David Lang’s postmodern passion: “It is not a pretty story”


Just in time for Christmas (Photo: Peter Serling)

I’m not always au courant with the latest musical offerings —  so I missed David Lang‘s Little Match Girl Passion when it won the Pulitzer in 2008.  Only when I interviewed and wrote about Lang did I familiarize myself with this stunning composition.  A friend of mine, Tim Page of the Washington Post‘s said of it, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new … composition” and that it was “unlike any music I know.” It’s in keeping with the darker side of the season, a postmodern take on the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired it.

“It is not a pretty story,” says Lang, who wrote the text.  True. It’s always surprised me that the tale — all of two-and-a-half pages in my 1906 edition published by J.M. Dent & Co. in London — is viewed as something to be read to children.  Lang rightly observes that “it has that shocking combination of danger and morality that many famous children’s stories do.”  And in Lang’s sensitive hands, the story comes shockingly alive once again: a poor young girl tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on New Year’s Eve, fears returning to the impoverished home where she is beaten by her father, and freezes to death while having visions of her grandmother, “the only person who had ever been kind to her,” as Andersen explains in the story.

Knew poverty from the inside out

“Through it all she somehow retains her Christian purity of spirit,” Lang writes.  You can hear the whole Passion on Lang’s website, here.

Andersen knew what he was talking about: “When Hans Christian Andersen was a child, he was almost as poor as the ‘little match-seller’ in one of his own tales,” Ernest Rhys writes in an editor’s note to my edition.  He “almost starved” as a teenager in Copenhagen, and his early poem “The Dying Child” earned him lasting fame.

Lang writes in the notes that accompany the CD, “What drew me to ‘The Little Match Girl’ is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.”

In other words, Andersen’s work demands a return to radical innocence.  That dark insistence is at the heart of this short, incomprehensible work.   Other Industrial Revolution writers – William Blake in his poems,  Charles Dickens in his stories – would have understood.  Without it, the story is mere pathos and sentimentality. Radical innocence is a to-the-death imperative,  as Andersen knew, as Blake knew.  (That tenacious survivor, Czesław Miłosz, tries to recover it in “The World” cycle of poems. Clearly, it was the Eden he longed to return to.)

“A Passion,” of course, is about suffering — typically, the passion not only tells the story, but also comments upon it, giving the tale a “powerful inevitability,” said Lang.   It also includes texts from other sources to tell its story (Lang borrows from Genesis, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes). It embraces different p.o.v.s — the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock, or remorse, as well as other texts altogether.  These tools place us in the middle of the action, rather than allowing us the emotional as well as temporal distance of bystanders.

Lang modeled his own Passion on Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion — “what has always interested me, however, is that Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus.”

Merry Christmas to all.

(Listen, at least, to the opening “Come, Daughter” piece here.)

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3 Responses to “David Lang’s postmodern passion: “It is not a pretty story””

  1. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    Come, Daughter, is very moving. Visions of a poor child freezing to death now dance in my head.

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