49. Music In Korea

49. Music in Korea


Seeing Korea a lot on television news lately (10/07) takes me back to the nearly two years, 1946-48, that I spent in Korea in the occupation as an army lieutenant. After training in the army's Japanese language school, I expected to be given an assignment in Japan; but by the time I reached Japan in Spring 1948, no very desirable positions were open, and I was assigned, along with five other language officers, to the Language and Documents Office under G2 (Intelligence) in the 24th Corps headquarters in Seoul, where we supervised Korean translators (see no. 33 above). But since all educated Koreans at this time spoke fluent Japanese—they had to learn it under the Japanese occupation—I could move around easily among Koreans, talking with them. My interests at that time were more in music than in art, and I spent many evenings in an upstairs teahouse, the walls of which were lined with shelves of record albums (78 RPM, of course), listening to classical music and talking with people there. I got to know a number of prominent musicians, and was eventually given the job of semi-official liaison between the 24th Corps and the Korea Symphony Orchestra, arranging concerts, getting instrument parts and reeds that they needed from the U.S., and otherwise helping the orchestra. This was part of an effort to better relations between educated Koreans and the U.S. Army, which had started badly when the 24th Corps commander, General Hodge, just as he moved in to direct the occupation, was quoted as saying that as far as he was concerned, "the Koreans and the Japs are all one breed." (He tried to regain good will by the usual means, dandling babies etc., without success, and only captured some admiration from Koreans when he was observed eating very hot kimchee without flinching, an incident that was reported in all the newspapers.)


The conductor of the Korea Symphony was Lim Wonsik; the pianist said to be the best in Korea was Yoon Kison; I got to know both very well. A man named Dell Haimowitz, a musicologist from New York, had been a civilian employee of the army in Seoul in the year before I came, and was working to arrange for these two to come to the U.S. to study and perform. I began to correspond also with Haimowitz, again as a liaison to help with this project. He also was trying to arrange for the performance by some American orchestra, ideally the Philadelphia Symphony under Stokowski, of a piano concerto by a Korean composer named Kim Soonnam, and again, I became a go-between. I learned that Kim, while he lived in Seoul, was officially wanted by the police as a Communist, but that they were not actively pursuing him so long as he stayed out of sight, not making public appearances. I was taken to meet him in a private house and talked with him--I remember him as a small, quiet man with a gentle manner--and heard some of his music, including some very beautiful songs—one, which I was told was very popular, known to all music lovers there, was titled (Something) Mountain. On a later occasion, I was taken by a friend of his to a concert of his songs, which turned out to be in some part a Communist meeting, or rally; at the end everyone stood and sang the Internationale. I was in my officer's uniform, but not knowing what else to do, stood up with them and sang along (making up words, since I didn't know it.) I have no idea what happened to Kim; he probably went to the north during the 1950 invasion by the North Koreans.


Everything in Korea at that time was deeply politicized, and polarized, leftist vs. rightist. Most of the musicians and other intellectuals I knew were leftist; one friend told me his deep feeling that at that point in their history, a Korean intellectual had to either become Communist or commit suicide. The Korea Symphony, and Lim and Yoon, were mildly leftist. But there was another symphony orchestra, the Seoul Philharmonic, that was politically rightist; it was sponsored by the wife of the army major who was in effect the mayor of Seoul, and was led by someone named Rody Hyun. The Korea Symphony was much superior, and older. But a few days before a big concert for the U.S. military and civilians that I had arranged in the largest auditorium-theater in Seoul, someone came at night to break into the building where the Korea Symphony rehearsed and stole most of their library of instrumental parts, which they had painstakingly copied out, instrument by instrument, from the miniature orchestral scores that were all they had to work from. Everyone was sure it was the work of some agent of the Seoul Philharmonic—who else would steal instrumental part scores?—but there was no way to get them back, and the Korea Symphony had to play a concert made up from what had been saved or could be put together, single movements rather than complete pieces. I was announcer at the concert, and apologized to the audience for this rag-tag kind of program. But it was a success anyway; I remember standing in the wings, lifted high with excitement, while Yoon Kison played the first movement of the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto.


The Koreans are good singers and fond of Western opera and song; a recital of Schubert lieder would pack the house. A big event while I was there was the first performance of a Western opera in Korea. A young doctor (Li something?) who worked for the U.S. military was behind it, translating the libretto of "Traviata" and taking the tenor lead role. It was a great success, but like everything else there at that time, beset with political problems. The lead soprano role was taken on alternate nights by a Miss Kim and a Miss Ma. A reporter from the army newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, came to review it on a night when Miss Kim was singing, and described her as Korea's leading soprano. The next morning, a supporter of Miss Ma was in my office, waving the paper and demanding that they print a retraction. There may have been a follow-up article, I don't recall clearly; but that was far from the end of the matter. Again, it was rightist vs. leftist, with two musical organizations fighting, the tenor himself involved on one side or the other, somebody coming to the home of the leader of the other organization in the morning and getting him out of bed to beat him up, and so on without end.


This was all while Korean politics were going through the same kind of polarized, violence-ridden turmoil. The U.S. military had come to realize by then the mistake they had made in bringing back Syngman Rhee as the savior of Korea; when I arrived, someone in G2 jokingly offered to lend me a .45 pistol if I would assassinate him. Assassinations and beatings were common; an old politician named Kim Koo, who had made his reputation assassinating Japanese officials, was one of Rhee's opponents. But my memory of the Korean political events is so fuzzy that I had best [JC1]not attempt to recount them.


Korean musicians and music-lovers were desperately anxious to hear some recent recordings of modern music (to use an outmoded term) and I had a friend in Berkeley, the composer Gordon Cyr, send me three recently-released albums, which he chose: the first recording of the Bartok 2nd Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist and Antal Dorati conducting, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, and excerpts from Berg's Wozzek—a great selection for that time, all previously unrecorded, all excitingly new. On the night I brought them to the upstairs tearoom, it was packed with eager listeners. Then, as we were about to start the recorded concert, the power failed, as it often did in Seoul at that time. The owner fortunately had a generator that produced enough electricity for the record-player, but I remember the lights staying dim. It was an exciting evening for everybody. I left the records with the tea-house to play for others. (But I shipped back from Korea a large number of other albums, things I bought in Seoul that were rare in the U.S.—see no. 3, Music A, above.)


All this time I was continuing to correspond with Dell Haimowitz, about the plans for bringing Lim and Yoon, but also about what was going on in Korea. He was writing articles for leftist publications in the U.S. denouncing the U.S. military's (largely unintended) support for the takeover of South Korea by far-right political forces, and I was supplying him with articles from the Korean newspapers, translations of which went over my desk in my daily job of editing these before they were sent down to the G2 office. The morning came when I was called down for a talk with the G2 commander, a Colonel Choinski, a cultivated man who himself had literary ambitions. He informed me that they were aware of my correspondence with Haimowitz (and others in the U.S, similarly dealing with the Korean political situation), some of which had been opened and read; he said (generously) that he assumed I was doing this for G2 purposes, and would eventually produce a report on Korean leftist intellectual circles. It would be useful to G2, he said, if I would persuade my Korean friends to write reports on political, and especially far-left or Communist, activities among them. I had no real option but to agree; and I did get a few friends to write quite innocuous reports, to keep my own position secure. But it was an impossible situation, and I had to ask leave, sooner than I had intended, to return to the U.S. for discharge. So ended my exciting engagement with Korean musical circles. During the 1950 invasion of South Korea and its aftermath, the Korean War, I heard that Lim Wonsik had gone to North Korea; I never heard more about him, or about Yoon Kison.

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