We had the privilege of having an intimate sit-down chat with Korean pianist William Youn, best known for his recordings of the work of Franz Schubert – a composer that he holds close to his heart. In the session, Youn shared with us how he discovered the music of Schubert, and how closely it ties in with his life philosophy.

Growing up, he had listened to Schubert’s Sonatas, but it was not until later that the story of Schubert and his music intrigued him and became an obsession. His first true encounter with Schubert’s works came when his record label asked if he would like to record Schubert’s piano sonatas. Youn shares, “I said yes, but I didn’t actually know them.”

As he delved into it, he found a captivating story of the evolution of Schubert as a composer. Schubert was born in Vienna, a rich hub for Art & Music, and was one of the few surviving children in his family. His father was a schoolmaster who had wished for him to follow in the teaching line. Schubert, however, wanted to be a composer (those of us who pursue careers in music and music teaching despite our family’s wishes can surely relate!). In Schubert’s short career, he managed to dwarf the output of many of his predecessors with longer lifetimes, having produced a massive body of work, including operas and symphonies; 600 songs; overtures and masses; string quartets, quintets and an octet; 20 piano sonatas; and some 50 choral works over a career lasting less than 20 years.

With the staggering amount of music Schubert wrote, how is it that he was forgotten (until much later), and not as well known as Beethoven? This was a lingering question in William Youn’s mind.

A Story in Sound & Music

Schubert’s early works reflect more of an exploratory feel, with influences from Beethoven and Mozart evident in his music. The works from his early period did not yet reflect his unique character just yet. His unfinished works seem to tell a story of a man trying to find his voice amid the trials he faced at that point of his life (he had been battling illness that peaked through his mid-twenties). Schubert’s music finds its voice in his later works, “He fell sick and wrote a lot during this time,” shared Youn. As this writer listened to Youn’s sharing of this aspect of Schubert’s life, we were reminded of a poem by Dylan Thomas called “Do not go gentle into that good night”, although that poem may hold a slightly more aggressive approach to facing death than Schubert had, it reflects the same sentiment of viewing death as not something to be feared, but to be faced with dignity. To William Youn, life’s ending should be about looking back on the beauty of a life lived, rather than a struggle against it. This is something that he finds and relates to very much in Schubert’s music.

“I want to go somewhere where no one understands me”

Having moved overseas to pursue his studies and career as a performing pianist, it seems William Youn managed to truly find himself and blossom having gone where no one understood him (quite literally as he had to learn an entire language to adapt!). Franz Schubert on the other hand never left his hometown, but had always dreamed of going away. Schubert’s music has a wistful, wandering, expressive approach that is actually quite modern if you think about it; the joy of exploration from a simple guy in love with the world around him.

His ability to compose pieces that effortlessly changed mood and key gave Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel (who Youn quoted in his talk) the impression of Schubert as a “sleepwalker” in contrast to the perfectly structured architectural styles of the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. Youn said, “to play Schubert, you need to be a bit of a sleepwalker, you have to tell stories.”

Selecting the Repertoire for “Echoes of Silence” – his Debut Recital in Singapore

“I knew I wanted Schubert”, so he chose 2 Sonatas that reflected the beginning (Piano Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, D. 537, composed when Schubert was 20 years old, dramatic and genial as compared to his other works) & end (Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major, D. 959, written in the last few months of his life where he builds on a theme from the 2nd movement of D.537; this piece, to Youn, also reflects an incredible emotional peace) of Schubert’s development and life as a composer. The addition of the Ravel selections from “Miroirs” reflect nature, while the Schubert pieces reflect the soul – though from different eras, the music in the program selection offers contrasts and similarities that made for a great overall story.

Tips for Performing and Interpreting Schubert’s (or any Composer’s) Works

“Find the right moment and mood, and play as though telling a story”. Learning to love, feel and associate with the music are some of Youn’s criteria for music to play & perform. When you play a sad song, you don’t have to be sad. Too much emotion comes off to celebrating ourselves instead of the music. Let the music speak. It’s alright to be emotional but a performer must be in control as a servant to the music. After all, the best-case scenario for an actor is where the actor doesn’t cry, but the audience does.

William’s Musical Career Motivation

“I started playing the piano when I was 6, and I’ve been a pianist since then”, says Youn. “Being a Musician is a way of living. I can’t see myself as being separate from my profession. As a performing musician, I have a responsibility for people around me who are dependent on how well I do”, so he puts in the effort to grow his following (follow him on Instagram!) as well as hone his craft.

Born in Seoul, William Youn first discovered the piano in a Korean kindergarten. At the age of 13, he moved to the USA to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Five years later he moved to Germany, where he studied with the legendary piano pedagogue Karl-Heinz Kämmerling. While a scholarship student at the Piano Academy Lake Como, Youn received further musical inspiration from artists such as Dmitri Bashkirov, Andreas Staier, William Grant Naboré, and Menahem Pressler. William Youn teaches regularly at the Wilhelm Kempff Cultural Foundation in Positano, where he is also a member of the Board of Trustees.

William Youn’s CD Albums “Schubert Piano Sonatas” Vol. II and Vol. III are available to purchase at Bechstein Music World at 7 Shenton Way #02-01 Singapore Conference Hall. For enquiries, call 6951 0638, or WhatsApp 8766 0638.

You can also find them on our Cristofori eShop! Get your copy via the links below:

William Youn – Schubert Piano Sonatas Vol. II

William Youn – Schubert Piano Sonatas Vol.III