Seung-Won Oh writes Bosch Requiem YeonDo: Korean death ritual in western guise

Last year the Greek-Dutch Calliope Tsoupaki composed the Bosch Requiem. This year, the Korean-Dutch Seung-Won Oh was asked to compose this traditional kick-off of November Music. Just as Tsoupaki draws inspiration from the musical traditions of her homeland, Oh harks back to her Korean roots. The title YeonDo refers to a death ritual with which Catholic Koreans bid farewell to their loved ones. The piece will have its premiere on 6 November at the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center in ‘s Hertogenbosch.

The literal translation of YeonDo is ‘Purgatory Prayer’, I learn from Seung-Won Oh a few days before its world premiere. ‘It is a group chant for the dead, whose souls are still awaiting their transfer to heaven. The text consists of Psalms and the Litany of the Saints, which is sung to Korean rhythms and tones.’ In her new piece Oh combines these with elements from the Latin Requiem Mass, once more building a bridge between East and West. 

Western-oriented

The fact that Oh (1969) seeks inspiration in the music and customs of her country of birth is less self-evident than it seems. Born in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, she grew up in a strongly western-oriented society. Like her famous predecessor Isang Yun (1917-1995), she initially composed in a western-modernist idiom.

This was developed after the Second World War during the famous/ infamous Summer courses for new music in Darmstadt. Revolutionaries such as Stockhausen and Boulez banned triads and recognizable rhythms. The so-called ‘serialism’ was henceforth considered the nec plus ultra of composing. Those who wanted to count in the new music did not escape the dictates of this composition method that entailed many inhibitions. – Whether you lived in Asia, Europe or America.

Oh studied at Ewha Womans University and continued her studies in the United States in 1996. ‘Not until I came to the Netherlands five years later to take lessons with Louis Andriessen I began to relate to my cultural background’, she says. ‘That was purely because people enquired about. I didn’t grow up with Korean music, but was educated in a completely western way.’

Catholic Korea

Once she dived into traditional Korean music, this proved to be an enriching experience. ‘It was pleasant and even comforting to look for my roots. I found I could use a lot of things in my contemporary music, though I didn’t consciously strive to bring East and West together. Nowadays this happens naturally, because I have internalised that culture.’

YeonDo relates to a Catholic Korean death ritual. But, wait a sec, Catholics in Korea? ‘Certainly’, says Oh. ‘Korea counts more Christians than Buddhists. Catholicism was introduced in the eighteenth century during the mighty Josean dynasty. It adhered to neo-Confucianism, including its strict caste system. The Christian conviction that every human being is equal before God was therefore a great threat.’ Despite attempts to eradicate the newly introduced faith, Catholicism persisted. South Korea today has 11% Catholics, the largest percentage in an Asian country.

Korean death ritual

Oh was born a Catholic herself, and is still practising. ‘In my childhood, I sang YeonDo at the annual ceremonies with which my family commemorated our ancestors. The singing is intended for the dead and their relatives. As soon as someone dies, the churchgoers gather in the house of the deceased. They stay with the family to help them through the difficult time.’

This farewell ritual lasts about three days. ‘It starts on the day of death and continues until the funeral. During this period people walk in and out and sing YeonDo, hoping that the deceased will go to heaven as soon as possible. As mentioned before, the texts are taken from the Psalms and the Litany of the Saints. Sung in Korean, that is.’

Latin Requiem Mass

The Latin Requiem Mass is named after the opening sentence: ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine’, give them eternal rest, Lord. Oh: ‘I must confess that I only know the Requiem as a musical phenomenon, I have never experienced one myself. The liturgical text does appeal to me, though.’ She does not have a favourite Requiem. Nor has she listened to Requiems composed by predecessors such as Calliope Tsoupaki, Kate Moore and Anthony Fiumara for November Music. ‘I deliberately avoided that, for I did not want to be influenced.’

YeonDo was set for the New European Ensemble, the choir Cappella Pratensis and the alto Helena Rasker. There are three parts of about 20 minutes each. Do not expect swirling polyphonic passages in which choir, ensemble and soloist compete for attention. Rather, the various entities are used alternately, in a kind of call-and-response game that emphasises the ritual atmosphere. This is reinforced by a four-piece percussion ensemble that plays almost continuously.

Ritual

Visitors are led into the hall to the sound of slow blows on a jing, a large Korean gong. After this introduction, the New European Ensemble gives an instrumental interpretation of a Korean prayer, in unison and in reciting style; the Korean symbols are placed under their notes. Cappella Pratensis then sings the well-known ‘De profundus’ from Psalm 129.

The alto concludes this first movement with a prayer, together with the ensemble and the percussion quartet. Oh: ‘She begs God for mercy with a number of verses from the Requiem, sung in the Korean language. “Give them eternal rest, oh Lord, and let the eternal light illuminate them, Amen.” As the soloist, she represents the voice of us all.’

The percussion quartet takes us through the composition somewhat like a priest. ‘This symbolises the funeral procession’, declares Oh. Only at two moments in the middle section do the percussionists remain silent. Then the choir sings a cappella ‘Deus Deus Meus’ from Psalm 62 and ‘Averte faciam tuam’ from Psalm 50. Only in the third and last movement soloist, choir and ensemble come together, in ‘Ascension’ and ‘Lux Aeterna’.

In this part the audience is invited to participate itself. Halfway through, they are asked to rattle little bells along with the percussionists. Oh: ‘This is a moment of consolation for the dead souls.’ Participating yourself strengthens the sacred atmosphere and increases the listener’s involvement, who can commemorate his or her own loved ones. For the many who weren’t able to purchase a ticket due to the corona-measures, there’s a live stream.

YeonDo concludes with a fourth prayer and an epilogue, performed by the percussion quartet and the ensemble. Oh: ‘Here the music culminates in a sea of sounds that represent how the spirits ascend freely to heaven.’

Update 3 November: the Dutch goverment banned all concerts until November 18. Rather than revert to live streaming November Music has cancelled the entire festival.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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