Tom Ludwig wrote his First Symphony, "Age of Victory," in response to Leonard Bernstein's Second Symphony, "Age of Anxiety." Tom Ludwig is an optimist. Anyone who composes orchestral music in the United States today has to be an optimist.
Although Ludwig is not his first name, his colleagues used to call him "Beethoven." That was a while ago, when he was a full-time carpenter and part-time composer, hammering nails for a living while he waited for the world to hear his symphony. Tomorrow night, the world--at least that part of it that will be in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall--will hear the First Symphony of the 30-year-old composer in its first public performance. In a few months, others will be able to hear its first commercial recording, by the Louisville Orchestra. And a few conductors have been given a chance to hear a special taped edition of it, recorded last year by the London Symphony Orchestra. But Ludwig suspects that most of the people who got the tape never listened to it.
How does a composer get a premiere for his first symphony at the prestigious Inter-American Music Festival? Ludwig, who lives with his wife in Silver Spring, is probably fairly typical of those who succeed. He did it through intensive study, acute self-criticism, hard work, indefatigable self-promotion, the right contacts and a bit of luck. Presumably, there was also considerable talent--but the world will know more about that tomorrow night. Whatever else was involved, luck probably mattered the most.
The process of getting the symphony performed also involved an investment of about $15,000 which Ludwig earned building houses, teaching violin at the Ellsworth Studios and conducting ballet performances.
"I wrote out the conductor's score in my own hand," he says, explaining the curious economics of new orchestral music. "It's readable and that's all I ask. I wasn't about to try to win a calligraphy contest." But the parts for the orchestral players (which the composer has to supply) are more of a problem: "I hired a copyist," says Ludwig, "and paid him cut rates, which came to about $3,000." The other $12,000 was the cost of a project in London, where he hired the London Symphony Orchestra to make a demonstration tape of the symphony. London was chosen because the orchestra is specially good at sight-reading and because a recording session there costs about one-third of what it would cost in the United States. That's why the London Symphony has so many records to its credit.
With 40 copies of the LSO tape and his handwritten conductor's score, Ludwig began "a really intensive lobbying effort" a year ago, sending the material to leading conductors in this country and talking to Eugene Ormandy, Andre Previn, Colin Davis, Leonard Bernstein and others. Then he waited for reactions--which had a curious repetitiveness: "Mr. Ormandy is not interested in the work." "Mr. Mehta is not interested." "We think your symphony is very interesting, but Mr. Solti does not have time to look at it." The net result of his personal effort was zero.
For a long time, he had no more success in finding a publisher. He waited for two years for a response from Schirmer's, which, he says, lost copies of his score and tape three times. Then John Corigliano, his composition teacher, phoned the publisher. "And do you know," he said, "the next week I had a contract in the mail."
Having the work with Schirmer's meant that it might catch the attention of a conductor looking for new symphonies. It did, finally, for the Inter-American Festival--but only because the first work Schirmer sent for consideration would have required long rehearsals, with most instruments tuned in microtones.
An examination of his handwritten score indicates that Ludwig has no interest in microtones and a strong interest in fairly traditional harmonies and tonalities. On paper, the music looks rather melodious and brightly orchestrated. In conversation, he confirms that he is not exactly interested in "easy listening," but rather in sounds that communicate.
In the recent past, he says, too many composers have tried "to be original in terms of the external aspects of the music, the technique . . . I remember one piece, for instance, where you had five xylophonists banging away at fortissimo for 20 minutes. That sort of thing ended up turning the audience away from . . . the music." He also prefers music (and other art) that reflects an awareness of spiritual elements in the universe. "I think that people in the creative arts are . . . not turning back, but taking a different approach . . . It may sound crazy, but looking at the great artists of the past, I am impressed by the tremendous amount of suffering in their lives--whether it was Beethoven with his deafness or Shostakovich suffering under a regime which would not tolerate his full creative powers. This may be the dilemma of modern man; we have a comfortable way of life that has brought about a kind of deadening of the more acute senses required for creativity. You end up with people creating things that only reflect a shallow kind of brilliance, not something much deeper."
Tom Ludwig was introduced to music in Detroit, where his father (an amateur violinist) began teaching him to play polkas on the violin when he was 3 years old. "I used to love the violin," he recalls. "When my mother wanted to punish me for something, she would hide my violin." After private study in Detroit, he went to the Juilliard School in New York to study with Ivan Galamian when he was 18. "The trouble with conservatories," he believes now, "is that they teach a violinist only to be a star soloist. If you're not a Heifetz, you don't exist." Perhaps that training explains why he became restless as an orchestral violinist--one of a crowd. He moved out of the crowd while still in his teens, becoming first a concertmaster and later a conductor with several touring ballet companies before trying his hand at composition.
Considering the odds against young orchestral composers, chances are that Ludwig will remain busy at one or more of these occupations even after his First Symphony bursts upon the world tomorrow--and he is keeping his carpentry tools in good working condition.