Isang Yun

My Land My People (1987) for orchestra / Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju (1981

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Performed by the State Symphony Orchestra of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea conducted by Byung-Hwa Kim, "My Land, My People" is an impassioned contemporary oratorio based on 11 poems by nine contemporary Korean writers who have been arrested, tortured, and otherwise persecuted in their resistance to a succession of South Korean dictatorships. The piece is simultaneously an epic portrait of the struggles of 20th century Korea, and a grand love poem to the land. It is a cry for reunion, tong-il, of a country divided by foreigners and not by the native people themselves. The first movement, "Rjoksa" ("History"), describes the country, physically and spiritually. The second movement "Hyon-shil I" ("Presence I"), is a history of the division of the country. The third movement, "Hyon-shil II" ("Presence II"), describes the revolution of April 1960 which brought about the downfall of Syngman Rhee. It also encourages the youth to struggle for "Justice, humanity, freedom, equality." The fourth and last movement, "Mi-rae" ("What Has Not Come Yet, or, "The Future"), a transcendence of the current situation by concrete action in this world -- "The foreigners and their vassals will tremble with fear and ask the way to the morning...say to him that in the East there is a land in which men live...with a radiant smile, striking a love song, they greet the new sky and the earth...Reunion!"

Unlike Yun's other more complex compositional palettes, the musical vocabulary for this piece is built on simple chords and tone modes. However, Yun still manages to establish floating harmonies and shifting episodes of grand declaration and somber introspection. This produces a Mahler-esque contrast in the orchestral writing which is also colored with serialistic phrases in the solo vocal parts, as well as Korean percussion and suggestions of folk melody.

However, a familiarity with the Korean language text and its geographical and topical references would seem to be essential for the non-Korean speaking listener, because the almost unrelieved dramatic intensity of the vocals -- similar to the Korean p'ansori style -- sometimes does not provide a musical clue to the changing import of the words, for example, in one case a simple harp arpeggio, elegantly chosen, is the only indication that the text is describing the beauty of the countryside. All in all, a work of epic scope and a call to the best in humanity.

Composed in early 1981, "Exemplum in Memoriam Kwangju" describes the previous year's popular uprising in Kwangju, a city of 800,000, against the brutality of the armed forces of dictator Chun Doo-hwan. Following the assassination of another dictator, Park Chung-hee in October of 1979, civil rights were effectively suspended and violent military repression occurred in all of South Korea. On May 18, 1980, 50,000 protesting students in Kwangju were brutally attacked by special force paratroopers. The city rose in resistance, ousting the military to the suburbs; negotiations were undertaken, but the military re-attacked, killing 2,000 people with thousands more imprisoned and tortured.

The first section of the work, approximately eight-and-a-half minutes in duration, describes the build-up of the demonstration with full orchestral unison stabs, developing into sliding and trilling figures, brass rhythmic triplets, and rushing woodwinds. There are successive build-ups of strength and interventions by opposing forces until eventually a battle scene, a massacre, is described with chaotic slides and aggressive rhythms, including the use of the multiple whipcrack pak that simulates the sound of gunfire and exploding shells. The second section of the work, a Lamentoso, begins with long sustains and rhythmic undulations, over which wind and brass tone clusters form, with the occasional entrance of a solo cello and massed strings also in clusters. Sighing, sliding figures express the grief of the living for the dead, and also the disquiet and tension underlying the momentary calm in the struggle. The music builds gradually again with horn calls and march rhythms, this time not capable of being dispersed as in the first section, but resolute and unstoppable.