Composer refuses award affiliated with pro-Japanese collaborator

Posted on : 2013-09-16 14:03 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
By refusing award, Ryu Jae-joon hopes to start clear discussion on history of anti-nationalist collaboration

By Sung Sang-young, culture correspondent

“We in the music community only ever talk about Hong Nan-pa’s accomplishments, without properly assessing his collaborationist activities under Japanese colonial occupation. He was a pioneer, the first person to introduce Western music to Korea, and nobody’s going to argue with what he achieved. But I resented being used by the Nanpa Commemorative Association as a way of whitewashing or covering up his collaborationist activities through the ‘Nanpa Music Awards.’”

Composer Ryu Jae-joon, 43, was speaking to the Hankyoreh in a cafe near his home in Seoul’s Bangbae neighborhood on Sept. 14. Ryu, who recently made waves by declining his prize at the 46th Nanpa Music Awards, is a graduate of the Seoul National University College of Music who studied under modern music maestro Krzysztof Penderecki at the Krakow Conservatory in Poland. He is better known abroad than at home, with works such as “Sinfonia da Requiem” and “Violin Concerto” to his credit.

After Ryu declined to accept the prize, soprano Im Seon-ae, 37, also turned it down, leaving the awards, which were started in 1968 in honor of composer Hong Nan-pa (1898-1941), without any honorees this year.

Ryu presented a brochure about the Nanpa Recital, an event organized annually by the Music Association of Korea’s Gyeonggi Branch (headed by Commemorative Association chair Oh Hyun-gyu) where Nanpa Award winners are invited to perform.

Referring to Hong’s past activities, the brochure read, “Something heartbreaking is happening: we are abandoning our own musicians. Because of exaggerated portrayal of misdeeds committed over a painful history, we are failing to understand the suffering and creating yet another form of suffering, that of losing our most valued musicians.”

Ryu shook his head. “I can’t begin to understand what they mean by ‘exaggerated portrayal.’”

Hong composed “Bongseonhwa,” a piece of about Koreans’ suffering through history, and took part in the movement against Japanese colonial rule even while studying in the US.

But his beliefs changed after an arrest by the Japanese police. In 2009, the Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations for Japanese Imperialism labeled him a “a pro-Japan, anti-nationalist collaborator” after it came to light that he worked as a culture committee member for the General Mobilization of National Spirit League, one of the leading pro-Japanese groups under the Government-General, and composed such pro-Japanese songs as “Morning of Hope” and “Song to the Soldier Going into Battle.”

“What I find most disturbing is not taking issue with collaborationist activities, but the way people use them for their own needs and tailor them to whomever’s tastes here in the present,” said an agitated Ryu.

He went on to say he hoped “my decision to refuse the prize does not cause problems for past awardees.”

“Some people come to me and say, ‘Wagner was an anti-Semite, the Nazis used his music. Does that we should turn our backs on the great music he made?,’” he continued. “I think that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was in some sense a side effect of the German society of the time. And I suppose you could view Hong Nan-pa’s collaboration is those terms too. But it was very dangerous for the Nazi’s to use that music to kill people. And I don’t think the pro-Japanese behavior you see in South Korea these days is any different.”

The online response to news of Ryu‘s decision was mixed, with some praising his “conscientious decision” and others accusing him of “politicizing art.”

“I personally think it’s extremely immoral for an artist to not turn his attention to society,” Ryu said.

“Great musicians like the cellist Pablo Casals or [conductor Mstislav] Rostropovich and [composer Dmitry] Shostakovich fought against dictatorship their whole lives,” he added.

Ryu went on to say that he had received many messages and phone calls from other musicians. “Even performers I had thought were very conservative were praising me for saying what is on my mind,” he said. “A pianist named Lee and a violinist named Kim [Ryu did not mention their given names] told me they wanted to play my music at their recital.”

Ryu said that the issue with the music awards and a recent furor over Korean history textbooks published by Kyohak stemmed from “a failure to take a serious view of our history.”

“I’d like to see whatever controversy I may have started lead to a reappraisal of collaborationist artists in general,” he said.


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