La, Un-Yung: the 23rd Psalm song and the stigma

The 23rd Psalm song

La, Un-Yung’s song, based on the well-known Psalm 23 verses, is an example of how a most difficult situation can result in something beautiful…

On May 3 of 1953, with the communist enemy (Soviet Union, Red China and North Korea) closing in on the provisional capital city of Busan, the 23rd Psalm song was born. The gifts of La arrive in beautiful music, coupling the Biblical text with instrumentation that shares the still waters, darkness of the shadow of death and the dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. Wow!

Un-Yung chose a familiar, traditional melody for the basis of the Psalm 23 song and in 3 minutes created the wonderful score, including the harmonies. It was truly a miraculous moment in his life: it was created so quickly and yet he never edited this composition (even though he usually edited musical efforts for many hours with perfectionist skill!)

One publicly available performance of La’s 23rd Psalm song is HERE. It is a wonderful listening experience of the 23rd Psalm, even for those of us who don’t recognize the words!


And the stigma

As if experiencing and surviving the torment of war in his native Korea wasn’t enough, Un-Yung also suffered a stigma that tormented him through the actions and words of others. As Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story…

La was not born into a Christian family and he wished Christianity could have been more a part of his earlier life. His exposure to Korean court music began at the age of 5, while listening to his father and friends perform it. Korean culture is richly ingrained with Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism as well as Christian behaviors.

While studying at Tokyo Emperor’s University, Un-Yung was taught the lesson one’s music should always start with your own background (“tell us about your own ethnic musical melodies.”) Prior to concluding that education, World War II broke out and La had to return to Korea.

Recognizing the importance of ethnic origin for his music, in the 1960s La devoted tremendous effort to visiting islands where Korean musical history was still maintained, filled with religious/spiritual influences: Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and Christianity. Then he continued creating music…

In 1966, this renowned Christian musician made a once-in-a-lifetime “mistake” on some commissioned work while honoring his heritage in his music: he composed a hymn praising Buddhism. This decision nagged him for the rest of his life: he made a verbal public apology to the Korean Christian communities for hymn-writing; he organized the Asian Christian communities for hymn-writing and apologized publicly there too (and never again did he acknowledge this.)

Yet this difficult period in his life fueled his prolific hymn-writing. Un-Yung established the Un Kyung** Church in 1980 to introduce totally new hymns to the Korean community. And introduce he did. His ministry of music resulted in the next 162 months of worship at Un Kyung Church, with seven brand new hymns written monthly, specifically for each service. So La became a minister later in life, even if never as a theological graduate. 🙂  As a music ministry director for over 45 years, Un-Yung wrote hundreds of songs and directed many hundreds more!


NOTES ABOUT OUR SOURCE FOR THIS ARTICLE: A cherished friend and fellow member of Mount Washington Presbyterian Church has been a wonderful teacher about this song and its history. When Kim, Yong-Hun sang La’s “23rd Psalm” song in worship at Mt. Washington Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 2010s, he discussed some of the song’s history with the congregation. In preparation for Christian Playbook posts we chatted more with Yong-Hun about this song, the man who wrote it and some of the rich, Korean history.

SOME OTHER FACTS:

  • La’s biographer – Oh, So-Woon – was a student of La’s in addition to being his friend, fellow music lyricist, composer and also a Methodist minister
  • The first time Oh heard this song performed it was sung by La’s wife, Un-Kyung, a gifted soprano who was accompanied by La on the piano
  • Both La and his wife were ordained as elders (a lifetime term in those days)

*** first part of the first names of La and his wife