingt, Erwin Koch-Raphael, Isao Matsushita, Masahiro Miwa, Hwang-Long Pan, Martin Christoph Redel, Byong-Dong Paik, Bernfried Pröve, Takehito Shimazu, Minako Tanahashi, Masaru Tanaka, Michail Travlos, Jürgen Voigt.

After 1979 Yun returned several times to North Korea to introduce new Western composition techniques as well as his own music. In 1982, the first Isang Yun Festival took place in Pyongyang. In 1984, the Isang Yun Music Institute opened in Pyongyang, North Korea. An ensemble had been founded there under his name. Yun promoted the idea of a joint concert featuring musicians from both Koreas in Panmunjom, which failed in 1988, but South Korean artists could be invited to Pyongyang in 1990.

Later life and death

Two concerts with works of Isang Yun had been performed in Seoul (1982) by Heinz Holliger, Ursula Holliger, and Francis Travis, later by Roswitha Staege and Hans Zender. Yun was invited to attend a festival of his music in South Korea in 1994, but the trip was broken off after internal and external conflicts. Yun was told by South Korean officials that to return, he would have to submit a written confession of “repentance,” which he refused.[citation needed] On 3 November 1995, Yun died of pneumonia in Berlin. The International Isang Yun Society was founded in Berlin in February 1996.

Yun has often been criticized for his "pro-North Korean activities", i.e. musical activities in North Korea, and his close ties with the Kim Il-sung regime. Oh Kil-nam has said that Yun persuaded him to relocate to North Korea with his family.[5] When Oh's wife Shin Suk-ja and her little daughters were imprisoned in Yodok camp, Yun helped them and took photos and a tape from North Korea to Berlin (for further details and Mr. Yun's own comments see the website of International Isang Yun Society). It was only in 2006 the entire East Berlin Spy incident in which Yun was among the accused, was finally declared by the Korean Government a fabrication of the intelligence services.[citation needed]


Yun's primary musical concern was the fusion of traditional Korean music through Western avant garde musical techniques. After experimenting with 12-tone techniques Yun developed his own musical personality beginning in his post-serialistic "sound compositions" of the early 1960s. Yun's music employed techniques associated with traditional Korean music, such as glissandi, pizzicati, portamenti, vibrati, and above all a very rich vocabulary of ornaments. Essential is the presence of multiple-melodic lines, which Yun called "Haupttöne" ("central" or "main tones").

Yun's composition for symphonic forces started with "sound compositions", i.e. of works in which homogeneous sound planes are articulated and elaborated: Bara (1960) until Overture (1973; rev. 1974). A period of discursively structured instrumental concertos followed, beginning with the Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1975–76) and climaxing with the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1981). From 1982 until 1987 he wrote a cycle of five symphonies, which are interrelated, yet varied structurally. Striving for freedom and peace is above all Symphony V for high baritone and large orchestra (1987) with texts by Nelly Sachs. In 1984, he developed also a new, intimate "tone" in his chamber music.[further explanation needed]

At that time peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula was his political goal. His lifelong concern with his native country and culture was expressed in several of his compositions, including the orchestral piece Exemplum in Memoriam Kwangju (1981) which he composed in memory of the Gwangju massacre, Naui Dang, Naui Minjokiyo! (My Land, My People) for soli, chorus and orchestra (South Korean poets, 1987), and Angel in Flames (Engel in Flammen) for orchestra, with Epilogue for soprano, women's choir and five instruments (1994). Otherwise Yun himself stated often that he was not a political composer but only following the voice of his conscience.

In both Europe and the United States, Yun developed a strong reputation as a composer of avant-garde music, assigned those signature elements of traditional Korean musical technique. The technical as well a stylistic difficulties of performing his very elaborate and ornamental music are considered formidable.[citation needed]

Memberships and awards


All compositions are published by Bote & Bock / Boosey & Hawkes, Berlin.[9]


Vocal / Choral
Chamber (seven and more players) / Ensemble
For one instrument
For two instruments
For three instruments
Four instruments
Five instruments

See also


  1. ^ H. Kunz (2001). "Yun, Isang". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.30747.
  2. ^ "Isang Yun: Biography". Boosey & Hawkes. 23 September 2021. Retrieved 12 December 2021.
  3. ^ Im, Hyoungjin (December 2017). "Ein grenzüberschreitender Nomade". Goethe-Institut Korea (in German). München. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  4. ^ Fraker, Sara E. (2009). The Oboe Works of Isang Yun. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-109-21780-3.
  5. ^ "Tongyeong split over composer Yun". The Korea Times. 31 October 2011. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  6. ^ a b c "Yun". Akademie der Künste, Berlin (in German). Retrieved 12 December 2021.
  7. ^ a b c "Isang Yun Timeline". Boosey & Hawkes (in German). 23 September 2021. Retrieved 12 December 2021.
  8. ^ "Träger*innen des Kieler Kultur- und Wissenschaftspreises". Retrieved 12 December 2021.
  9. ^ "Boosey & Hawkes Composers, Classical Music and Jazz Repertoire". Boosey & Hawkes. 23 September 2021. Retrieved 12 December 2021.

Essential Bibliography