Monday, October 31, 2011

It was so dreadfully cold - the puzzling Little Match Girl Passion

This post is holiday-inappropriate.

It was so dreadfully cold.  It was snowing, and the evening was beginning to grow dark.  It was also the last evening of the year – New Year’s Eve.  In this cold and in this darkness a poor little girl was walking in the street, bareheaded and barefooted.

So begins Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as translated by Reginald Spink in the attractive Everyman’s Library edition.  I have not been reading Andersen lately, but rather listening to a peculiar oratorio, The Little Match Girl Passion (2007) by David Lang.  The 35-minute piece, written for four voices and a smattering of percussion, intermingles the thousand-word text of the Andersen story with fragments of the text of Johannes Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (1727).

The Andersen story carries a weight of Christian symbolism, although as soon as I try to be specific I become muddled.  The indifference of passersby, the cruelty of her father, and the transcendent promise of Heaven as personified by a hallucination of her Granny leads to the death by freezing of the little match girl.

Granny had never before been so beautiful and so big.  Lifting the little girl on to her arm, she flew with her in radiance and glory so high, so very, very high.  And there was no cold, no hunger, no fear: they were with God.

Come to think of it, this story is terrifying - forget what I said about its appropriateness for Halloween.  Still, the direct identification of the match girl with Christ puzzles me.  Lang’s most audacious stroke – the most audacious I could understand – is a little switch in Matthew 26:46 (King James version, which is not what Lang uses):

And about the ninth hour she cried with a loud voice, saying Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?  That is to say, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?

“She” of course replaces “Jesus.”  If there is anything the little match girl does not do, it is loudly cry out.  So, I get it and I don’t.

Although the text of The Little Match Girl Passion is organized along the lines of the St. Matthew’s Passion, the music is another thing entirely.  It is minimalist and subdued, quiet yet bracing.  Short musical phrases repeat and shift.  The effect Lang achieves, as is often the case with contemporary composers of choral music, resembles “early music” – plainchant or madrigals – far more than Bach’s powerful masses of sound.  As is often the case with me, I understood none of the words without consulting the underlying texts, so I mostly listen to the oratorio to enjoy the singing.  Listeners with an allergy to minimalism will, I do not doubt, find The Little Match Girl to be exceedingly tedious.

I have been listening to the 2009 Harmonia Mundi recording of Paul Hillier, who commissioned the piece, conducting the Theatre of Voices.  I can point the curious to YouTube samples:  the Theatre of Voice perform the beginning here (skip the first minute and a half), and an excerpt from the middle, including the bit from Matthew, is here.  Finally, this is David Lang failing to answer my question.


  1. I think it's very seasonally appropriate. Andersen's theology is warped enough to creep me out any day of the week.

    That said, Lang's project sounds interesting. I'm generally a fan of minimalist choral pieces.

  2. I didn't know anything about minimalist music, so thanks for the little performances. I might like to hear the whole thing some time, like you just enjoying the singing. Andersen's story reminds me of Dostoevsky's "The Little Orphan," Must have been a popular 19th century theme.

  3. Emily, Halloween stories are not supposed to be so sad, are they? So bone-chillingly sad.

    If you have any taste for this type of choral music, you should enjoy this oratorio, a lot maybe. I'm just not sure the concept has much meaning. It successfully simulates meaning, though.

    It won the Pulitzer prize for composition! I forgot to mention that, and have no idea what that means.

    Thanks, Julia, for the link to the Dostoevsky story. I had never heard of it - it's more or less a rewrite or expansion of Andersen. "It is the Christmas tree at Jesus's."