David Lang: the little match girl passion

The Little Match Girl Passion
March 12, 2022, 8:00 pm
Church of the Covenant

67 Newbury Street
​Boston, MA 02116

Church of the Covenant Website
Map • Phone: 617-266-7480

Two years ago, Chorus pro Musica was eagerly about to perform the Boston premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields with Bang On a Can All-Stars. This uniquely rhythmic, thrilling piece won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 and a place in Chorus pro Musica’s heart and history books. Alas, the concert was just one more casualty of the onset of COVID-19.

But our attachment to this style of music has stayed strong, and this coming March we are proud to present—live and in person—David Lang’s the little match girl passion and other pieces. Along with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, Lang was an original member of Bang on a Can, and the similarities between the two works are striking. With repeated phrases, unpredictable rhythms, and percussive vocals and accompaniment, Lang’s own Pulitzer Prize winner (2007) tells another poignant story.

the little match girl passion retells Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about an impoverished child selling matches on the street one cold winter night who is brought to heaven by her beloved grandmother. Its form mirrors that of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, setting a simplistic storyline and text in a complex choral work. These components, under the influence of Lang’s eclectic and spooky music, are transformed into something completely new and riveting.

To complement the wintry atmospherics of the little match girl passion, our other pieces allude to the sky and the elements. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s eerie Sea Drift takes place in the “night and wind and thunder”; with autumn rains Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow, Psalm 84, intones the yearning of the homeless and refugees; and, in a sunny reprise from our June 2021 Driveway Choir concert, Shawn Kirchner’s incomparable Unclouded Day sees “far beyond the skies.” These works all center on a common theme of home. As Chorus pro Musica sings of “dwelling places”—whether occupied, dispossessed, or longed for–we hold in our hearts everyone whose home is not available or safe, all those who face dark skies and storms.

This concert will be FREE with a suggested donation of $25.

COVID Protocols

For the safety of the performers and audience members, all audience members ages 5 and over are required to show proof of full vaccination prior to entry, and are required to wear a mask AT ALL TIMES while in and near the building. Full vaccination means you have completed the full course of shots, including boosters, at least two weeks prior to the date of the performance you’re attending. For proof of vaccination, audience members may present their vaccination card or a photo of the card. Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is asked to please stay home to avoid potential spread.

We regret that children ages 4 and under are not currently permitted to attend.

All singers, staff, soloists, and players associated with Chorus pro Musica have been verified vaccinated and have remained masked for all rehearsals and concerts.

Music entertains and uplifts, but it is also a powerful tool for storytelling. And like life itself, often the most powerful stories are not cheerful. How do we choose what music to perform? Rehearsing the little match girl passion and other pieces, with their longing for places of safety and rest, members of Chorus pro Musica have been particularly moved. Especially during the pandemic when home life has been even more critical.

DR. PAUL FARMER (1959-2022)
Photo by John Ra / Partners In Health

We will be donating a portion of our proceeds from our March concert to Partners in Health to honor the memory of Dr. Paul Farmer who passed away on February 20th. The themes of being out in the cold, alone, and unhoused and of finding light in the darkness reflect the challenges of the extraordinary work that Paul Farmer and his colleagues have been doing for decades. We trust that our contribution will help support their humanitarian efforts to bring dignity, healthcare, and accompaniment to underserved and threatened populations across the globe. Together, we imagine a better world in which someone would lend a hand to the little match girl and where the swallow would build her nest. 

Read more about Partners in Health on their website and donate directly to them here.

Caroline Shaw: and the swallow

Caroline Shaw is an astonishingly versatile performer and composer who burst onto the public stage in 2012 with her Partita For 8 Voices, written for her vocal group, A Roomful of Teeth.  Its expanded repertoire of extended vocal techniques and the sheer unadulterated joy led to her being the youngest composer ever to secure a Pulitzer Prize for music.   It also led to a series of fertile collaborations across musical genres with performers as disparate as the Mark Morris Dance Company, the Trinity Wall St. Choir, Kanye West, and YoYo Ma.

“And the swallow…”, first performed in 2017, is a setting of a fragment of Psalm 84.   This psalm has been set to music by composers from Heinrich Schutz to Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Johann Sebastian Bach.  But it is best known, and loved by choral singers, as the central chorus in the Brahms German Requiem, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” to which the adjective “comforting,” is almost inevitably applied.  But comfort does not come so easily in Shaw’s heart-rending composition. In an interview she said that she was thinking about the Syrian civil war that resulted in the massive displacement of the Syrian people and the meaning of home, the dwelling place.

The piece begins with soothing homophonic chanting by the entire choir in a soft dynamic: “How Beloved Is Your Dwelling Place, O Lord.”  But when the line is repeated, some of the voices trail off, unfinished.  The line “my soul yearns and my heart and flesh cry” unravels, the text dissolving into wordless, rising and overlapping lines of sheer grief, spiked by the tritone, the diabolus in musica, in the high sopranos.  The peaceful major chord of the opening and homophonic structure return with the third line of the psalm: “the sparrow found a house and the swallow her nest”. But even the swallow doesn’t settle easily as the words “she may” circle over and over in the different voices before the tenors and basses intone “raise her young.”  The uncertainty of the quest for home in the midst of pain continues through duple and triple rhythms until they reach the valley of gentle rain.  The lowest voices in the choir then come back to the pedal tone of G flat and hold onto it firmly for 6 measures, letting us know that we are truly and firmly home.

Shawn Kirchner, arr: Unclouded Day

Unclouded Day is a song that was written by the circuit riding preacher, Josiah Allwood, 1879, when he was returning home on horseback and witnessed a rare celestial event, a nighttime rainbow caused by the moon shining through a break in an isolated large dark cloud in an otherwise perfect clear sky.  He wrote of his pleasure the next morning “to awake and look abroad and remember the night was to be filled with sweet melody.  A while at the organ brought forth a piece of music now known as The Unclouded Day.”

The song has been covered in many different styles including bluegrass, gospel and folk-rock.  Bob Dylan wrote of hearing the song sung by the Staple Singers that “it was the most mysterious thing I had ever heard.  It was like the fog rolling in…it just went through me like my body was invisible.”  In addition to the recording by the Staple Singers, it was released by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Brenda Lee and the Blind Boys of Alabama, among many others.  It was a favorite among traditional banjo pickers because its home key, G major, is the tuning of banjo strings.

Shawn Kirchner is a prolific Los Angeles based singer, songwriter and composer of extraordinary range.  In addition to arrangements, he has written original vocal pieces in classical, bluegrass, country, folk, gospel and jazz styles.   His arrangement of Unclouded Day is the finale of his song cycle Heavenly Home: Three American Songs.  He describes it as a straight-forward first verse and chorus [that] are followed by two verses in which traditional bluegrass vocal stylings combine with counterpoint and fugue in a crescendo of excitement that peaks in the roof-raising phrase ‘in the city that is made of gold.’

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor:  Sea Drift

Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875 in England and raised by his mother, Alice.  His father, a physician from Sierra Leone, had returned home without knowing of Alice’s pregnancy.  His best-known choral work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was premiered in 1898 and was outperformed in England during his life only by Messiah and Elijah.  After his untimely death from pneumonia at age 37, his works were largely forgotten.  In the 1990’s, William Thomas, the conductor of the Cambridge Community Chorus before Jamie Kirsch succeeded him, was a major force in the revival of Coleridge-Taylor’s work.  Thomas’s archival research led to the rediscovery and the American premieres of his opera, Dreamlovers, his piano quintet and his nonet. Thomas was also a cellist and founding member of the Coleridge Ensemble which released a world premiere CD of Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber works.

The poem, Seadrift, was written by the American poet, Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907,) who lived most of his formative years in Portsmouth, NH.  He eventually moved to New York where he became the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, but much of his work hearkens back to his youth on the rocky seacoast of New Hampshire, including many poems about the seductive and destructive powers of the sea and associated supernatural events. Seadrift is written in the form of a ballad quatrain (rhyme scheme of ABCB), with internal rhymes in each of the first lines of the stanzas, and frequent alliteration.

Coleridge-Taylor intensifies the already dense text of the poem by setting it for eight voices.  After the repeated injunction to “see” on long sustained notes, he evokes the wildness of the storm at sea with rapid, often dotted, tempi, with unexpected triplets thrown in, and emphasis on the rhyming and alliterated consonants. The soft dynamic of the “see” at the outset moves quickly to the loud and anxious question: “what does she there in the lightning’s glare?”   The wild ride does not slow down until close to the end when the tempo is slowed by longer note values, a shift to ¾ time, homophonic motion of all the voices, long pauses, pianissimo volume and finally the querulous last line, marked morendo, “what if it were her lover?”

David Lang: the little match girl passion

David Lang was one of three composers who formed the collaborative Bang on a Can, in 1987.  Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon stated that “refining rebellion with discipline is an important idea for our time and the kind of idea we like at Bang on a Can.”  They resisted being characterized as esoteric, minimalist, post-modern or belonging to any brand of contemporary music and have worked hard to develop a broad, diverse, and enthusiastic audience.  Lang has been prodigious in his output of instrumental and vocal music.  He writes his own libretti and calls himself a “text composer, rather than a choral composer” because, for him, it is the text that drives the music.

Lang has spoken and written of his struggle as a young observant Jew to reconcile his religious beliefs with his profound and visceral attraction to the sacred works of Bach, including the passions.  Lang’s little match girl passion is one of a number of pieces that he wrote “recasting sacred topics into secular molds.” Bach’s “passions,” derived from the Latin word for suffering, patiens, were written for Good Friday services to narrate the arrest, suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.  In the little match girl passion Lang pays homage to the sacred passions in the structure of the movements and in the text but the subject of the suffering and transubstantiation is an entirely secular one.

In his program notes, Lang writes: “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.”

The opening movement of the piece immediately declares its fidelity to the St. Matthew passion in its 12/8 meter and its text: “Come Daughter, help me cry.” As in the Saint Matthew, where the chorus begins “Kommt, ihr Tochter, helft mir klagen!”  we are immediately called to witness the passion.  In the next movement, we are introduced to the third person recitation of the plight of the little match girl, lost and alone in the cold and snow.  The third movement, “dearest heart,” marked “very restrained and inward,” is a short chorale of heart-breaking poignancy.   The passion continues with alternating recitatives, chorales and arias, like the Bach passions, through her suffering, death and finally her resurrection with her grandmother. “And they both flew upwards in a brightness and joy, far above the earth…for they were with god.” The text of the final movement, “Rest soft.  You closed your eyes. I closed my eyes. Rest soft,” reminds us of the final chorale of the St. Matthew Passion: “Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh! … Hochst vergnogt schlummern da die Augen ein.