Award-winning composer David Lang attended a performance Sunday afternoon of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “The Little Match Girl Passion” by the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble.
“The Little Match Girl Passion,” based on a short story by Hans Christian Andersen, combines the biblical story about reactions to the suffering of Jesus with the classic Danish tale, all set to classical music. Although the piece is centered around the Andersen story, Lang said it was actually the last thing to be incorporated into the piece.
“I had the idea of taking the gospel story, the story of people reacting to the suffering of Jesus, and I took Jesus’ story out and looked for someone else’s story to tell,” he said. “I wanted to get the power that the community of believers feel from noticing Jesus’ suffering.”
Lang said his wife suggested using Andersen’s story, “The Little Match Girl.” Like the story of Jesus, he said, “The Little Match Girl” is about a person going through immense suffering and still having hope. However, Lang, who does not identify as Christian, said it can be difficult to reconcile the Christian roots of much Western classic music with secularism.
“When you love classical music as much as I do, you spend a huge amount of time studying how Jesus is worshipped through music,” he said. “Which is really fantastic and interesting and compelling and powerful, but there’s a problem there because some of us are not Christian.”
The piece, which was the last of three performed Sunday at the Alice Millar Chapel, was divided into 15 parts and alternated between classical pieces composed by Lang with some text inspired by the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. The story, which was sung by both the full choir and soloists. In addition to “The Little Match Girl Passion” and “Privilege,” the choir performed “Missa Et ecce terrae motus,” a 16th-century work by French composer Antoine Brumel.
Ted Hearne, who composed “Privilege,” also attended Sunday’s performance. He said he wrote the piece as a way to address problems concerning social inequality. The piece includes a translation of a South African anti-apartheid song, along with excerpts of a 2009 interview with producer David Simon about social inequality.
“I often find myself writing music for choirs of educated, privileged people, of which I am one,” Hearne said. “I wanted to use the possibility of a choir as a communal instrument and I wanted to use that possibility to examine the very community they’re a part of.”
The choir is comprised of 24 singers, all Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music students, and is conducted by Bienen Prof. Donald Nally. Choir member Kate Lee said the composers arrived Saturday to sit in on a rehearsal and provided valuable insights and critiques.
“Their comments were really inspirational and transformative to our performances,” the Bienen sophomore said. “It made it a really special and unique concert experience.”
The concert was preceded by a discussion with the composers and followed by a reception.
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A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Bienen Contemporary Early/Vocal Ensemble. The article also misidentified the composer of “The Little Match Girl Passion.” This piece was composed by David Lang. The Daily regrets the errors.