It was cold, terribly cold. Snow was falling, and the day was ending. A little, impoverished girl wandered through the streets in her bare feet, which were frozen red and blue. The little girl had a pair of slippers that once belonged to her mother, but she lost each of them while running across the street to avoid a collision with two carriages. She wore an old, raggedy apron and carried a bundle of matches. All through the day, she tried to sell matches in the streets with no success. If the little girl went home without selling any matches, her father would most certainly beat her. The little girl would go hungry and cold for another night.
She noticed the lights shining from every window, and she could smell a savory roast, for it was New Year’s Eve. The little girl took shelter in a small nook between two houses. As the little girl grew colder and colder, she lit a match to try and stay warm. After lighting the first match, she envisioned a large iron stove, and she stretched out her feet to warm them. The flame went out, and her vision vanished.
The little girl lit another match. Staring at the wall, she envisioned a room with a table and a white tablecloth. On this table was a complete holiday feast, with roast goose stuffed with apples and dried plums. The flame went out, and the cold, harsh wall reappeared.
The little girl lit another match. This time, she envisioned a beautiful Christmas tree. The flame went out, but the lights on the tree went so high that they looked like stars in the sky. Suddenly, the little girl saw a falling star, and she remembered her old grandmother, the only person who had ever loved her. The grandmother once told the little girl that every time a star falls, a soul was going to meet God.
The little girl lit a final match, and she envisioned her grandmother standing there glowing in light. She ran into her grandmother’s arms, and they both “flew upwards in brightness and joy far above the earth, where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain, for they were with God.”
The next morning, the sun rose and warmed the little girl that was now frozen to death. Some noticed the little girl was holding a bundle of matches, and they assumed she tried to warm herself. “No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen…”
This is a detailed summary of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, which is one of the most beloved and tragic holiday tales. It was written in 1845, and in 2007, David Lang set it to music. Lang’s piece, The Little Match Girl Passion, is in a similar format to Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Lang was intrigued by how Andersen told the story as a parable, and how the suffering of the little girl is analogous to the suffering of Jesus. Certainly, after reading The Little Match Girl, Matthew 25: 31-46 might strike a nerve. Remember, the word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering.
Whether it is interpreted as a story about spiritual innocence, faith, or about the harsh reality of poverty, David Lang’s musical depiction is simply gorgeous. The work is scored for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and percussion. Lang beautifully merges the narration with the music. Just as punctuation marks such as commas, semicolons, question marks, and periods dictate how a phrase or sentence should be narrated, Lang uses the decay of sound as a measuring tool to dictate a rhythmic pulse and phrase structure.
To say Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion was well received would be an understatement. In 2008, it received the Pulitzer Prize in music, and in 2010, the recording of The Little Match Girl Passion by the ensemble, Theatre of Voices, received a Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance. A work of this magnitude deserves every honor it receives; Lang added another masterwork to Western music’s repertoire. The Grammy Award winning recording of the penultimate piece of this work, In the Dawn of Morning, is included with this article. In the Dawn of Morning narrates the final lines of the story, when the sun rises and warms the frozen girl who had suffered for the last time.
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