From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (2008) for l'Histoire ensemble - 15' (Fitzgerald/Khayyam)
-Soprano, cl, bsn, tpt, tbn, vln, cb, perc
-Commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music for Curtis on Tour
From the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (2008)
I. Secrets of Creation
II. Turning of Time
III. Labor of Life
IV. Floating Particles
V. Carpe Diem
A few years ago I chanced upon some quotes my friend Sara Goudarzi had on her website that really moved me. Perhaps I had recognized them unconsciously, because they were quatrains by the great Persian poet Omar Khayyám, and I had been spending the year deeply immersed in the music of Central Asia. The quatrains themselves were translated—quite loosely, as it turns out—by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald, who published the famous Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Like many good translations, Fitzgerald’s work is poetry in itself, and, if it perhaps does not catch the letter, I think it catches the spirit of Khayyám.
I knew then that I wanted to someday set the poetry for songs when I next had the right opportunity, which finally happened four years later with the commission to write a piece for Curtis on Tour. I asked Ms. Goudarzi, to select Khayyám’s quatrains into a collection that I could set for a song cycle. Goudarzi, who is an accomplished writer, and reciter of Persian poetry, herself, wrote the following about Khayyám:
“Omar Khayyám was an 11th/12th century Persian poet, mathematician, philosopher and astronomer. During his lifetime, he was mostly known for his math and astronomy work. Posthumously, he’s mainly recognized for his Ruba’iyat or quatrains. A Ruba’i is a two line stanzas of Persian poetry. Each line is divided into two, making up a four-lined poem, the first, second and fourth line of which rhyme. More than 1,000 quatrains have been attributed to Khayyám but according to one of the most authoritative editions, edited by Persian prose writer Sadegh Hedayat,only 143 are authentic. In these poems, Khayyám subscribes to nihilism, materialism and living in the moment.”
I was drawn to the idea of writing a piece that could use sounds and a musical language drawn from traditional Persian classical music, but that could be woven into contemporary writing for Western instruments and both classical and popular song. The fifteen selected quatrains form a continuous set that describes the passage of a life and the changing nature of our outlook over time; with moments of sadness and joy along the way.
“David Ludwig is only the latest composer to set loose this puzzle on audiences, as he did Wednesday night in the premiere of his soulful new set of songs, From the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The piece is in every way well-crafted, and yet that only begins to describe how wonderfully satisfying it is.
The Ludwig songs, commissioned for this tour, are a great calling card not only because they are a workout for the instrumentalists and fine mezzo Allison Sanders, but also because Ludwig speaks both to the school’s history (his grandfather was Rudolf Serkin, pianist and onetime Curtis director) and, as a member of the school’s composition faculty, to its current stock of talent.
In both rhythm and harmony, Ludwig references the Middle East, but subtly. These Persian poems were popularized in the West by Edward Fitzgerald, whose “transmogrification” captured a mid-19th-century taste for the exotic with fantastical editions in gold-stamped leather bindings. Ludwig is more restrained than many of the work’s illustrators. The chamber-ensemble part – scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet in C, trombone, violin, double bass, and percussion – favors spareness with exposed gestures like a lovely and mysterious upward lick for clarinet and an astringent bass solo. There are some quarter tones, whose grating tension a lesser ensemble would not be able to make obvious.
A moving bit of theater, both visually and aurally, comes at the end of the piece when some of the instrumentalists strike variously pitched crotales, the antique cymbal brought to wide attention by Debussy at the end of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The delicate punctuation arrives as the mezzo sings: One thing is certain, that Life flies/ One thing is certain and the Rest is Lies/The Flower that once has blown forever dies. Those listeners who come for the piece will hear a composer with something urgent to say.”A moving bit of theater, both visually and aurally, comes at the end of the piece when some of the instrumentalists strike variously pitched crotales, the antique cymbal brought to wide attention by Debussy at the end of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The delicate punctuation arrives as the mezzo sings: One thing is certain, that Life flies/ One thing is certain and the Rest is Lies/The Flower that once has blown forever dies. Those listeners who come for the piece will hear a composer with something urgent to say.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
“Set to fifteen of Khayyam’s quatrains, Ludwig has cast the Persian poetry into a cycle of five songs for mezzo-soprano and Soldat chamber ensemble, which forms an arc roughly reflecting the life cycle. Alternately acerbic and mystical, Ludwig’s music fits Edward Fitzgerald’s precise, graceful translations, like a well-tailored glove. The five settings are gratefully written for voice, and the scoring is brash, piquant, edgy and mercurial as the poetry requires.” –The Miami Herald
“Written especially for the tour, Ludwig’s “From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” for mezzo-soprano and the same instrumental ensemble that Stravinsky used in “Soldier’s Tale,” sets texts by the famous 11th and 12th century Persian poet. Ludwig’s music is both accessible and sophisticated, painting words and moods with touches of Persian folk music and funky grooves and instrumental sound effects.” –The Orange County Register
“The superb program consisted of two pieces: one very familiar — Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” — and one new — David Ludwig’s song cycle “From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” Ludwig is on the composition faculty of Curtis. His cycle for mezzo-soprano and small wind ensemble manages to be poignant and lyrical, with minimalist ideas scattered here and there. It suggests a world beyond the West without dwelling on it. The soloist, Allison Sanders, from Memphis, was terrific, both in the scale of her voice and the way she colored and shaded her phrases.
The Stravinsky was given its full resonance, especially with Ludwig acting as the narrator — in a splendid performance –Seattle Post-Intelligencer