A POST-Easter concert of songs exploring human compassion — and the lack of it — will be Luminescence Chamber Singers’ next project titled, “The Little Match Girl Passion”.
The 14-part song cycle by American composer David Lang tells the sad story of the girl who freezes to death selling matches on the street on a cold winter’s night, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous 1845 story, “The Little Match Girl” and expanded on by Oscar Wilde in “The Happy Prince”, where the prince gives the match girl one of his eyes to make sure her father will not beat her.
The poignant story by Andersen, picked up by Lang, testifies to the unfeeling behaviour of passers-by – shades of the good Samaritan – and as the artistic director of Luminescence, AJ America says: “Elevates her suffering, like that of Jesus, it’s about people who passed by and about the reaction of people to suffering.”
Lang wrote that what drew him to the story was ”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.”
First performed at Carnegie Hall in 2007, Lang’s work won him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music and in 2019 writers of “The Guardian” ranked “The Little Match Girl Passion” the 15th greatest work of art music since 2000.
America says the work is performed regularly throughout the US, in some places once a year, but is rarely heard here; in fact, she’s heard of only one other Australian performance, by the Song Company, although there could have been others.
The 14 vocal movements are given titles strangely reminiscent of Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” including “Come, Daughter”, “Lights Were Shining” and “Have Mercy, My God”, interspersed with Andersen’s narrative, most of which will be sung by America herself.
“It’s really one piece and must be done as a whole piece,” she says, “it’s not one of those song cycles where you can pull out a small section.”
Lang’s work will be performed by Luminescence Chamber Singers alongside Renaissance polyphonic music for Passiontide paralleling the theme of the main work, including music by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Pierre De la Rue, and Carlo Gesualdo.
In a move towards developing a more permanent ensemble, America recently announced there would now be a core of just five singers, bass Jack Stephens, tenor Dan Walker, sopranos Rachel Mink and Veronica Milroy and mezzo-soprano America.
The format may resemble Bach, but as Lang has said: “There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus — rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”
Agreeing, American says: “This music is very austere but very atmospheric.”
Luminescence Chamber Singers sing “The Little Match Girl Passion”, All Saints Anglican Church, Ainslie, 7pm, Sunday, April 18. Bookings here.