Yun Sim-deok, Korea’s First Professional Soprano

2012-08-23

Soprano Singer Marks the Beginning of Joseon’s Music Industry

1926 marked the first year of Korean popular art. ‘Chunhyangjeon,’ one of the best known ancient novels of Korea, was adapted into an 18-chapter changgeuk, or Korean traditional opera by master singers. That year, the film “Arirang” directed by Na Un-gyu(나운규) instilled nationalism in Korean people. The film later stirred a boom of Korean movies.

In particular, soprano singer Yun Sim-deok’s album ‘In Praise of Death,’ which is set to the tune of the waltz ‘The Waves of the Danube’ by Romanian composer Ion Ivanovici, flew off the shelves, although a single album was worth hundreds of thousands of won based on current values. The song signaled the opening of a new era of the recording industry.

First Korean Student at Tokyo Music School

Yun Sim-deok was born in Pyongyang in 1897. She was the second daughter in a family of four kids with one boy and three girls. Her family was poor but the four children were all able to receive modern education, thanks to their devout Christian parents.

Yun stood out among her siblings for her musical talent. She graduated from Gyeongseong(경성) Girls’ High School and worked as a teacher for about a year. Then she went to Japan to study as the first Korean student who secured a scholarship of the Government General. She attended Aoyama Gakuin, an educational institute in Tokyo, before entering Tokyo Music School to study vocal music. Yun was the first Korean who was admitted to the school.

Encounter with Kim Woo-jin

In Tokyo, Yun mingled with many Korean students. She was a girl of masculine spirit and had a cheerful personality, as her nickname ‘tomboy’ indicated. After meeting male students a few times, she didn’t hesitate to drop the honorifics when talking to them. She had a number of scandals with male students. A student named Park Jeong-sik(박정식) even became lovesick after all his efforts to win her heart ended in vain. In 1921, Yun joined a road tour in Korea with 30 people. The tour was aimed at raising money to operate a group of Korean laborers living in Japan. During the tour, Yun met Kim Woo-jin(김우진) for the first time.

Kim was studying English literature at Waseda University at the time. Born to a big landowner in Jeolla Province, Kim was already married and had a wife and children in his hometown. However, while participating in the road tour for two months in Korea, Yun and Kim became intimate with each other.

Singing Heyday, Harsh Reality

Yun enjoyed her heyday as a singer when she returned home from Tokyo in 1923. Upon arriving in Korea, she held a vocal recital at the Central Youth Center in Jongro, Seoul, making her debut as the nation’s first professional soprano. She gave a number of solo performances afterwards, but singing solo didn’t really ensure income for her. It was customary for students sent abroad by the government to work as teachers at public schools after returning home. Yun waited for months but she wasn’t given any teaching job. Yun rose to fame as the nation’s top singer, but she was in such a difficult situation that she was concerned about her livelihood.

She couldn’t get away from her financial difficulties as a singer of Western classical music, so she chose to become a pop singer and actress. From then on, Yun suffered from numerous scandals, including the one indicating that she would marry a rich man in Hamgyeong Province.

Kim Woo-jin, who returned to Korea around that the same time, wanted to pursue his career in literature and drama. Faced with opposition from his family, however, he left home and went to Japan in 1926.

‘In Praise of Death’

Around that time, Yun headed to Japan, too, as the Japanese Nitto recording company in Osaka proposed to record her songs in July 1926. When the recording work was completed on August 1st, Yun asked the head of the company to record one more song entitled ‘In Praise of Death.’ It was based on the Western classic ‘The Waves of the Danube,’ with Yun writing lyrics to music herself.

Earlier, Yun sent a telegram to Kim Woo-jin and asked him to come to Osaka. She said she would kill herself if he didn’t come. Kim received the telegram in Tokyo and hurriedly came to meet her. On August 4th, the two jumped into the dark sea from a passenger ship that was taking them from Simonoseki to Busan. Both were 29 years old.

The shocking double suicide of a single modern girl and her married boyfriend who suffered from hopeless love created a sensation in Korea. Yun’s last album became an unprecedented success, selling 100-thousand copies. The figure was considered extraordinary at the time. A phrase in ‘In Praise of Death’ reads, “Life, you are running through a vast wilderness. Where are you going?” People imagined that this song, featuring Yun’s sad voice and the lyrics apparently representing the futility of life, was the last word of the singer, who was frustrated by the reality of her culturally-deprived home country and a formidable barrier of Confucianism.

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