S6 E13 | CLIP

David Serkin Ludwig: Music in the Heir

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, composer David Serkin Ludwig created a new work about life in forced isolation.

AIRED: February 12, 2021 | 0:09:16

(ethereal music)

(string quartet music)

- [Jim] The celebrated composer, David Serkin Ludwig,

did his very best not to follow his family's footsteps,

into a life in concert music.

He played clarinet in a funk band,

drums in a rock group,

studied art history.

Even wrote a few plays.

But however far Ludwig has strayed,

he's always ended up right back at home.

- My canvas is concert music.

It's what I know.

It's what I grew up with.

It's the way that I feel like I can express myself

with the most nuance,

with the most detail,

and in the widest way, too.

- [Jim] Ludwig has written music about everything

from climate change, to gun violence,

to humanity's role in the universe.

In 2013,

his composition about the so-called American melting pot,

"The New Colossus", opened the private prayer service

of President Obama's second inauguration.


Now 46, David Ludwig has found his place in music

and in his family tree.

There's uncle Peter,

the Grammy winning pianist and composer,

who passed away in February, 2020.

Ludwig's maternal grandfather,

Rudolf Serkin, widely considered, one of the finest

Beethoven interpreters of the 20th century.

And his great-grandfather

Adolf Wilhelm Busch,

a violinist, conductor, and composer.

So beloved in Europe,

that Adolf Hitler besieged him to return home.

After Busch had fled Nazi, Germany for the U.S.

- So Hitler wrote him a telegram and said,

come back to be with me in Berlin.

I'll make you an honorary Nazi.

You'll have everything you want.

You'll have your own orchestra.

It'll be amazing.

Busch wrote back,

I will return to Berlin,

when I see you and your Gestapo hanging by trees.

- [Jim] Busch sacrificed his career to stay in the U.S.

By the time he died in 1952,

his son-in-law Rudolf Serkin,

had already eclipse to success,

and was charting a path to superstardom.

One which would bring him a Presidential Medal of Freedom,

a National Medal of the Arts,

and the Kennedy Center Honor.

As a child, David saw his grandfather in concert

countless times.

When you were growing up David,

you were in a very musical family.

Was there ever a rebellion in you

where you said I'm going to become an insurance salesman

or something?

- Right. It's interesting.

It was still something so far off.

And it was not something actually

that my near family really supported, to be honest.

- Why not?

- Well, there's a kind of mythology about being a musician.

First of all, when you come from this kind of family.

And there's also a feeling that even if you're successful

or maybe especially if you're successful,

you can't have any kind of normal life.

That you're just kind of always doing it.

It's always on your mind.

- [Jim] Over the years, he developed a close relationship

with his uncle, Peter,

who was open about the complications

of carrying the Serkin name,

through his own life in music.

David, on the other hand,

had to contend with what it meant

to make a name for himself.

- I was very resistant to people

knowing about my family for a long time.

I wanted to cut my own teeth.

I was just David Ludwig.

David Andrew Ludwig for a very long time,

and then changed my name to Serkin Ludwig,

just over the past couple of years.

- But why?

- I wanted to feel connected

publicly to my family.

I wanted that to be acknowledged

'cause it is something that's very important to me.

- [Jim] David Ludwig has reached a settled yet joyful stage.

Married to the violinist, Bella Hristova.

He's chair of composition studies,

at The Curtis Institute of Music.

And has established a reputation

that allows him to explore wherever the music takes him.

Like when a couple of years ago,

he took a detour into the medieval world,

to create a musical model drama,

based on a set of poems by Katie Ford.

That imagines a day in the life of the anchoress.

A member of a woman's movement,

committed to hermetic isolation.

♪ Though I mistook

♪ Night as a healer

♪ Sleep as erasure

♪ Vespers as lumbering dissolution ♪

♪ Towards matins

- They would enclose themselves within the wall of a church

so that there was a cell, anchor hold, it was called.

And they would be in there 24 hours a day.

They couldn't leave.

There was no door.

And so they had something called a squint

that looked into the church.

And people would go and consult with the anchoress

or the anchorite in the church.

Because they were seen as oracles as well.

These living spirits, these...

You couldn't see them.

You just spoke through the squint.

It became in a way,

one of the few ways

that women could actually have agency over their lives.

So it's really interesting

by enclosing themselves in a space.

And withdrawing from society,

was the only way they could have agency

over creative expression

and self actualization.

♪ It was then

♪ I could to the Lord

♪ Say

♪ Yes

(orchestral music)

- [Jim] In 2020, Ludwig's romantic notions about solitude

were tested more personally by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After several months in isolation,

the violinist, Jennifer Koh,

asked him to write her a solo piece,

on any subject of his choosing.

Ludwig had just one question.

- Is it okay if I ask you to scream at the end?

And she said, that sounds like it would feel really good.


- Was there any sense of catharsis for you when you wrote?

- Yeah, I had some sense of catharsis.

I thought about protest music

and I thought about punk rock,

but I also thought about death metal

which is this really rage filled protest music

of kind of all types, all categories.

And so, I wanted to emulate that for the violin

and have these kind of wild solos and these power chords

and all this, and that at the end, just a big scream.

And so for me, it was very cathartic to watch

and hear her play it.

(violin music)

- [Jim] Like many of us,

Ludwig has experienced mixed reactions to isolation.

Locked inside his home in Philadelphia,

he has at least been able to stay busy.

But he says writing music in a pandemic,

is just about as troublesome,

as writing music has always been.

- Every piece kinda takes a pound of flesh.

It's always a struggle.

Part of the problem is before you start a piece,

I say this to students a lot.

The piece is perfect.

It's perfection before you start it, right?

But as the piece, calcifies, it becomes more and more human.

(violin music)

- [Jim] These days, David Serkin Ludwig,

as always, continues to compose music

that reflects the intrinsically human.

Safe in the knowledge that he is the worthy heir

of a tradition for making music,

that is drawn from all of life's possibilities.

(violin music)

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter,

is made possible with generous funding,

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(upbeat music)


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