In 2008, David Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for the little match girl passion, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen. A contemporary take on the centuries-old musical form of the Passion (a musical account of Christ’s last days), the piece is gaining popularity as a new Christmas classic alongside traditional holiday favorites like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Vistors.
The story of the little match girl is incredibly gripping and emotional, and Lang’s music not only matches that, but seems to enhance this aspect. Author and former Washington Post music critic Tim Page said, “With all due respect to the hundreds of distinguished pieces I’ve listened to as a Pulitzer juror, I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new, and largely unheralded, composition as I was by David Lang’s little match girl passion, which is unlike any music I know.”
The piece was commissioned by Carnegie Hall especially for the vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices and its director, Paul Hillier. Scored for either solo voices or chorus with a few percussion instruments played by the singers, the piece tells the secular tale of a little girl who freezes to death selling matches on the street. “Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable,” Lang says, “drawing on a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. I thought maybe I could take the story of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and take Jesus out, and plug this little girl’s suffering in.”
In response to a recent performance of the piece presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, Tim Smith of The Baltimore Sun wrote, “this score does what great works of art always do — it takes you outside of yourself into another place and brings you back to yourself, changed in some way. The only disappointment, given the roughly 40-minute duration of the composition, was that it didn’t get performed twice. I’m sure the sold-out crowd would have gladly stayed for a complete encore.”
Visit the little match girl passion page and listen to an audio clip of the piece.