On Monday morning, President Barack Obama, his family and his cabinet attended a private prayer service at St. John’s Church, across from the White House, to kick off the inauguration. The first thing they heard upon being seated was a three-minute choral work by Vermont’s own David Ludwig.
“I’m really blown away by [the programming of my piece], totally blown away,” the 40-year-old composer declared the night before the inauguration. Ludwig is the new-music adviser to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and director of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival’s composition program. He spoke to Seven Days from Philadelphia, where he teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music.
The Obamas listened to the St. John’s choir perform Ludwig’s “The New Colossus,” a piece commissioned in 2002 in the wake of 9/11. Its title and text come from the 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus, engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, which imagines the female figure welcoming “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
“It’s a piece I’m still really proud of,” Ludwig said. “The words are about tolerance. Back then [after 9/11], they had a different meaning, but the world hasn’t gotten much more peaceful.”
Ludwig said the work was chosen simply because “the conductor [St. John’s music director Benjamin Hutto] heard it, liked the piece, and decided to program it. I guess that’s how these things happen,” he added with a chuckle.
Hutto wrote Ludwig a letter about his plans for the piece a few weeks ago, but both had to wait for the inauguration committee’s approval, which finally came through last Wednesday. Since then, Ludwig’s Facebook and fan pages have been deluged, and he’s had to “hire PR people and all that stuff. There are a lot of different groups who will want to make their name with this piece.”
Ludwig said he doubted he’d able to attend the service,
from which even the media were banned. (In a Monday afternoon email, he confirmed, “Between the time that I got the news and the event, there was just no time to pass security clearance.”)
But he had bigger dreams, in any case. “I have fantasies of [Obama] tweeting at me and saying, ‘Hey, nice piece!’”
“The New Colossus”: Ludwig’s composition is available on iTunes and on CD collections at davidludwigmusic.com.
The print version of this article was headlined "A Song for the President".