No one is saying Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 story, “The Little Match Girl” is happy, though Andersen thought his ending put her in a better place.
Even Trey Davis admits that the story makes the heart ache, but David Lang’s choral version of the folk tale was too beautiful to ignore.
Davis is the associate director of Choral Studies at LSU and winner of the Julius Herford Dissertation Prize for his research on Lang’s choral masterwork, “The Little Match Girl Passion.” Now Davis will conduct vocalists from throughout the United States in a Louisiana premiere of the composition on Sunday.
The free program will begin at 3 p.m. in the LSU School of Music Recital Hall, featuring sopranos Amy Jenkins and Michelle Capdau, tenor Eric Johnson and baritone Drew Henry, along with graduate students in LSU’s vocal program. “We’ll have 24 singers in all,” Davis said. “We don’t have a name. I call us ‘Choral Storytellers,’ so you could call us that for now.”
The choral storytelling will begin the afternoon with a preshow talk by Davis at 2 p.m. exploring Andersen’s original story, which begins with a young, poor German girl selling matches in the street on a freezing New Year’s Eve.
The girl forgoes her home for a nook in the street, fearing that her father will beat her for not selling the matches. She sees a falling star in the night sky and remembers her late grandmother’s story of how a falling star means a dying person is about to go to heaven.
The girl strikes a match and sees grandmother’s face. Grandmother appears and carries the girl’s soul to heaven after the girl dies of hypothermia.
Andersen believed the reunion of the girl and her grandma made for a happy ending, and Lang cited Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred oratorio, “St. Matthew’s Passion,” for his composition.
Bach’s work follows the Book of Matthew’s version of Christ’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection. The “Match Girl” takes a similar path of suffering before reaching paradise in Lang’s piece.
Davis’ Choral Storytellers performed the piece in Lubbock, Texas, and Stockholm, Sweden, earlier in the year. “The Match Girl Passion” will be the finale in their LSU performance, following Danish composer Bo Holten’s “Rain and Rush and Rosebush” and Latvian composer Eriks E?envalds’ “The Legend of the Walled-In Woman.”
“All of these are contemporary pieces by living composers,” Davis said. “And all three compositions are macabre.”
Lang’s piece premiered in 2007, winning a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. The composition traditionally is performed by a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a baritone, each equipped with a percussion instrument.
Davis chose Lang’s work for his dissertation upon discovering much had been written on the composer’s instrumental works but nothing about his choral compositions. Davis also is a fan of Bach, and Lang’s juxtaposition of “St. Matthew’s Passion” with “Match Girl” piqued his interest.
“I used Bach as my jumping-off point for my research into David Lang,” Davis said. “And David Lang was very gracious in letting me interview him.”