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Selected for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's 2019 Jean Coulthard Readings. 

This piece conveys my thoughts and my perspectives as I walked through Gyeongbokgung, Joseon’s royal palace, built in 1392. It by no means represents traditional Korean music or culture, nor does it provide a step-by-step guide to the palace itself; rather, the music is inspired by personal thoughts that occured to me, along with experiences during my tour of the palace during my 2018 trip to South Korea. The palace was filled with beauty and awe, yet to me, seemed to have an undertone of sadness and tragedy.

This symbol of power and royalty was never quite sovereign, as it was tribute to the Chinese Ming and Qing Emperors. This symbol of hope and nationalism, was destroyed by the Japanese once in 1592 and again after the annexation in 1910. Walking through the palace, I could almost feel the dread that the Joseon monarchs must have felt as foreign countries closed in on the hermit kingdom, and as the Japanese pressure on the Korean Empire’s sovereignty increased.

Consequently, the music conveys the majesty of Joseon, but grief and dread also interweaves itself within the triumphant music throughout. Even in movements of beauty and joy, a forlorn mood fills the air.

I. Overture: Gwanghwamun to Geunjeongjeon

The first movement represents my first impressions as I walked through the gates of the palace and reached the Throne Room. It begins by presenting the Gwanghwamun motif, which represents the majesty of the palace, along with fragments of the Queen Min motif. As the Queen Min motif is developed, dissonant interjections in the horns foreshadow the impending fall of the country and the palace. The movement’s climax presents the Gwanghwamun motif, lushly portraying the majesty of the Throne Room, Geunjeongjeon, yet ends pensively with the horn, reflecting on the lonely life of a king.


II. Grief Within the Palace: Eulmi Incident

The second movement follows my walk behind the Throne Room into the personal living quarters. It is based on two motives, the Queen Min motif and the Danger motif. The movement displays one instance of bloodshed and grief within the history of Gyeongbokgung, and subsequently is the most narrative driven movement. Opening on the serenity of an autumn night—portraying Queen Min (1851-1895), who would posthumously become the last Empress of Joseon—the music foreshadows the chaos that will ensue. With hints of danger scuttling in the darkness, Japanese agents attack the palace and it is too late for the palace guard to respond effectively.

The chaos briefly fades away as the men reach the Queen’s quarters, and while the Queen confronts them with resistance, the music dissolves into an elegy. As the Queen’s assassination signaled the beginning of the end for Joseon, the elegy mourns both, until the trumpet hints at the Japanese occupation to come in a few decades.


III. Banquet and the Gardens

As I made my way west of the living quarters of the Queen, I could see the beautiful gardens and Gyeonghoeru, the Royal Banquet Pavilion, surrounded by a beautiful artificial lake. The beginning of this movement closely resembles traditional Korean music, Gugak, before it gets melded into my own personal Western-influenced styles. The Banquet motif is comprised of a descending whole-step that repeats, which is fragmented throughout the movement into accompaniment figures. Changing meters display the excitement of royal banquets while the drums and gongs recall on the dancing that would have gone on. At the climax, the Queen Min motif is quoted, but now it seems to represent all of Joseon’s royalty in a brass fanfare; finally, the end subsides into a more serene garden scene as I circle around to leave the palace.


IV. Finale: The Great Han

On my way out, I saw the Throne Room and Gwanghwamun once more in its glory, and to reflect that, once again, the motifs all came together in the Finale. The movement begins in medias res, presenting the Danger motif now representing the end of the Japanese occupation as it is met with resistance, shown through quotes of the two melodies to the Aegugka. Finally the Gwanghwamun theme returns with majesty. This theme is developed throughout the Finale, but is also accompanied by echoes of the previous movements, most notably the Banquet motif. The music gradually pans out from the palace, just as I moved away from it, giving the music a broad, panoramic quality in the climax, looking over Seoul, representing the new development and growth of the independent Han peoples.


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