The Times reported yesterday that this coming February, the New York Philharmonic will become the first American orchestra to visit North Korea. Much of the coverage in the Times focused on the question of whether the NYPO will play the “Star Spangled Banner” before the concert, an event, that in my opinion, will have about as much to do with the actual concert as the playing of the national anthem before a baseball game has to do with hitting, pitching, and fielding.
The coverage of this event seems strikingly similar to the treatment of the first tentative American steps towards rapprochement with China in the early 1970s, an entrance into a dark and hidden land, and the presumption that we are bearing strange new gifts, and that North Koreans are utterly unfamiliar with classical music, bringing, as the Times writes, “the legacy of Beethoven, Bach, and Bernstein to one of the world’s most isolated nations.”
The Times should relax. North Korea is not a land without classical music. The excellent German label CPO has a recording of the Democratic People’s Republic Orchestra of Korea playing the music of the Korean composer Isang Yun (1917- 1995.) Yun is an interesting composer, who studied in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, from where in 1966, he was kidnapped by agents of the South Korean secret police, and returned to South Korea, where he was imprisoned and tortured for several years before West German pressure led to his release, from whence he returned to Germany, where he spent the remainder of his life. His music is modernist in a post-war European style, maybe a cross between Henze and Nono, perhaps. I can’t say that I was overly impressed by the performance of the chorus in Yun’s cantata, “My Land! My People!,” but I found the orchestral playing excellent in Yun’s twenty minute “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” a tribute to the violent suppression of a student protest in South Korea in 1980, and as a piece of political music worthy of comparison to such composition as Husa “1968: Music From Prauge” or Pendereski’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” and its sounds a bit like the latter as well.
The Times quotes a music critic to the effect that classical music will be challenge to North Korean culture, that in “a sense classical music is thoroughly at odds with the values of a closed, totalitarian society.” Would that it were so. But as Alex Ross has reminded us in his excellent recent book on the music of the 20th century The Rest is Noise, the history of classical music in the past century is in many ways a dialogue, for and against, the threat and reality of totalitarianism and unfreedom, and the need for music to be at once political and to be able to transcend politics. (After all, leaving aside the US, by 1940, the four greatest traditional centers of classical music, Germany, Italy, France, and Russia, were all ruled by totalitarian governments.) It proved far too easy for classical music to flourish under totalitarianism regimes, though admittedly not without a certain life-giving ambiguity.
According to Wikipedia the North Korean symphony orchestra has recently made a recording of that famously ambiguous work, Shostakovich’s 7th symphony “Leningrad” on which oceans of ink have been spilled on whether it was directed against Hitler, or Stalin, or both. Perhaps the North Korean musicians who recorded “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” played the music with other acts of repression in mind, those north of the 38th parallel.
All great music helps its listeners to transcend their limitations and surroundings and their own parochial concerns, and no form of music is more truly universal than classical music. I hope the visit of the NYPO to North Korea is an occasion for the realization of this shared humanity, and perhaps the music will remind those who hear its concerts that life is full of possibilities and alternatives, that change is inevitable, and the meaning of music, like the meaning of life, is to partake of it and to understand it.