A particular story, in fact: the story of The Little Match Girl, by the danish author Hans christian Andersen. the original is ostensibly for children, and it has that shocking combination of danger and morality that many famous children’s stories do. A poor young girl, whose father beats her, tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on the street, is ignored, and freezes to death. through it all she somehow retains her christian purity of spirit, but it is not a pretty story.
what drew me to The Little Match Girl is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts – the horror and the beauty – are constantly suffused with their opposites. the girl’s bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories, her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. there is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.
there are many ways to tell this story. one could convincingly tell it as a story about faith, or as an allegory about poverty. what has always interested me, however, is that Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. the girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus. (excepts David Lang)