‘the little match girl passion’ version for chorus receives German premiere

September 12, 2012

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Click to watch Paul Hillier conduct the little match girl passion (chamber version)

On Saturday September 15, Paul Hillier and Rundfunkchor Berlin give the German premiere of David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, the little match girl passion in its arrangement for full chorus.

the little match girl passion, the winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music is a 35-minute work for a quartet of singers each playing percussion instruments, co-commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation and The Perth Theater and Concert Hall. ‘match girl’ was premiered by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices on October 25, 2007 at Carnegie Hall. The version for chorus was commissioned and premiered by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland, Paul Hillier conducting.

Lang was drawn to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Little Match Girl because of its religious subtext — he saw a parallel to the Passion of Christ in the story: a girl, whose “poverty is suffused with hopefulness,” is ignored by passersby oblivious both to her attempts to sell matchsticks and to her suffering as she ultimately freezes to death in their presence.

In the tale, Lang suggests, Andersen draws a “religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” For Lang and other Jewish classical musicians, the Western vocal tradition of Christian music presents a dilemma they must confront. In the little match girl passion, Lang hoped he could turn that dilemma to his advantage. Using the format of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Lang combined the Andersen tale with his own text and text from both the Book of Matthew and Bach’s Passion — replacing the story of Jesus with that of the Match Girl. In his notes on the work, Lang explains, “There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus — rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”

The commercial recording of the little match girl passion, released on Harmonia Mundi, received the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance.