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Winter Trees

Program Notes

It is perhaps surprising that so few composers have set the poems of William Carlos Williams, one of the most influential and well-known poets of the 20th Century, to music. The reason may lie within Williams’ poems themselves; the particular and remarkable mixture of subject, imagery, and metre that marks a poem by William Carlos Williams is immediately identifiable, presenting several specific challenges to any composer who approaches them.

A typical method of verse-setting will not meet the challenge of Williams’ unique patterns based on American speech mannerisms. This new collection of songs composed by Christopher Ludwig meets the challenge presented by William Carlos Williams with sensitivity and skill. Begun as a project to set the twelve poems that make up Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning posthumous Pictures from Brueghel, the completed endeavor is both far-reaching and expansive, comprising 56 poems. In the words of the composer, there were “numerous other William Carlos Williams poems that cried out to be set.”

Setting such writing to music is a significant challenge to a composer. Williams’ poems often contain potent imagery that is strongly suggestive of a musical context. However, the irregular patterns, unusual syllabic rhythms, and uneven line lengths make an approach based on “verse writing” to be almost unworkable. The usual musical techniques of repetition and structure do not readily apply to most of Williams’ poems. Composer Christopher Ludwig surmounts these problems by creating a mood for each song through the piano writing, while the vocal melody is more often reminiscent of speech than singing. Structure and musical coherence is maintained by repetitive elements and short, almost ornamental motifs. The result is an effective blend of musical expression with vocal phrasing that is, to quote Pound’s dictum, “swift, uncluttered and functional.” 

Considering the sheer volume of Williams’ life work (48 published books of poetry and prose), the challenge offered by such a collection is often one of discretion – what should be included, and what left out. This new offering of songs set to William Carlos Williams’ poetry presents a broad and representative survey of the breadth of Williams’ art. It is an ambitious project, to be sure, but also a welcome addition to modern song-setting that will no doubt bring a new audience to William Carlos Williams’ remarkable poetic legacy. 

©2013 by Brian Mix

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© 2017 Chris Ludwig