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Synopsis

Born of wealthy parents, but shunned by his father, Yong Ku Ahn suffered through a stormy and traumatic childhood, and in his loneliness, taught himself to play the violin. Born in 1928 in Wonsan, in what is today North Korea, Ahn’s early childhood included parental rejection and a debilitating bout of polio that cut him off from his family and their social milieu. It was music and the violin in particular that saved him. Until Ahn was accepted into Kyungsung Music School, which later became the School of Music at Seoul National University, he was virtually self-taught. Those who knew him through his college years remember him as an orphan. After World War II, Ahn began his professional education. Shortly thereafter, he was swept up the Korean War and found himself a refugee in Pusan. His adventures led him from one challenge and crisis to another, but Yong Ku kept picking himself up and continued running. He studied in Germany, Austria, and London with some of the greatest violin teachers of the 20th century, fighting incredible obstacles all the time, but he never gave up. In later years, after teaching in the U.S., Yong Ku, who joined the faculty at the esteemed Peabody Conservatory of Music, not only become known internationally as a great teacher but went back to Korea to play an active role in the Korean reunification effort, making several trips to North Korea. His fascinating and inspiring story of triumph over tragedy—set against a backdrop of Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule and the Korean War—is told with great feeling and humility and will inspire young people, especially young musicians, of all nationalities.


BOOK REVIEW

Yong Ku Ahn, famed violinist and teacher of music, tells of both the sad moments and happy joys of his life in heart-rendering terms. After years of rejection by his parents, he reaches a peak experience one day, which finally leads him to pick up his dusty old violin and begin to play again in earnest. He describes marvelously one of those snowy days in Wonsan, Korea when he noticed an old gramophone at home, and “out of curiosity opened the lid to the box. There was a record placed in it. I turned the crank on the side of the box and carefully put the needle arm on the record….Four notes sounded: “Ta ta ta taaah.” Then once again “Ta ta ta taaah….” The majestic and passionate notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pierced his heart like a sharp spear, like fate knocking on the door. He writes, “The four notes repeated themselves like the persistent unhappiness of my childhood. When the symphony ended, uncontrollable tears flooded down my face. Over ten years of loneliness, injustice, disappointment and sorrow flowed from me as if a dam had burst open. It was a purely miraculous moment, never to be recreated in my life: the moment when I realized that there existed a world of breathlessly beautiful sound outside of my cold and miserable existence of constant alienation.”

Never has the power of serious Western music been better described. How many of us have encountered such an experience on first discovering the beauty of classical music. Ahn went on to become a great violinist, a pioneer in the introduction of music playing and appreciation in Korea. He describes his travels, his love of chamber music, his passionate involvement in the movement to unify Korea, north with south. At present, the names of his pupils are on marquees of concert halls all over the world.

Now eighty-three years old, he ruminates on the passing away of time, philosophically accepting the loss of members of his “veteran music friends.” He ends his memoirs with a heart-warming, yet sad, commentary on the human predicament.

My Sorrows, My joys is a delightful book to read by anyone who has felt the cleansing power of great music, or the passion of dedication to a great enterprise swelling in his or her heart.

---Reviewed by Dr. Henry J.

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