Two Pianists in Time of War
War requires many adjustments by the populations of the countries involved, and musicians are not immune from these circumstances. The lives of two pianists, one who lived during World War I and the other during the Korean War, illustrate the pressures placed upon individuals. communities, and societies.
November 11, 2018 marks the centennial end of World War I, and during this war many important musicians were mobilized. Composers in the World War I armed forces included Alban Berg, Arthur Bliss, Percy Grainger, Paul Hindemith, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schönberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Anton Webern. Performers concertizing when war broke out in August 1914 included violinist Fritz Kreisler and pianists Walter Gieseking and Paul Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein lost his right arm in the war; Ravel later wrote his Concerto for the Left Hand for him.
Walter Gieseking's parents were born in Germany, but he was born in Lyon, France, in 1895. Before 1914, it was not uncommon for Europeans to have no passport or identity card because Europe had open borders. When Germany declared war on France on August 3, 1914, Gieseking and his mother were in Germany, his father in France. After a brief imprisonment, his father returned to Germany.
Upon reading of the declaration of war, Gieseking was horrified, and was even more shocked at the joy and cheering with which so many of the public greeted the news. In France, another musician reacted in a similar fashion. Cellist Pablo Casals remembers being appalled at seeing the "wildly festive mood" in the streets of Paris when war was declared.1 (See the Poetry Corner in this issue.)
That fall, Gieseking's Berlin debut was postponed. The postponement was not viewed as a cancellation, because early in the war all sides claimed the fighting would end quickly. Concert life continued, but sometimes in unusual circumstances. In Hannover in January 1915, Gieseking wore concert tails for the first time, playing Liszt's Concerto No. 1 as part of a variety show evening.
Soon men born in 1895 had to register for military service, but Gieseking was rejected because he lacked proof of German citizenship. A government official who supported Gieseking's career wrote a testimonial vouching that Gieseking was a Prussian. Gieseking recalls being allowed "to be enrolled as a defender of the fatherland—or should I say: pre-registered as cannon fodder."2 When preparing to get married in 1924, his call to military service was declared illegal.
Karl Leimer, Gieseking's teacher, attempted to delay his induction, but failed. Leimer did arrange for Gieseking to play a Beethoven sonata cycle in Hannover from November 1915 to February 1916. In August 1916 Gieseking went on active duty. That month the long battles of Verdun—970,000 deaths—and the Somme—more than one million lives lost to gain twenty-five miles of territory—were underway.
On the first day in his barracks, Gieseking "heard more abusive language and lewdness than I heard in my whole life up to then."3 However, his first unit leader was a good person whom he unexpectedly encountered after the war pushing a wagon of trash down a highway. He got along well with his fellow soldiers, attributing this to the shared dislike of certain of their superior officers. He took care to have a good attitude and did not find basic training too difficult. During one marksmanship training session, he hit the bullseye three times, and was rewarded with a free afternoon. On September 1, he played Liszt's Concerto No. 1 in uniform.
Because the military still had no definitive proof regarding Gieseking's citizenship, after basic training he was not shipped to the Western Front. Instead, he was, like most musicians, enrolled in training as a stretcher-bearer. The winter of 1916-1917 was harsh, and field-training maneuvers required long stretches lying on one's stomach in the snow.
Gieseking was transferred to a new battalion and attached to its band as a drummer, string player, and pianist. His musical horizons expanded in various directions: a performance of the Tannhäuser Overture with nineteen people—once taking over cello, horn, and bassoon parts as violist and bringing out each instrument's important melodic lines; filling out the sound of small café music ensembles as pianist; and pianist and solo violinist for silent movies.
In early 1917, Gieseking's barracks began to fill up with "astonishingly maimed" soldiers.4 In May, he was transferred to Borkum, an island in the North Sea off the border of Germany and the Netherlands. Gypsies and people whose citizenship was not thoroughly authenticated were shipped there. The island also served as a place where higher-ranking officers took short leaves, sometimes, according to Gieseking, doing battle with bottles of Rhine wine. On Borkum, Gieseking's company lived in barracks that housed "approximately eighty men and 800,000 fleas… By night the fleas advanced in regimental columns… In a few minutes the fleas were so thick in the shade that with sufficient skill one could massacre about a dozen."5
On Borkum, Gieseking's company was assigned to shovel and relocate sand, first in one direction, then in another direction. Fortunately, musical opportunities, some quite unusual, gave Gieseking alternative activities. Playing café music in the officers' canteen was rewarded with more drink than food. This repertoire included pop songs, Merry Widow excerpts, and the waltz from Kalman's The Czardas Princess. The music was to be played continuously, but what to do when a superior officer toasted you while playing the Czardas Waltz, and you felt obligated to respond? Gradually, Gieseking was able to play the waltz with his left hand alone, freeing his right to hoist a glass. Musical events in more polite surroundings on Borkum included chamber music teas and accompanying the singing of officers' wives. Gieseking also accompanied theater companies, ballet troupes, and art song recitals. The solo pieces he played most often were Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat major, Liszt's St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waters, and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14.
Gieseking earned extra money playing for silent movies at the Hotel Nordsee, an establishment still in operation. The movie room housed a piano and a harmonium. When the movie required religious music, he would play the melody of the Gounod-Bach "Ave Maria" with his left hand on the harmonium, pump the harmonium bellows with his left foot, play the accompaniment with his right hand on the piano, and pedal with his right foot.
By fall 1918, Gieseking, suffering from malnutrition, was even too weak to bathe in the ocean. One lucky day he found three potatoes lying in the street, a feast in those circumstances. In November, another kind of material became available on the streets: left-wing, revolutionary, and communist publications. Evening conversations among the soldiers turned to topics of freedom, peace, and brotherhood. To close the evening, the Marseillaise was requested. Since Gieseking was the only musician there who knew the melody, he played it as loud as he could, with a lot of pedal.
Until his death in 1956, Gieseking had one of the great piano careers of the twentieth century. His vast repertoire did not exclude contemporary music. On February 16, 1929, at a concert of the League of Composers in New York's Town Hall, Gieseking played the world premieres of Aaron Copland's Vitebsk trio and Karol Rathaus's Sonata No. 3. However, because of the way a reputation can be formed and limited by the recording industry, in his lifetime he became known chiefly as an interpreter of Debussy and Ravel. Fortunately, with the advent of compact discs, many of his radio broadcasts of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, and other composers are now available and present a more complete testament of his artistry.
Pianist and professor Jisoo Park was born in 1931 in Kaesong, the only city in Korea to change control from South Korea to North Korea as a result of the Korean War. Park received a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1968, studying with Richard Neher.
He soon returned to Korea where he performed and taught privately and at the university level.
In 1910, Japan took firm control of Korea occupying it until 1945. Korean children were taught in the Japanese language at school, and in 1939 Koreans were pressured to change their names to Japanese. Jisoo Park's name was changed to Matsoka Jishoo.
In elementary school, Park had to bow toward the east every morning and recite the oath of a Japanese imperial subject. In sixth grade, a Japanese named Saito became Park's teacher. Saito stood at attention every time he spoke of the Japanese emperor. One day Saito brought a piano to the classroom. Park was surprised that this authoritarian Japanese person played the piano with skill. A further surprise: Saito taught his class "emotional songs rather than army songs."6
In 1944, Park entered public middle school. Children that age were sometimes forced to farm or do construction work for the Japanese. When Korea was liberated in August 1945, Park's school principal was a Japanese named Takahashi. The day after liberation, Takahashi gave a short speech to the students and straightened the Korean flag that was hanging on the school's main gate. Park wrote that Takahashi "had a particular affection and pride for our school."7
Soon after World War II ended Park took piano lessons from a teacher in Kaesong, and later commuted by train to study with a teacher in Seoul for three years. In June 1950 Park began his first year of music study at Seoul National University, and returned to Kaesong the Saturday after the first week of classes. The next day, Sunday, June 25th, Park awoke to the sound of gunfire. The Korean War had been launched and Kaesong was under attack. Two of Park's cousins were never seen again after that attack, and he feared being conscripted into the North Korean army. A friend of Park's witnessed a group execution carried out by North Korean soldiers. Kaesong was liberated on October 9, 1950, approximately three weeks after General Douglas MacArthur's successful amphibious landing at Inchon.
The joy of the October liberation was short lived. The Chinese army entered the war and soon the forces allied with South Korea pulled back to the Imjin River. Park knew the situation was serious because his father gave him the largest amount of money Park had ever seen. With his mother screaming his name and tearing at his clothes, Park left Kaesong on foot on December 13, 1950. After walking approximately fifteen miles he got onto the roof of a slow-moving freight train filled with refugees. After lying face down to avoid injury when passing through tunnels and inhaling great amounts of smoke, Park arrived in Seoul.
Park was soon inducted into the South Korean army and sent to Pusan. In basic training he fractured his left thumb, which became infected. Fortunately, his recovery resulted in no lasting ill effects. After basic training, Park was placed in a unit led by Colonel Panki Kim, who founded the South Korean Army Band and conducted the army orchestra that performed for Korean and U.S. troops. In Pusan, Park played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the orchestra. The orchestra later formed the core of the Korean Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra.
Colonel Kim was a severe disciplinarian. He ordered Park to get an opera score. Park replied that he had no idea where to obtain it. Colonel Kim locked him up for disobeying an order! Within an hour, Kim released him from the makeshift jail—the space below the stage of an auditorium.
For a while the soldiers' diet included boiled rice with coal powder. The rice bags were loaded on open freight cars, and coal particles from the engine exhaust saturated the bags. No amount of rinsing could cleanse the coal dust. "Because it crunched with every bite, I almost gave up eating. Consequently, I was reduced to a mere skeleton and sent for a convalescent leave to my family."8 Park's father had returned to Kaesong to get the rest of their family, but the city again fell to the North Koreans and they could not escape.
In 1956, Park was finally discharged from the South Korean army, and returned to start his freshman classes six years after his original enrollment. As a junior, he played Beethoven Concerto No. 5 with the Korean Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra. Park graduated and obtained a teaching certificate in 1960, and a few years later he was soloist with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and in the Beethoven Concerto No. 5 with the Daigu Philharmonic Orchestra.
Park's goal was to study in the United States, but financial and linguistic concerns were his major obstacles. Once these were overcome, he went to the states in August 1966 to enroll in a master's degree program in piano performance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That fall I was entering my sophomore year, and Park and I, both students of Dr. Richard Neher, became good friends. After graduating with his master's degree in 1968, Park studied in New York with Lillian Freundlich before returning to Korea. There he taught piano at the university level and privately, and continued to concertize, including a performance of the Schumann Concerto for Piano with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. He is now retired.
1. Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 146.
2. Walter Gieseking, So Wurde Ich Pianist (Wiesbaden: Brockhaus, 1975), 31. Translations in the article by Richard Zimdars.
3. Gieseking, So Wurde Ich Pianist, 31.
4. Gieseking, So Wurde Ich Pianist, 36.
5. Gieseking, So Wurde Ich Pianist, 37.
6. Jisoo Park, Pick Me Some Pasque Flowers (Unpublished manuscript, 2015), 19.
7. Park, Pick Me Some Pasque Flowers, 27.
8. Park, Pick Me Some Pasque Flowers, 59.