THE PIECE: the little match girl passion, David Lang (1957-)
WHERE TO FIND IT: Since this is a relatively new composition, only one commercial recording has so far been produced; it can be purchased on both iTunes and Amazon.com. Full album information appears at the end of this review.
Current and future college students of the world, here’s a piece of valuable advice: one major perk of university life, one that almost no one ever mentions, is the superabundance of free live music on campus. Whatever school you end up attending, make sure you get on the email list for the music department’s calendar of events—you’ll be amazed at the number of performances your fellow students are putting on every day. It’s like being set loose in a candy shop with a $500 gift card, except you can gorge yourself on music indefinitely without rotting your teeth. (Live concerts promote dental hygiene. You heard it here first!)
Confectionary metaphors aside, listening to lots of live music enriches life in many ways, one of which is that concertgoing is among the best means of discovering pieces you’ve never heard before. As you may already have guessed, the piece I’m reviewing here, David Lang’s the little match girl passion (missing capitalization intentional), is one I discovered via a live performance here on my own grad-school campus. Moreover, I would almost surely have overlooked it had I encountered it in any other forum, and worse yet, the main reason I would have passed it over is a particularly shortsighted and stupid one: it was composed in the 21st century.
(Though I am well aware that lots of wonderful stuff has been composed in the past hundred years, I must admit to being somewhat prejudiced against 20th and 21st century music because much of it just isn’t to my taste. In one sense, that’s OK—everyone has tastes—but it becomes a problem when it prevents me from engaging with good music because I’m inclined to dismiss it right out of the starting gate.)
As such, the experience of discovering the little match girl passion, a contemporary work of considerable power and beauty, provided a valuable window on an artistic idiom different from my usual preferences but no less excellent—and unless you’re a big fan of musical postminimalism, dear readers, much of what I discovered may be new to you too.
A bit of background on the piece and composer: the little match girl passion (hereafter abbreviated as TLMGP) debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2007 and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music; the Pulitzer win and subsequent near-universal critical acclaim have catapulted both the piece and its author, David Lang, into the contemporary-classical spotlight.
Prior to the success of TLMGP, Lang had been considered something of a “wild child” in the classical music world; his work had a reputation for being challenging, experimental, and nonconformist. (He co-founded an influential new music collective, “Bang on a Can,” in an effort to provide a creative home for other composers who found themselves at odds with the prevailing trends of the day.) TLMGP’s reception, however, has largely rewritten Lang’s legacy; as The New Yorker wrote, “With his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for the little match girl passion (one of the most original and moving scores of recent years), Lang, once a postminimalist enfant terrible, has solidified his standing as an American master”—which is pretty much just a fancy way of saying that “the establishment” is now taking him much more seriously as a composer.
Lang’s response to the Pulitzer win in an Austin Chronicle interview, on the other hand, brings a smile to my face: “[A]ll of a sudden I'm a respectable member of [musical] society, and, you know, nothing irritates me more. I always imagined myself as a risky choice, so now I have to figure out how to make sure that the risk stays in the music.”
The New Yorker classifies Lang above as a postminimalist, a term I adopt here with the caveat that no composer can really be neatly fit into such broad categories. Most likely you are familiar with manifestations of minimalism in some branch of the arts; Frank Stella in painting, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in architecture, Lucinda Childs in dance, and Philip Glass in music are iconic names associated with the minimalist movement. The “post” in postminimalism can be a little misleading; while it might seem to suggest a reaction against minimalism, it actually carries the connotation of seeking to build on minimalism’s foundations and push ahead to whatever may come next. Where minimalism is concerned primarily (though this is, again, a necessary overgeneralization) with stripping art down to its most fundamental elements, postminimalism, especially in music, tends to be less tightly structured and formalized—a little more experimental, a dash more expressive, and, at least in Lang’s case, a somewhat more forceful challenge to the listener.
This brings us straight to the little match girl passion, which is an extremely expressive work both in its musical language and its narrative storytelling (and is a significant challenge to boot). The story itself is an almost word-for-word retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” which is one of those terribly depressing Andersen fairy tales in which the heroine—you’ll forgive me for spoiling the ending, but the fact that Lang wrote a Passion about her is a pretty solid giveaway—slowly freezes to death in the street on a winter night (but not before experiencing a series of beautiful visions, during the last of which her dead grandmother comes and carries her up to Heaven).
What makes Lang’s concept so interesting, however, is that he picks up on theological undertones in Andersen’s work and understands the Little Match Girl as a Christ figure, an innocent who suffers a painful and seemingly senseless death, abandoned and betrayed by the world but ultimately received into God’s care. As the title denotes, Lang therefore construes Andersen’s fairy tale as a Passion narrative, a genre usually reserved for depicting the suffering of Christ (more specifically, the span of time between the Last Supper and His crucifixion).
Most interestingly, the primary way in which Lang communicates this Passion theme is actually not through the little match girl passion’s lyrics, but through the music itself. TLMGP follows, fairly precisely, the format of J.S. Bach’s famous St. Matthew Passion, one of the most revered choral works of all time, and so the listener comes to understand the narrative similarities between Christ and the Little Match Girl through the musical language of the piece. For listeners who are already familiar with the St. Matthew Passion, the explicit allusions in TLMGP do much of the work, but Lang understood that Bach had produced a musical idiom in the St. Matthew Passion that would powerfully communicate the nature of a Passion story to even the most ignorant of listeners.
In Bach’s work, as in Lang’s, narrative movements, which are basically recitations of the story at hand, are alternated with movements whose lyrics suggest the emotional response on the part of the listening audience. The narrative movements are generally sung by individual singers in the form of arias, while the responsive movements are sung by the entire choir, generating a powerful dynamic tension between the story and its impact that plays out in “real time.”
Thus, in TLMGP, the first movement, “Come, daughter,” sets the emotive and thematic stage for the story to come; Movement 2, “It was terribly cold,” tells the first piece of the Match Girl’s story, and is followed by Movement 3’s departure from the narrative to ask, “Dearest heart, why is your sentence so hard?” As this storytelling pattern repeats throughout the piece, the audience, through the chorus, confronts its own response to the terrible sufferings of the Little Match Girl, moving from bewilderment to shame, guilt, pleas for mercy, and heartfelt, almost primal cries to God—Movement 11, “From the sixth hour,” has the chorus repeating only the word “Eli,” the Aramaic for “God,” as called out by Christ upon the cross in Matthew 27:46. Perhaps most poignantly, in Movement 13, which inhabits the space between the Match Girl’s assumption and the discovery of her corpse the next morning, the chorus faces its own mortality and pleads, “When it is time for me leave, don’t leave me,” in a phrase taken almost verbatim from St. Matthew Passion Nr. 62.
(For an illuminating experience, find the English translation of Bach’s lyrics and compare them to Lang’s.)
While drawing extensively on the richness of Andersen and Bach, Lang does nonetheless succeed in bringing his own unique voice to the forefront of the composition. His spare, almost Gregorian harmonies are expressed in complex yet repetitive rhythmic patterns; at times, the effect is profoundly chant-like and the music takes on an almost liturgical cast. Tension builds in dissonant intervals and offbeat rhythms, then resolves in moments of consonance or even silence. Sometimes Lang paints quite vividly with rhythm, as when a single stuttering voice evokes chattering teeth or heavy drumbeats suggest the trudging of feet through the snow, and sometimes he lets the notes do most of the talking, as in the interrogative rise and fall of voices throughout “From the sixth hour.” He also makes very creative use of sustained notes, especially in the storytelling movements, an aspect of TLMGP which I confess I have almost no idea how to interpret; please leave comments if you come up with any interesting suggestions.
There is, in short, much to study and much to admire in TLMGP; it is complex and thoughtful, moving and unusual, and a challenge well worth engaging.
It is, however, not likely to be everyone’s cup of tea. Postminimalist works are very different from most of the “classical” music to which we are accustomed and many people initially dislike the genre for a variety of reasons.
First of all, it doesn’t register high on the “hummability” scale—you might leave a Beethoven concert humming a tune from a favorite movement, but that isn’t likely to happen to you as you listen to TLMGP. This music is meant to be a challenge, the risk of which is that you the listener may ultimately find it too off-putting or just plain strange.
Secondly, like much of contemporary art, postminimalist music is open to the critique of being conceptually interesting—as auditory philosophy, if you will—but not necessarily beautiful or even musical. (This opens up a massive can of worms around definitions of music and beauty, which I will cheerfully leave you to sort through on your own time.)
Thirdly, a friend of a friend recently gave a trenchant criticism of postminimalist music that may be worth sharing here: “Repeating something a hundred times doesn’t make it profound.” Many minimalist and postmimimalist pieces get a lot of mileage out of repeating tonal and rhythmic patterns, sometimes far past the listener’s comfort level; does this “work” as a musical strategy? What, if anything, does it communicate?
And finally, a concern specific to more-conservative Christian audiences: the explicit Jesus references applied to someone who isn’t Jesus may be uncomfortable for you. (In particular, the opening sentences of “From the sixth hour” effectively substitute the Match Girl directly into Jesus’ Passion narrative—it is she who cries out after the earthly silence from the sixth to the ninth hour.) Is the little match girl passion disrespectful or even sacrilegious? “Christ figures” in the arts are extraordinarily common, but is it problematic to substitute another person so directly into the Christian Passion narrative?
Of course, my current position on the above questions is that TLMGP is neither sacrilegious nor disrespectful—otherwise I probably wouldn’t be recommending it to you—but I’m very open to (and hopeful for) a thoughtful discussion in the comments to this post after you’ve had a chance to listen to the piece. And so, to wrap up, a few suggestions for that listening process:
- Set aside the time to listen to the whole thing all in one go; some longer works can be divided into multiple listening sessions, but this one is best served by being experienced in its entirety.
- Bear in mind that while the rhythms and notes may sound haphazardly placed if you’re not used to contemporary classical music, TLMGP is actually very carefully structured. Try to follow the structure and (especially) notice places where it seems to change or where a voice deviates from the established pattern—these are particularly communicative moments for Lang.
- If you have time, listen once just to take it all in; then listen a second time and ask questions of the piece as you go.
- In the same vein, if you’re familiar with Dr. Fred Sanders’s “Eight Things To Do in Front of a Painting”, apply #5: Give Up Your Eyes (or in this case, Give Up Your Ears). Trust Lang’s musical vision and see where it takes you.
- Be patient. Even if you’re not at all used to this kind of music, I think you’ll find it grows on you.
- Listen with a friend, a sibling, or a parent—someone else who is interested in the piece and will be eager to talk with you about it afterward. (Bonus points if you can make it someone with more musical knowledge than you.)
When you’re ready to talk about it, here are some discussion questions to get you started:
…..Now that you’ve actually listened to it in addition to reading about it, what do you think of postminimalism? What do you like or dislike about it?
…..Which movements of TLMGP do you prefer, the even-numbered storytelling movements or the odd-numbered reflective movements? Why?
…..How do you feel about the piece’s repetitiveness? Does it “work for you?” Do you have an opinion on whether or not it “works” in an objective sense?
…..Do you find the more explicit allusions to the Christ narrative to be evocative or disturbing? (Or some of both, or something else altogether?) Why?
…..If you have any familiarity with Bach at all—and most of us have more than we suspect—how is Lang’s work similar to Bach’s? Different from it?
…..How is Lang similar to or different from your favorite composers and genres?
…..Just for fun: What is beauty? What is music? J
Happy listening and happy discussing!
[Lang, David, composer; Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen, performers; Paul Hillier, conductor. the little match girl passion. New York: Harmonia Mundi, 2009. CDs available for purchase on Amazon.com; digital tracks available for download on Amazon.com and iTunes.]
by Naomi Geier - November 2010