David Lang’s Making Music event on January 27 includes the New York premiere of his Carnegie Hall co-commissioned death speaks. Here, the composer explains how he addressed the artistic challenge of pairing this new work on a program with his Pulitzer Prize–winning the little match girl passion.
death speaks was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, specifically to go on a program with the little match girl passion. The opportunity came without many other parameters, so there were a lot of questions I had to answer. Would the new piece be for an existing ensemble or some group I would assemble for these performances only? Would it relate to little match girl, musically or emotionally, or would it start from its own place?
Something that has always interested me about the little match girl story is that the place where we are left emotionally at the end is so far away from where the match girl is. We are all weeping at the end and yet she is happily transfigured, in the welcoming arms of her grandmother in heaven. The original story switches starkly back and forth at the end, between her state and ours, perhaps in order to show us just how far away from redemption we are; it is Andersen’s way of making us feel left behind.
This reminded me of certain other stark comparisons between the living and the dead. I remembered the structure of Schubert’s beautiful song “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” in which the text is divided in half; the first half of the song is in the voice of the young girl, begging Death to pass her by, and the second half of the song is Death’s calming answer. This seemed to be the same division as in the Andersen story—the fear of the living opposed against the restfulness of death.
What makes the Schubert interesting is that Death is personified. It isn’t a state of being or a place or a metaphor, but a person, a character in a drama who can tell us in our own language what to expect in the world to come. Schubert has a lot of songs with texts like these—I wondered if I assembled all of the instances of Death speaking directly to us then maybe a fuller portrait of his character might emerge. Most of these texts are melodramatic, hyper-romantic and over-emotional; one of the knocks on Schubert is that he often saved his best music for the worst poetry. Nevertheless, I felt that taking these overwrought comments by Death at face value just might lead me someplace worth going.
I went alphabetically in the German through every single Schubert song text (thank you, internet!) and compiled every instance of when the dead send a message to the living. Some of these are obvious and some are more speculative—Death is a named character in “Der Erlkönig,” the brook at the end of Die schöne Müllerin speaks in Death’s name when it talks the miller into killing himself, the hurdy gurdy player at the end of Winterreise has long been interpreted as a stand-in for Death. All told, I have used excerpts from 32 songs, translating them very roughly and trimming them, in the same way that I adjusted the Bach texts in the little match girl passion.
On January 17, Lang reveals the reasons behind the selection of musicians to perform death speaks.
Related: January 27, Making Music: David Lang