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.
David Serkin Ludwig is a classical music composer, part of a musical family that extends four generations. His uncle Peter Serkin and grandfather Rudolf Serkin were eminent pianists; his great-grandfather Adolf Busch was a world-renowned violinist. Ludwig is the recipient of a prestigious fellowship from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage and the chair of composition studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Raised in Pennsylvania, Ludwig studied at Oberlin College, the University of Vienna, the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School, and the University of Pennsylvania. His compositions include work for orchestra, chamber ensemble, vocal groups, and solo violin, and address topics ranging from climate change and gun violence to medieval religious recluses. They have been commissioned or performed by orchestras and artists across the United States, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. His choral work “The New Colossus” was performed on the National Prayer Breakfast before President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration.
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.
David Serkin Ludwig: 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.
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.
Serkin Ludwig: 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.”
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 eclipsed his 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.
AJC: When you were growing up, 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?
Serkin Ludwig: 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.
AJC: Why not?
David Serkin Ludwig: 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.
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.
Serkin Ludwig: 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.
AJC: But why?
Serkin Ludwig: I wanted to feel connected publicly to my family. I wanted that to be acknowledged because it is something that’s very important to me.
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 melodrama 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.
Serkin Ludwig: They would enclose themselves within the wall of a church so that there was a cell, an 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.
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.
Serkin Ludwig: “Is it okay if I ask you to scream at the end?” And she said, “that sounds like it would feel really good.”
AJC: Was there any sense of catharsis for you when you wrote it?
Serkin Ludwig: 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.
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.
Serkin Ludwig: Every piece kinda takes a pound of flesh. It’s always a struggle. Part of the problem is before you start a piece, and 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.”
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.