(34) Ahn Eak-tay: composer of national anthem
By Andrei Lankov
More or less every Korean has heard of Ahn Eak-tay, the composer who created the country’s national anthem. This is, indeed, his most remarkable achievement, but he should be remembered for many other things as well.
Many national anthems were written by composers who left little mark on the musical history of their countries. John Stafford Smith, a Brit whose music later became the American national anthem, is known only to a handful of experts even if his major work is easily recognized by millions. Rouget de Lisle, a French composer who in 1792 wrote “La Marseillaise,” remained an obscure figure despite the worldwide significance of his creation (and his long life).
Ahn was different. While writing Korea’s national anthem granted him a special place in Korean history, he was also remarkable in being the first Korean musician who won true international acclaim.
This spelling of his name, Ahn Eak-tay, appears a little odd. Indeed, in the McCune-Reischauer transcription system his name would be rendered as “An Ik-tae,” while the recently introduced transcription system would call him “An Ik-tae.” But these systems change every couple of decades or so (with no good reason, I’ll admit), so let’s write his name the way maestro Ahn preferred to do himself.
He was born in Pyongyang in 1906, and until his death he spoke Korean with a thick northern accent. From an early age, he was interested in modern music, and learned how to play the cello and violin (his first teachers were missionaries, since few Koreans knew much about modern music in the 1910s). After graduating from high school in Pyongyang, he went to Japan for specialized musical education. In those days Japan was the cheapest place to study, and there Ahn played cello and also studied composition.
From Japan, he moved to America where he studied at the Philadelphia Musical College. At this time there were merely a thousand Koreans in the entire continental United States and when studying overseas (with probable exception of doing so in Japan) was extremely rare. His talents saw him gain a position as a cello player in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra even before he graduated.
Ahn did not stay in the United States, but moved to Central Europe, where he studied in Munich and Vienna. Those cities were then still major international centers of musical education — and it did not hurt that Nazi Germany was an ally of Imperial Japan, whose passport Ahn Eak-tay had. His mentor was Richard Strauss, one of the most outstanding composers of the era who had a very high opinion of his Korean student.
In 1936, while in Berlin, Ahn Eak-tay met a group of Korean athletes who had come to compete in the Olympic Games. Ahn introduced his new work, music for a popular patriotic song which by that time had become one of the major songs of the Korean independence movement. It became an instant hit, much popularized by spectacular victories of the Korean athletes, including Son Ki-chong’s gold medal in the marathon and in due time was made the national anthem of the Republic of Korea.
According to an oft-repeated story, Ahn Eak-tay approached the group of Korean athletes who came to the 1936 Olympics, took the future anthem and arranged for its first performance right next to the stadium. This might be legend but there is little doubt that the first time the anthem was sung was the summer of 1936 in Berlin.
Interestingly, nobody knows who wrote the lyrics. The text was composed in the late nineteenth century but no amount of research has determined the name of the poet. Educator and politician Yun Chi-ho is often believed to be the writer, but his authorship has not been proven, so in all probability we will never know who composed the text every Korean learns by heart at school. For a long time, the would-be anthem had no music, and was usually sung to the tune of a popular Irish song.
Also in 1936, Ahn was conducting a major symphony orchestra for the first time, leading a few performances in Budapest. He got this job through the recommendation and support of Richard Strauss.
For the next few years, Ahn remained in war-torn Europe, moving from one country to another while being seemingly undamaged by the dramatic events and violence around.
He did not hurry home. A musician of his caliber could not find suitable employment in a country where few people were yet accustomed to serious Western-style music (and even less could afford to pay for concert tickets). In the late 1920s, during one of his trips home, Ahn survived by playing at an expensive restaurant offering Western cuisine. The inability to make a stable living with professional income plagued many early Korean musicians.
The only way to find a suitable audience was to perform overseas — if one’s talent and skills were good enough. However, this would imply a level of cooperation with Imperial Japan. In recent days Korean nationalists accused Ahn Eak-tay of being a pro-Japanese collaborator. It was discovered that he was a conductor at a concert which commemorated the 10th anniversary of Manchukuo, a puppet state created by the Japanese in northeast China. He was also known to be close with the Japanese diplomats in Europe (it is difficult to imagine how otherwise he would have traveled across war-torn Europe).
These accusations are not unfounded — back in the early 1940s nearly all prominent Korean intellectuals, including those with hitherto impeccable nationalist credentials, collaborated with the Japanese colonial authorities. If anything, Ahn was far less prominent in such activities than another star of the Korean arts of the era, dancer Choe Sung-hui (she even went as far as donating money to the Imperial Army and touring the frontlines with encouraging performances). It is quite probable that Choe indeed identified herself with the stated goals of the Japanese Empire. For Ahn, the collaboration was likely, more a matter of expediency.
He continued to compose, but from the early 1940s onwards his major activity was conducting symphony orchestras. By the mid-1940s, a man from Pyongyang had become one of Europe’s leading conductors, largely working in Spain and other countries in southern Europe that had been less damaged by World War II.
In Spain in 1945 Ahn met his future wife, Lolita Talavera. She came to his concert in Barcelona, and this chance meeting made him change his earlier plan of marrying a Korean woman. Romance followed, and they married the following year, to the dismay of Lolita’s family. Her father, an established and affluent lawyer, did not want to see his daughter marrying an artist, even if a conductor was admittedly better than, say, a painter or, God forbid, a sculptor. The couple eventually had three daughters.
Perhaps it was the marriage that made the Korean maestro choose Spain as his second home and settle down there, eventually acquiring Spanish citizenship. Soon afterwards, the couple moved to Majorca, a large Mediterranean island, where he became conductor of a local symphony orchestra.
Ahn traveled much, including few trips back to Korea where his 1936 work became the national anthem in 1948. He was widely recognized in his home country and until the end of his life remained one of few Korean artists who reached international acclaim. In 1955, President Syngman Rhee presented him with the Order of Cultural Merit.
In the early 1960s, Ahn visited Korea frequently, organizing festivals and other events, and helping young Korean musicians. This activity had a predictable downside: he often found himself in the center of unpleasant intrigue initiated by his less gifted but politically astute colleagues — a common situation in the world of professional musicians.
In 1965, after a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Ahn felt unwell. He was forced to return to Spain but liver failure ensued and in September 1965 he died in a Barcelona hospital. A street was named in his honor in Majorca, and in July 1977 his remains were moved to Korea, to be buried at the National Cemetery in Seoul.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.