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Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 at center of controversy

May 17, 2023 - 10:53 By Park Ga-young

Beethoven's beloved Symphony No. 9 has found itself at the center of controversy in South Korea in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, a Korean-language version of Beethoven's masterpiece was performed for the first time at the Seoul Arts Center on May 7.

The performance was led by conductor Koo Ja-bom, who said the symphony was the reason he became a conductor, but that he had refrained from conducting it due to his immense reverence for the piece.

Koo, who dedicated two years to translating the piece into Korean, prepared a nearly 60-page program that focuses on explaining how it was translated. For instance, he explained why he thought the title of the choral piece should be "Ode to Freedom," not "Ode to Joy."

At the concert in Seoul, the distribution of the booklet was halted midway. It was later resumed, but a significant portion of the audience left the concert hall without receiving a program.

Koo told The Korea Herald on Tuesday that it was a deliberate act of censorship.

“SAC’s decision to halt the distribution of the program book and have it reviewed by an internal committee totally ruined the performers’ mood before the performance,” Koo said. “That’s gapjil (abuse of power). Would they have been done the same to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra?” he posed, adding that SAC’s apology, coming six days after the performance, was inadequate and lacked an explanation.

Koo Ja-bom and members of the Cham Philharmonic Orchestra and four choirs greet the audience after performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in Korean for the first time on May 7 at the Seoul Arts Center. (Youngeum Arts Management)

The Seoul Arts Center on Thursday posted a public apology on its website, claiming there had been an operational mistake and that the center would send the programs by post.

An official from the SAC, speaking to The Korea Herald, said censorship was an impracticable concept and that there was no reason for them to do it. The mistake was due to the a change in the program’s cover, the official said. The original cover featuring a picture of the composer was replaced with one showing an artwork by contemporary painter Lee Sea-hyun.

"As we reinstate the pre-pandemic level of stringent management for performance halls, the program book with a new cover which was distinct from the original version had to undergo a review, which took some time.

"This step aims to safeguard against any misuse of the venue and ensure the quality of the performance remains unchanged, while also preventing any unexpected or unpleasant surprises," the official said. "Having said that, the process should have been faster and more flexible."

The incident came less than a month after a concert that was to feature the choral symphony was canceled in Daegu.

Daegu City Symphony Orchestra and Daegu City Choir were supposed to take to the stage to perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 “Choral” to celebrate the reopening of the city's Suseong Artpia on May 1.

However, a committee set up in 2021 to ensure religious neutrality in performance programs by the city's art groups ruled that the piece was religiously biased.

One person on the committee, which has to reach a unanimous agreement, had pointed to words in the lyrics of the fourth movement that included "God," "creator," "angels" and "heaven."

This was not the first time performances have been canceled in Daegu for religious reasons.

When Daegu City Choir's 40th anniversary concert on April 29, 2021 had the choir singing a selection of popular opera songs including "Chorus of Hebrew Slaves" from Verdi's opera "Nabucco," the "Triumphal March" from Verdi's opera "Aida" and the "Te Deum" from Puccini's opera "Tosca," the city's Buddhist community staged protests, arguing that "biased religious actions by a city arts organization, which is a public asset, are unacceptable." In response, the city government enacted an ordinance in December that year, establishing the Religious Advisory Committee within the Daegu Municipal Art Company.

The committee comprises four representatives from religious organizations and five experts from academia, the legal field and the cultural sector. When it comes to matters concerning religious neutrality, unanimous approval necessitates the presence of all members of the religious advisory committee.

With controversy escalating, the Daegu city government has now decided to abolish the committee, with Mayor Hong Joon-pyo saying that "the committee system is deemed unconstitutional as it performs prior censorship and infringes upon artistic freedom. Therefore, the provision regarding the Religious Reconciliation Advisory Committee was deleted from the installation ordinance of the municipal art company."

The cessation of the advisory committee provision is to take effect starting in July, after legislative notice and review of the municipal council's ordinance.