The power of simplicity: Lang’s ‘the little match girl passion’

I would guess that more people can recite the Cinderella story than can outline War and Peace.  The latter endures in part because of its complexity, but simplicity tends to have a longer shelf life.  The little match girl passion (2007) by David Lang is a retelling of the classic children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen for four singers who also play percussion, which harnesses the immortal power of straightforward storytelling.  It goes down easy, but like the most enduring folk and fairy tales, it is not soon shaken off.

Surely this simplicity, which is emblematic of Lang’s eclectic output, has contributed to his standing as one of the foremost composers of our time.  His quasi-minimalist music seems to succeed everywhere.  Lang is frequently commissioned by major orchestras and distinguished virtuosos.  He has also gained acclaim for his film music, which recently included Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his work on Paolo Sorrentino’s tale of two aging artists, Youth (2015).

The little match girl passion won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music composition.  The prize-winning recording by the Danish vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices is also a triumph in itself.  A cappella choir music (of which the passion is mostly made up) can be tricky to get right.  With only one singer on each part, it is even more difficult to find unity in tone and tuning than it is with a larger ensemble.  The four-voice recording is a beautiful and lonesome rendering of the work.  Each singer teeters on the edge of individuality and anonymity as they move in and out of focus with one another.  It’s a powerful phenomenon, considering the unique interplay between hyper-focused action and larger consideration of the action’s consequences which are intrinsic to the passion as a genre.

Passions contain both storytelling and commentary.  Lang distinguishes these two modes musically.  The text of the story is delivered by the whole ensemble in short rising figures that halt abruptly.  The commentaries are interspersed between morsels of plot, which are ladled out sparingly.  The descriptions contain more diverse textural worlds: three-part perpetually-repeating counterpoint, pleading chorales tapped from Lang’s patron saint, J.S. Bach, and light percussion interludes recalling Buddhist temples.

As the night progresses the story’s vocal textures thicken.  Frequently this includes two people singing the same line at different tempos.  This obscures the text, but it also allows for the power of the child’s hallucinations to increase.  The darkest night gives way to the most brilliant visions as voices and rhythms are layered on more thickly.  The words are the most difficult to discern at the moment of the girl’s ascension, when she joins her beloved grandmother in heaven.

Lang’s own program notes for the little match girl passion are available on his website, where he writes that his aim is to bring together the opposing forces of suffering and hope.  This synthesis is most fully realized in the work’s eleventh section, “from the sixth hour.”  The little match girl speaks and the story is no longer just a recitation of events by an omniscient narrator.  Her only utterance is “eli”, which means “my God” in Hebrew (and is also the first word of Psalm 22).  The voices jump uncomfortably from low to high like arms reaching up from a hungry crowd.  They are unrelenting in their struggle.  Repetition here is difficult on the performers and the listeners, but it would be an utter waste for the voices to stop when they grow tired.  Lang gives space to meditate on how suffering and hope are necessarily intertwined.  To feel hope’s uplifting force there must be a problem from which we want to be raised out.  The voices pull down again after reaching their highest registers because if they remained on top, there would be no reason to sing.

The interplay of sound and silence is another conflict present, which Lang has spent his career reckoning with.  It haunts the little match girl, as well as his Yiddish choir piece i lie, and the thundering orchestra movement mountain.  It’s a game also waged by Sibelius in the final moments of his Symphony No. 5, by Cage (pretty much everywhere), and even by Bach in the St. Matthew Passion.  The silence pervading the little match girl honors the titular character’s struggle and exalts her absence.  The audience participates vicariously through the commentary.  It is chilling, then, when in the final measures chimes and drums replace the singers.  I can’t think of another piece that releases its audience of earthly toil so literally.

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About Lila Meretzky

Lila Meretzky is a composer from New York City, currently in her sophomore year at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music. She also studies German, and is president of the Blair Composers Forum. Her other musical pursuits include conducting, singing, and playing piano and oboe. Lila is a voracious reader, and once had to dump out an entire backpack full of books while going through security at LaGuardia Airport.