Parents often make promises to their young children. They tell them their lives will be wonderful and that they can change the world. Parents promise that they will not abandon them.
“The Little Match Girl,” a children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen, tells the tale of a poor young girl for whom those promises are broken. After her father beats her, she tries and fails to sell matches on the street to support herself. The community ignores her, and she eventually freezes to death. Yale composition professor David Lang wrote a piece for chamber choir and four solo singers based on Andersen’s story: “The Little Match Girl Passion.”
On Saturday, Feb. 29 at 8 p.m., the New York City Master Chorale (NYCMC) will present a concert focused on parents’ promises to children. The program will mix different choral music genres in order to appeal to diverse audiences and will close with Lang’s composition. The concert will be in New York City’s Church of the Holy Apostles.
“Musically, the four pieces are quite different, but they all seek to explore the ways we make promises to children and how we succeed or fail to fulfill those promises,” said Dusty Francis, artistic director of the NYCMC. “We tell our children that we’ll always be there for them, but at some point, we aren’t.”
The concert will open with Ysaye Barnwell’s “Wanting Memories.” In this piece, the chorus sings the text: “you said you’d rock me in the cradle of your arms / now I need you / and you are gone.”
Peter Louis van Dijk’s “Horizons” and Billy Joel’s “Lullabye” will follow the Barnwell. The van Dijk tells of a parent singing to their hungry and thirsty child about the saviors on boats who will better their future. The saviors then slaughter their entire community. In contrast, Joel’s song will provide a glimmer of hope.
“Billy Joel said that it’s important for children to hear from us directly that they’re not going to be abandoned,” Francis said.
Each of the three songs is influenced by popular music, implicitly in the Barnwell and van Dijk and explicitly in the Joel. According to Francis, the songs are easy to listen to and are written in an idiom that is accessible and familiar to those who don’t often engage with Western art music.
The concert’s second half will feature Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” The composition contradicts Joel’s promise — the little match girl is abandoned and dies alone on the street. The 35-minute minimalist work is influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion.” Lang employed the Bach to elevate the little match girl’s suffering. Some of the piece’s movements include “Come, daughter,” “Have mercy, my God,” and “We sit and cry.”
The piece, which was originally commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 2007 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, draws from Western choral music’s Christian-centric canon. Lang reframes a musical setting of the passion of Christ in a way that is not explicitly Christian.
“If you want to dedicate yourself to singing choral music, you’ll spend a lot of your time advocating for Christianity, because that’s where classical music has been for so long,” Lang said. “That music is beautiful, but it poses a problem for those of us who are not Christian. If we’re writing music, we try to get around it to avoid having to be an advocate for something that’s not ours.”
Lang rewrote parts of the Bach passion — which he called one of the canon’s greatest choral works — to replace the suffering of Jesus with that of the little match girl. Thus, the crowd that watched Jesus suffer in Bach’s version now watches the little match girl suffer. Both die public deaths.
“He’s dipping into the universal elements that are inherent in religious tales,” Francis said. “That universality translates to people whether they are religious or not.”
The New York City Master Chorale was founded in 2005 and is comprised of 70 singers, none of whom sing professionally. Yet the group has performed at venues including the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and Carnegie Hall.
According to NYCMC president and bass Craig Chu, the group aims to sing concerts that are equally meaningful to “audience members who used to be singers themselves, those who just listen to music as much as possible, and those who have never been to a concert before. Everyone is equally welcome.”
The group seeks to represent the diversity in New York City by programming varied repertoire.
“This music asks all of us, performing and not, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to remember how we’ve gotten through challenges, and the importance of being able to lean on each other,” said Sara Yood, alto and NYCMC board vice-chair. “In many ways, it is perfect for NYCMC, precisely because our community is so important to us.”
The concert venue is located at 296 9th Avenue.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org