By Johanna Keller
CHARLESTON, S.C. – “It was very cold,” are the first words in Hans Christian Anderson’s brief tale, “The Little Match Girl,” which is the central narrative of German composer Helmut Lachenmann’s eponymous opera created over the years 1990-96 and first performed in 1997. This is not an opera in the usual sense, however, as there are no arias and no melodies or characters. Instead, this austere work with deconstructed texts creates an intricate and abstract soundscape filled with the shush of falling snow, the tinkle of breaking icicles, and the bitter suffering of a child slowly, slowly freezing to death.
Heard in its U.S. premiere, The Little Match Girl had four performances between May 29 and June 4 at Spoleto Festival USA, now celebrating its 40th season. Lasting around an hour and forty-five minutes, with the musicians arrayed on a high ledge surrounding the audience and the sound coming from all directions, the opera often gives the effect of being inside the mind of the shivering girl as she strikes her matches three times in desperation and has visions of food, familial love, comfort and, finally, transcendence.
Lachenmann’s magnum opus is a challenging and discomfiting work for listeners. Spoleto Festival’s imaginative new production did much to help the audience comprehend the composer’s conception. Co-directed by Mark Down and Phelim McDermott, it incorporated cue cards and shadow puppets (developed and performed by Blind Summit and Improbable), with creative and effective lighting by James F. Ingalls.
Over the past decade, John Kennedy has become one of today’s most influential new music conductors, and on this occasion he expertly synchronized and inspired the considerable forces required: 108 instrumentalists, 40 chorus members (Westminster Choir, two pianists (Stephen Drury and Renate Rohlfing), and six recording engineers overseeing the electronic elements. Chen Bo played the shō, a Japanese mouth organ that sounds vaguely like an accordion. The two exceptional sopranos (Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta) consulted tuning forks frequently to locate their isolated pitches, occasionally singing into the open grand piano to produce a burst of resonance.
Most of the time, these sopranos were producing noises such as tongue trills, sighs, gasps, isolated syllables, and cheek slaps. The orchestral players used extended techniques – many invented by the composer – to generate clanks, thuds, or clatters from their instruments. Violinists bowed behind the bridge or on the tailpiece; slices of styrofoam were rubbed together to produce the sound of snowfall. Tongue clicks brought to mind the clopping of horse hooves through the streets. The narrative pace was often slow. On opening night, and even more so at the second performance, this complex soundscape was intermittently augmented by the galumphing of dozens of disgruntled audience members descending the stairs and heading for the exits.
Many operagoers seek entertainment; this was far from that. But given the alarming explosion of poverty in the world today, a serious opera about the political, philosophical, and emotional ramifications of economic disparity is timely. Anderson’s tale is tragically relevant to us. Currently his writing is being reconsidered as social commentary, largely due to the work of scholar Paul Binding, who has written that the story of The Little Match Girl is “like a swift magic-lantern sequence.”
This production looked just like that, with its Dickensian black and white, hard-edged shadow puppets portraying the girl and top-hatted pedestrians, lampposts, and lighted windows, occasionally relieved by a warm red glow when she lit her matches. Magnifying the already considerable challenges of following the story, the opera also contains two additional texts: a polemic by Gudrun Ensslin (a childhood friend of the composer who was an anarchist with the Baader-Meinhof Gang) that added a political point of view about oppression, and the Codex Arundel by Leonardo da Vinci (spoken by Adam Klein, who appears onstage dressed somewhat like Hans Christian Anderson) that raised philosophical questions about knowledge, desire, and fear. Parts of these abstruse texts in German were rendered unintelligible by being broken up into halting or isolated syllables.
So, what good is confounding the audience? Does this have to be so difficult? Why not just write good old-fashioned melodies? These sorts of questions might have been in the minds of those who left early, or who declined to applaud when the piece ended. (It must be noted that others shouted bravo.) For this listener, very familiar with the music from the recording on the ECM label, seeing the live opera twice was revelatory: The music reveals its meanings and associations, and becomes more emotionally affecting, only with repeated hearings.
To understand Lachenmann’s aesthetic choices, it may be useful to know something of the forces that shaped his musical viewpoint, not as a sentimental argument for the opera based on his biography, but in order to put this work into historical perspective. Born in 1935 in Stuttgart, Lachenmann was still a child when Hitler shot himself in his bunker. The composer has talked about listening to the radio during the war years, hearing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 accompanying the announcement of the defeat in Stalingrad and later an excerpt from Götterdämmerung marking the announcement of Hitler’s death. These juxtapositions led Lachenmann to say this music was used as “a kind of magic to paralyze the brain.”
This connection between Nazi propaganda and the cult-like music tradition in Germany created a terrible conundrum and affected Lachenmann profoundly. He was not alone. For a certain group of European artists of his generation, in order to move on, everything that had gone before had to be rejected. After World War II, many of these artists met up in Darmstadt, where a kind of summer camp for the avant-garde was founded in 1946, and where Lachenmann arrived as a young composer five years later.
In one of his many essays, he wrote that he counts himself among the “parricidal children of Darmstadt” of the 1950s, which “meant rising up and breaking out, rejecting the inherited tonal, philharmonic-orientated concept of material, along with all of the technical and aesthetic implications that had been cultivated and worn out in bourgeois musical life up to then (and still today)…” So, while Lachenmann’s music has developed since his early work, this has remained his basic approach.
Therefore, the uncompromising lack of the familiar in Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl marks a particular strain of post-war European music. Two other comparable large-scale compositions in this lineage that also use antiphonal sounds, electronics, and deconstructed texts are Requiem for a Dead Poet by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1970) and Prometeo (1985) by Luigi Nono, who was Lachenmann’s teacher. Nono’s ardent Marxism and belief in the social responsibility of music also shaped Lachenmann’s worldview.
From this period of music, these are masterworks that we are only beginning to appreciate and understand in relationship to the trauma of World War II. However, they are not the latest in new music, since many other, younger composers have not – by and large – found it necessary to throw out all references to the musical tradition. Currently, concert music seems to be headed in several directions at once (how exciting that is).
That does not mean we should ignore these thorny post-Darmstadt works; rather, we should see them in perspective. At its premiere, Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl was hailed as the first opera of the new millennium. But it is possible that, given the passage of time, we may eventually see it as the last opera of the bloody and turbulent 20th century.
Johanna Keller teaches at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she founded the Goldring Arts Journalism Program; she received an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her writing in The New York Times.