Western classical music wave in Korea

Six years ago when I had just retired, my wife who is a professor of Korean studies at JNU, decided to undertake some research in Korea. I also went along. Although we had TV in our bedroom, there was nothing at all in English. So I would watch IPL on the laptop while my wife watched Korean entertainment television. From what she told me the serials were absolutely top class. What a pity, she would say, that you don’t know Korean. I had no idea what she meant until Netflix came to India and my wife returned to her Korean programmes. But this time there was joy for me too: Netflix has subtitles and, believe me, the text is done absolutely right with just the right words and every nuance captured properly.

Over the last two years we have watched around two dozen serials of different genres because they are so good. My wife tells me that for modern Koreans the pursuit for perfection is a reward in itself. The plots are simple and clean. The scripts are very crisp. The editing is top class. The scenes are never more than three minutes long, thus making the episode move along smartly. And they get the accompanying musical score mostly right. The acting, possibly because the lighting is so good and because 90 per cent of the shooting is in close-up, is superb. The actors know they have to get it just right, which by and large, they do. They have to because competition is very stiff and the pay, not all that much.

If you like Western classical music and a good story, you should definitely watch the 2008 award-winner, The Beethoven Virus.

Korean entertainment television has a most remarkable subset: serials based on, of all things, Western classical music. The stories are about the foibles of all the usual human relationships. But they are woven around strong themes of Western classical music and musicians. They assemble a huge cast to portray huge orchestras. For example, there is one called ‘The Beethoven Virus’, a 2008 award-winning show. It is a splendid piece of work, lush and rich, stretching over 18 episodes which on average are over an hour long. If you like Western classical music and a good story, you should definitely watch this serial.

Then there is ‘Cantabile’, which is Italian for sing-able. Another is called ‘Secret Affair’ in which a masterclass pianist falls in love with a young man very much her junior. Some are on YouTube, like ‘Five Fingers’, which is about a pianist and his angry relationship with his family. Another is ‘Spring Waltz’ which is also about a pianist and his past.

While watching these serials it is impossible not to wonder how Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Tchaikovsky and the rest of those guys have struck a chord in Korea. And when did it start to happen? What is it about Western classical music that persuades parents to send their children to learn it and, if they are any good at all, to send them for advanced study? How come there are so many renowned Korean conductors and composers now, some of them, superstars?

Western classical music came to Korea with the missionaries at the end of the 19th century. Then in 1910 the Japanese invaded Korea and colonised it and with them came another wave of Western classical music which took hold as the Korean elites took to it, possibly to please their Japanese masters. There is a very famous serial that highlights this aspect called the ‘Hymn of Death’, based on a true story.

In 1945 the Japanese were evicted by the Americans and quite out of the blue in 1948, a musician called John S Kim started the Seoul Philharmonic. By the sheerest of chance I heard him when his orchestra played Beethoven’s Ninth in the open air. Kim was sent to the US to study classical music. After he returned to Korea he started spreading the gospel of classical music and it fell on highly receptive ears. Today Korea, along with Japan and China, also funds Western classical music generously. In the West orchestras are now reduced to doing flash mob gigs to raise money. That, I would say, is the real power shift from the West to the East.

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