Great Musician Park Yeon

2012-02-16

Unfolding King Sejong’s Dream through Music

On Lunar New Year’s Day in 1433, the 15th year of King Sejong’s reign, a special banquet for court officials took place at Changdeok Palace.

The feast, known as Hoeryeyeon(회례연), was an important state ritual designed to promote communication between the king and his subjects. Unprecedented in scale and splendor, the banquet featured brilliant performances by some 500 musicians and dancers as well as discussions between the king and his retainers.

The banquet carried great significance in the nation’s music history. King Sejong, one of the greatest leaders in Korean history, advocated Yeak(예악), which refers to good manners and music, as ideal Confucian political philosophy after he ascended the throne in 1418. With the hope of establishing order with good manners and achieving national unity through music, the king embarked on an ambitious project of rearranging the nation’s music in 1424.

The 1433 royal banquet was the venue for reporting the outcome of the nine years of research and the rearrangement of court music to the king, who had dreamed of building an ideal Confucian world based on the Yeak philosophy. And it was Park Yeon who helped the king realize that dream.


A Boy Playing the Pipe

Park Yeon was born in 1378 in Youngdong County, North Chungcheong Province. It is said that the cry of the baby was like the sweet sound of a pipe. His enthusiasm about music is well evidenced in the following episode. When he came to Hanyang, which is present-day Seoul, to take the state exam and saw a clown playing the pipe, he was eager to ask the clown to correct his pipe performance if he played it inaccurately. He was proficient in the Korean traditional lute of bipa(비파) and the six-stringed Korean zither of geomungo(거문고) as well as the pipe.

But musical talent did not prove helpful for securing a government position. On top of that, both his father and grandfather had held major posts in the government. So he was devoted to studying, instead of learning music, and passed the state exam at the age of 28 to start his life as a government official.


Rearrangement of Joseon Court Music

Park began to demonstrate his musical talent again when he served as the staff of the institute in charge of educating the crown prince, who later became King Sejong.

The king was excellent in selecting talented people. When he was still a prince and learned from Park Yeon, his eyes were fixed on his teacher who was full of passion for music. After he came to the throne, the king appointed Park as a high official of the government office, handling music-related affairs.

At the time, the basis for the newly-founded Joseon Dynasty was starting to take shape, and King Sejong sought to reorganize music that was used for various national events. The new post provided Park with an opportunity to showcase his musical talent.

He researched indigenous music that had been passed down from the Silla era, music of Tang Dynasty of China, and the court music from China’s Song Dynasty. He wrote a music book that describes the principles of music score and contains the illustrations of musical instruments. He also created or altered various kinds of instruments for court music and fine-tuned the sounds of those instruments. As a result, 139 musical instruments, when played together, worked in perfect harmony.

For this grand project, Park thought about music all the time. He would tap out the beat with his hand on his chest and make a whispering sound to himself to study the pitch and tunes of music. After ten years of arduous work, Park was able to improve the sounds of musical instruments, compile music score and reform court music. In doing so, he rearranged the basic system of traditional music based on Neo-Confucianism. But he was faced with an unexpected ordeal.


Eternal Legacy

Park’s son, Gye-woo(계우), was executed for resisting Prince Suyang, who staged a coup and usurped power in 1453. Park ended up retreating to his hometown after losing his job. Four years later, he died a lonely death at the age of 81.

After his death, Park was revered as one of the three greatest musicians in Korea, along with Wang San-ak(왕산악) of Goguryeo and Ureuk(우륵) of Silla. His legacy remains in the hearts of Koreans as the Nangye(난계) Music Festival, named after his penname, is held every year in his hometown.

(That concludes today’s Koreans in History. Thank you for listening. I’m Kim Bum Soo. Goodbye, everyone.)

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