Drawing of Ahn Eak-tae based on a 1955 photo.
Ahn Eak-tai (1906 – 1965) was a Korean-born classical musician, composer and conductor. He conducted numerous major orchestras across Europe, including the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rome Philharmonic Orchestra, and was the founder and resident conductor at the Palma de Majorca Philharmonic Orchestra in Majorca, Spain. In Korea, Ahn is best known as the composer of the Aegukga, now the national anthem of South Korea. Very talented in music from a young age, Ahn studied music overseas, and like many of his patriotic countrymen, found it difficult to live in his native Korea during the Japanese occupation and spent most of his career in Europe.
Ahn Eak-tai was born on December 5, 1906 in Pyǒngyang, now the capital of North Korea, during the time before the Japanese occupation of Korea when Japan was already beginning to exert influence over Korea. He was the third son of Ahn Dukhoon (안덕훈), a middle class innkeeper, a member of the extended family of Ahn Soon-hoong (안순흥), renowned for having produced patriots such as An Chang-ho (안창호) and An Jung-geun (안중근). From an early age young Eak-tai was interested in music. When he was about six, he used to sneak into the nearby Christian church and listen to the hymns. His older brother, Ahn Iksam, bought him a violin while he was studying overseas in Tokyo, and within six months of practicing on the violin, Eak-tai had learned to play many of the hymns that he had heard at the church. In 1914, after he entered Pyǒngyang Chongro Botong Elementary School, and heard someone playing the trumpet at a school ceremony, and pestered his father to get him a trumpet. From that time on, he played both violin and trumpet every chance he got.
In 1918, Ahn entered Sungsil Middle School, and the principal, Dr. Mauri, encouraged him to join the school orchestra. The following year, Dr. Mauri, now also head of the music department, brought his gramophone from home once a week to give him lessons in music appreciation, playing him gramophone records and introducing him to classical music masterpieces. During this time he became interested in the cello, and his brother Iksam brought him a cello from Japan, and sent him to Seoul to take cello lessons during his summer vacation. His cello teacher, Mr. Greg, was a Christian missionary, and arranged for Ahn to play recitals in the local churches, where he was received enthusiastically.
In 1919, during the March 1st Movement Dr. Mauri and the school orchestra, including Ahn Eak-tai were involved in demonstrations for independence. From this experience, Ahn developed fervor for the Korean independence movement, and joined a student movement to protest against pro-Japanese teachers; the school deemed Ahn's actions as inappropriate, and punished him accordingly. During his activities with the independence movement, Ahn heard the Korean national anthem for the first time, which at that time was sung to the tune of Old Lang Syne, and he made himself a promise that one day he would compose new music for the anthem.
Sometime in September, Ahn involved himself with an effort to raid a jail in order to rescue the March 1st Movement activists caught by the Japanese police. When the police raided one of the meetings, Ahn was injured and successfully fled to Dr. Mauri's. The doctor arranged for him to be admitted to the nearby Pyǒngyang Christian Hospital, where he was treated for a week. When the police pressed Dr. Mauri to bring Ahn to the station, he visited the local police station to discuss alternatives. Impressed with Dr. Mauri's character, the police captain allowed Ahn to avoid imprisonment by forging papers permitting him to leave the country and study music in Tokyo.
On October 6, 1919, Ahn left for Japan, taking a train to Busan, and then a ship toward Shimonoseki. Arriving in Tokyo, he stayed with brother Iksam, and applied to enter the Gihamyeon Middle School that Iksam had attended. There were no openings, and he had to wait until the following semester, and in 1921 he entered Tokyo Seisoku Middle School. During his middle school years the famous violinist Jacques Thibaud played a concert in Tokyo. Ahn was too poor to afford a ticket, and had to be satisfied with listening to the comments of the audience as they left the hall after the concert. Twenty years later in Paris, when Ahn was invited to conduct a concert in which Jacques Thibaud appeared, Ahn told Thibaud about his experience as a student, and the two talked long into the night. After finishing the five year middle school course, in 1926, Ahn entered the newly established Tokyo Conservatory of Music, (later Kunitachi College of Music, 国立音楽大学, Kunitachi Ongaku Daigaku), and began intensive music study. While a conservatory student, he performed solo cello recitals around Japan, gaining performing experience and building confidence to pursue a career as a musician.
During the summer vacation that year, Ahn came back to Korea and performed a series of solo cello recitals in Pyǒngyang, Seoul and other cities throughout Korea to gather funds for the reconstruction of a burned down church. During the tour he met Korean patriots Yi Sangjae, the founder of the Dokrip Newspaper, and Jo Mansik, an independence movement leader who advocated the use of Korean-made products so that Koreans' debts might be paid. Upon Jo's request, Ahn participated in a demonstration promoting the use of Korean commodities by playing his cello in an automobile.
When Ahn's father died in 1928, his mother faced financial difficulty in providing all of her sons' education. Faced with the need to find a way to pay his school bills, he got a job playing the cello at a fancy restaurant in Tokyo. Still, he could not pay all his tuition on time, and his graduation in 1930 was delayed while he earned the money to pay the rest of his tuition. With help from a missionary friend, he finally paid all the tuition, and the school held a solo graduation recital for him. He performed a Haydn concerto and sonata by R. Strauss, and received praise from the press, who called him 'a genius with a bright future.'
In May 1930, Ahn Eak-tai returned to Korea briefly. After the Japanese police prohibited him from playing a scheduled concert, he decided it would be difficult to continue his career in Korea, and he decided to continue his studies in the United States.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, Ahn was jailed during his immigration inspection because he refused to hand his cello over to the officials. During the night, Ahn obtained permission from a prison guard to practice on his confiscated cello; unable to picture such an excellent musician as a criminal, the prison guard investigated the cause of Ahn's imprisonment and arranged for his release the next day. While in San Francisco, Ahn went to a Korean church that Dr. Mauri had introduced him to. At the end of the service, the congregation sang the Korean national anthem, again sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, and he was reminded of his desire to compose a new tune for the anthem. As Ahn waited in the train station to head toward Cincinnati, Pastor Hwang presented him with a black suitcase, and a fountain pen to use when writing the national anthem.
Arriving in Cincinnati, Ahn's senior alumnus from Soongsil Middle School and the Tokyo Conservatory, Park Wonjung, helped him to enter the Cincinnati College of Music (now part of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music). To pay his tuition, Ahn worked at a restaurant, receiving low pay as might be expected during the Great Depression. During his first year he was also accepted as first cellist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and, during the spring break of his second year, he toured the United States, playing cello recitals in major cities, including a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Reviewers at the Washington Post gave high praise for his performance of the D minor cello concerto.
Having become interested in conducting, in 1932, Ahn transferred to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting and composition. While a student, he also played in the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted the choir at the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. He completed his first orchestral score Symphonic Fantasia Korea and submitted it to a competition at Carnegie Hall. The work was chosen to be performed, and Ahn was given the chance to conduct the New York Philharmonic for the work's premiere. However, the performance turned out to be chaotic, as Ahn was unable to control the orchestra. Greatly angered, Ahn threw down his baton and left the stage with the performance unfinished. Despite its inauspicious beginning, Symphonic Fantasia Korea remained one of Ahn's favorite compositions, and was performed no less than 15 times in the ensuing years.
On April 8, 1936, Ahn left New York City, and, upon landing in Europe, headed to Berlin. Seeing the popularity of Japan in Hitler's Germany, he felt an urgency to complete his composition of the Aegukga (national anthem). Later that year during the Berlin Olympics, he visited the Korean athletes and sang the Aegukga for them, probably the first time the song was sung in public. He sent the finished sheet music to a Korean independence movement organization in San Francisco called the "Korean Peoples Meeting." He also made final touches to the Symphonic Fantasia Korea. Moving to Vienna, Austria Ahn studied composition under Bernhard Paumgartner, a famous composer and Beethoven interpreter. The following year, he moved to Hungary to study under Professor Kodai, and applied his teachings specific to Asian music to editing Symphonic Fantasia Korea.
In 1937, Ahn was invited to Dublin, Ireland, to perform Symphonic Fantasia Korea. Feeling sympathy from the Irish people, who had been oppressed under British rule just as Korea was under the Japanese rule, the performance was a big success. The Irish chorus sang the choral parts in the original Korean language, and he was so moved by the performance that he decided that he would always have the text sung in Korean. Returning to Vienna, he had a chance to meet famous composer Richard Strauss and discussed Symphonic Fantasia Korea with him. At the same time, Ahn was continued his study in Budapest, attending the Eötvös Loránd University, graduating in 1939. His association with Richard Strauss enabled him to obtain conducting invitations around Europe, and he was able to conduct performances of Symphonic Fantasia Korea in several major cities.
In December 1940, Ahn was invited by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the world's greatest orchestra at the time. The German newspaper articles about Ahn were filled with generous praises, and he continued to conduct at other famous orchestras in Europe. On one occasion, however, Ahn was expelled from the Rome Philharmonic Orchestra for performing the Symphonic Korea, which the Japanese government had discovered as unpleasing. Again, Ahn was forced to leave the Orchestre de Paris in 1944, when Paris was liberated from the German forces. He was invited by the Spanish ambassador to conduct for the Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona.
In a social gathering, Ahn was introduced to Lolita Talavera, who had become a fervent fan of his music when she saw a film of one of Ahn's performances. Miss Talavera happened to be knowledgeable about the Japanese occupation of Korea, and Ahn felt understood. The two eventually became engaged, and, on July 5, 1946, Miss Talavera and Ahn were married. The two went to the island of Majorca, where Ahn founded the The Palma de Mallorca Symphony Orchestra. In the same year, he sought to work in the United States, but his past association with Strauss, who was known to be a Nazi party supporter, obstructed his goal for two years; in the end, however, he was successful in obtaining an invitation to conduct at the Philadelphia Orchestra.
On August 15, 1948, Ahn's Aegukga was sung in the ceremony commemorating the establishment of the Korean government. After the Korean War, President Syngman Rhee invited Ahn to perform as part of his 80th birthday celebration, and, on February 19, 1955, Ahn returned to his motherland after 25 years away from home. The military band sang the Aegukga upon Ahn's arrival. Soon after, Ahn was awarded the Cultural Medal of Merit. Returning to Europe, he continued to conduct, and by May of 1959, he had conducted 232 concerts.
Ahn returned to Korea for a second time in 1961 to conduct at the 1st Seoul International Music Festival, participating again in 1962 and 1963. However, after living overseas for such a long time, he found that his way of working had become adapted to western ways, and it was difficult to feel welcome in his home country of Korea. He decided not to participate in the 1964 Festival. In 1964, he returned to Japan briefly to conduct his composition Nongae at his alma mater, and petitioned that the piece also be performed by NHK's Tokyo Philharmonic. There was resistance to putting the piece on the program, but he finally prevailed and the performance went on.
In 1965, Ahn Eak-tai travelled to London, in the company of his wife and two of his three daughters, to conduct a performance of his compositions Nongae and Pichang. Soon after successfully completing the concert, he was stricken ill, and they returned to their home in Majorca where he died on September 16, 1965. He was buried in Majorca, but later his remains were move to the Korean National Cemetery on July 8, 1977.
In 2005, Ahn's wife, children and grandchildren presented the rights for the Aegukga to the Korean people.
A listing of Ahn's compositions:
Works for which written scores exist
Works for which the scores have been lost
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