Three Things to Listen for in The Little Match Girl Passion
Since the little match girl passion world premier by Theater of Voices in 2007, David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece has been performed over 400 times in 35 countries. Opera companies have staged it; leading ballet companies have choreographed it, and it now receives annual Christmas performances at the Met museum in NYC in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. This piece has captured the hearts of musicians and their audiences every year since its composition.
There is incredible complexity in the carefully crafted minimalist score. Here are just three of the many significant ways in which this piece accomplishes the depth of storytelling that has stunned and affected listeners.
1. The passion structure and clear parallel to the death of Jesus Christ in the text - written by Lang after Hans Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli, Picander, and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Lang saw the opportunity to take the structure of a passion - a form typically used for the telling of the death of Christ - and apply it to the death of an innocent that audiences could empathize with outside the bounds of a particular religion. The text of each movement alternates between emotionally removed narrative - usually delivered by the altos - and heart-rending reflection. Lang adds biblical references to the narrative movements that elevate the suffering of the little match girl to a spiritual plane while the reflective movements, like the chorales in a passion, keep the piece deeply human.
2. The use of silence throughout the work. The musical phrases of this work happen in segments that either fade in and out of silence or abruptly stop and start. In the narrative movements, shocking in their lack of emotion, the choir delivers the tale like a reporter barking in punctuated segments. But even as these movements are distinctly unemotional, moments of abrupt silence allow the weight of the narrative to hang echoing in the air. Alternately, the penitential, reflective movements have moments of silence that - like a confessors prayer - hover heavy with introspection. These moments of silence and the hollow harmonies have the effect of creating a space with sound rather than filling space.
3. For the music nerds, the parallels to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The first movement, like St Matthew Passion, is in 12/8, and the text is nearly identical: Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen, and in Little Match Girl, Come daughter, help me cry. A grieving call to repentance. Or in another movement of Little Match Girl we ask “Dearest Heart, what have you done that was so wrong?” parallel to the chorale “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen.” Throughout the work, the reflective movements act as chorales commenting and responding to the narrative action, and the text often mirrors or directly quotes the language used in certain St Matthew Passion chorales. I urge the music-analysis-inclined among our audience members to do a deep dive into the parallels between the two works; it is fascinating.
This weekend, Verdigris Ensemble and Avant Chamber Ballet join forces to bring this work to life with original choreography by Katie Cooper. Read the blog post about our collaboration with them. With an article written by the Dallas Morning News, NBCDFW, and a live news feature coming up soon, this collaboration has caught the attention of the city. You don’t want to miss this deeply significant work. Buy your tickets here.