07 April 2008

Stick To Print

The Pulitzer Prizes for 2008, famous for recognizing good activist journalism, also has a category that recognizes new musical compositions.

This year's winner was David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion, which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall. You can listen to it yourself at the link.

The subject matter, Hans Christian Anderson's tale of a poor little girl's death in the streets, is one of the most gripping and tragic stories I have ever read to my children. It is worthy of a fine composition. The purpose of the work, as described in the Associated Press story run in the Washington Post, is likewise worthy of notice. But, Lang's work, while technically intricate, is the kind of sterile soulless music so common in academe. Broadway would have done a much better job.

As Wikipedia describes him:

His music can be in turn comic, abrasive, and soothing, and it usually retains elements of conceptualism. It is also informed by modernism, minimalism, and rock -- and can perhaps be best described as post-minimalism.

The New York Times review of the premiere was not exceptional:

David Lang’s “little match girl passion,” in its premiere — was tragedy. But it was tragedy presented so that you sensed implied quotation marks around certain passages that danced elegantly along the line between high art and kitsch. Mr. Lang took Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and made its Christian subtext explicit. The story of a poor child who freezes to death — told in long, gentle, repetitive chains of notes, with the lead voice gradually dragging the three other voices behind it in a messy wake — was interspersed with meditative sections, including a quasi-chorale on the words “Have mercy, my God.”

Touched with the frost of chimes and tubular bells, the piece goes a little over the top, and the four singers looked for guidance to Mr. Hillier, here the conductor, as if they were all still seeking the tone they would ultimately choose.

A blogger at the premier this past October described the occasion in more generous terms:

They were all there for the world premiere of David Lang's the little match girl passion, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young girl who freezes to death while trying to sell matches on the evening of New Year's Eve. Lang, who wrote the libretto, combines Andersen's story with text from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, highlighting the martyr overtones in the original tale. The music occasionally referred to Bach, but more often resembled the vocal music of Reich or John Adams.

the little match girl passion is filled with sad and beautiful moments, as in the passage when the girl is discovered the next morning frozen to death, clutching a burnt bundle of matches:

"No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, nor into what glory she had entered, on New Year's Day."

The piece ended with a haunting dirge, repeating the words "Rest soft" while chimes tolled like church bells, fading quietly away.

What is Steve Reich about?

Reich's music, along with that of the other minimalists, causes us to rethink the way we listen to music. Not surprisingly, his approach, steeped in non-Western ideals, violates many of the assumptions about music that have developed in the West (harmonic goals for example, and forms based on a hierarchy of structure). At the same time, it is different from its non-Western models, in that its function as concert music is the same as that of all Western music from the eighteenth century on.

Another favorable and descriptive review can be found here.

No comments: