Little Match Girl Passion Program Notes

The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.


Described by TMChoir leadership as a “musical vigil drawing awareness to the problems of hunger and homelessness in our city,” the repertoire of tonight’s concert spans numerous time periods and musical styles, but is unified by shared themes. All of tonight’s musical pieces inspire reflection or invites us to take action, to broadly think about issues of homelessness, poverty, hunger, and inequity with compassion; to look again, or perhaps to look more closely at the challenges our communities and especially our unhoused neighbours are facing. This request to look more closely is literal in the concert’s opening piece, Spanish and Puerto Rican composer Pablo Casals’ 1932 setting of “O vos omnes,” a Catholic responsorial drawn from the Book of Lamentations and often sung during Holy Week. “Pay attention, all people,” it reads in translation, “and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.” In Maestro Vallée’s words, Casals’ setting of this text is an important point of entry for this concert, acting not so much as a question, but rather, serving as a plea to not ignore or be desensitized to suffering.

That plea is also echoed in David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 piece, The Little Match Girl Passion. Lang’s composition centers on the narrative of Hans Christian Anderson’s 1845 children’s story, which depicts the dreams and visions of an impoverished child who freezes to death while selling matches on a street corner; her soul is then carried to heaven by her grandmother. Lang’s musical setting of the story works to, in his own words, depict the “shocking combination of danger and morality” in the narrative, drawing out the motifs of “horror and beauty” in the story, which are “constantly suffused with their opposites.” While the text of Anderson’s story invokes Christian ideology, it originally contained no Biblical quotation. However, Lang was inspired by the broader historical tradition of musical Passions, which utilized texts from the Gospels to depict the final days of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, frequently joining the words of scripture to additional reflective poetry that invites the listener to contemplate Christ’s suffering on a more personal, intimate level. In Lang’s words, this practice allows for “the telling of a story while simultaneously commenting upon it.” Lang intersperses his Little Match Girl Passion with many moments of such reflection, re-imagining and adapting words from the libretto of Bach’s 1727 Saint Matthew Passion into a more secular context. The result is a piece that comments upon itself, and whose comments demand that we see both the heartbreak and (in)humanity that the story holds.

Select choruses from Saint Mathew Passion open and close the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers’ performance of Little Match Girl Passion, with the goal of highlighting the resonances and themes that interact between the two Passions. While Bach’s legacy and influence on Lang becomes obvious when the pieces are put into dialogue, when I listen, I am consistently struck by how Lang’s composition arguably draws out a central – at times perhaps even a missing – piece of the story. Saint Matthew Passion depicts the suffering and death of Christ, while Little Match Girl Passion responds by offering a poignant reminder of the necessity of the virtues of mercy, compassion, humanity, and justice that formed the mainstay of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings.

The concert continues with a premiere of Shireen Abu-Khader’s “Diaries of the Forgotten,” which was composed for tonight’s concert. To create this piece, she spoke with many individuals in Toronto who are experiencing homelessness, and used words and themes she encountered in her discussions to create the piece’s text, which thinks broadly about experiences of mental illness and feeling forgotten or discarded by society. Dr. Abu-Khader adds to these words her own question – one that I imagine many of us also find ourselves asking in this time of such rampant economic inequity: “are we living in a broken system?” Rather than resolving this question in text or music, the composer, in her own words, hopes “that we, as members of this community, could partake in answering it.”

The concluding musical pieces of the concert gently invite us to reflect on and partake in potential answers to Dr. Abu-Khader’s question. Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei” sets the concluding text of Catholic liturgy, a prayer that pleads for Christ to take away the sins of the world, and to grant humanity peace. Barber’s musical setting of this sacred text moves between suspension and resolution, melancholy and hope: peace, it seems, is never quite sure or certain. Rather, it is something we must work towards. How we might do so is suggested by the concert’s concluding song, Craig Hella Johnson’s arrangement of “I Love You/What a Wonderful World.”

May we all remember to love and take care of one another in this messy, beautiful, broken, wonderful world.