Asia Life

Cho Seong-Jin and Chopin’s ‘Eternal Sonata’ in East Asia

A South Korean musician’s victory in the Chopin Competition confirms the composer’s enduring popularity in East Asia.

Cho Seong-Jin and Chopin’s ‘Eternal Sonata’ in East Asia
Credit: Fryderyk Chopin statue via Magdalena Paluchowska /

The main prize at the recent 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition was won by Cho Seong-Jin. The 21-year-old musician comes from the Republic of Korea and is a student of Michel Béroff at the Paris Conservatoire.

Cho’s victory is yet more evidence of Chopin’s growing popularity in East Asia. The French-Polish musician is possibly the most famous foreign piano music composer, at least in Japan where knowledge of his work dates back to the 19th century. His life story remains one of the magnets drawing large numbers of Japanese tourists to Poland, where state institutions are making concerted efforts to capitalize on this. The trips include not only the fairly new Chopin Museum in central Warsaw, but also the small town of Żelazowa Wola west of Poland’s capital where the musical prodigy was born. In that context it may not be surprising that one of the biggest travel agencies dealing with foreign tourists coming to Poland is called Mazurkas Travel. (Chopin wrote numerous mazurkas, based on the traditional Polish folk dance.)

The Republic of Korea and China are following suit. Piano schools dot the landscape of South Korea, and piano lessons remain a regular part of many East Asian children’s education, potentially becoming a prelude to trying to play Chopin at a later age. As of 2010, there were 40 Korean and Japanese students at the Warsaw Fryderyk Chopin University of Music. Chopin competitions are also held in East Asia, including Kawasaki in Japan and Daegu in South Korea.

The number of participants at the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition is also indicative of these processes. A record 455 participants signed up for the Warsaw-held contest. Of these, 88 came from Japan and 47 from South Korea, while China and Taiwan taken together fielded 77 entrants. The Chinese nationals included Xin Luo, a blind musician who chose to live and study music in Poland. Among the 77 musicians who waltzed through to the main part of the contest, Polish pianists formed the biggest group of fourteen, but China with thirteen entrants and Japan with twelve were close behind. The fourth biggest group were eight South Koreans, including the ultimate winner. The East Asian contribution to the contest is even greater if we consider the Chinese origins of some of the pianists representing the United States.

While Cho is the first citizen of South Korea to claim the main prize, Koreans are no stranger to the competition. In 2005 Lim Dong Min and Lim Dong Hyek shared third place. Among the three Chopin-loving East Asian countries, only Japan is still to win the contest, as Chinese musician Li Yundi (Li Xixi) was victorious in 2000.

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Possibly one of the most curious results of Chopin’s popularity is the Xbox/PlayStation game Eternal Sonata, made in Japan. Chopin died at the age of 39, having suffered from tuberculosis. The game takes us to a time a few hours before his death, when, in the game’s storyline, Chopin is dreaming. The strange world of the game is located in Chopin’s dream, where we are able to lead a number of characters, including Chopin himself. The musician fights his way through with a baton and encounters personae named Jazz, etc. The background music consists of course of Chopin’s compositions, in this case played by Stanislav Bunin (whose victory in the 1985 Chopin Competition reinforced the love of Chopin’s music in Japan). While in the game the physical body of the pianist is in the final stage of its funeral march, his music – as the title, Eternal Sonata, implies – will last. And so, one suspects, will his popularity in East Asia.