David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion awarded 2008 Pulitzer

David Lang

David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable “The Little Match Girl,” has been awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The award, for distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year, comes with a $10,000 cash prize. In addition, a Special Citation was awarded to Bob Dylan for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.

The Little Match Girl Passion is a 35-minute vocal work scored for four individual singers (SATB) who also additionally play hand percussion. Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices premiered it on October 25, 2007, in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City. The Little Match Girl Passion was co-commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation and The Perth Theater and Concert Hall and is published by Red Poppy Music (administered by G. Schirmer). The Pulitzer website features a sample page from the score as well as David Lang’s program notes, and there is a stream of the world premiere performance at the Carnegie website. Harmonia Mundi will record the work with Theatre of Voices and Paul Hillier in October 2008, though the release date for that recording has not yet been announced.

Also nominated as finalists in for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music were: Meanwhile by Stephen Hartke, premiered November 7, 2007 at the University of Richmond (ELR Music Publishing, Inc.), and Concerto for Viola by Roberto Sierra, premiered November 11, 2007 at Barnes Hall, Ithaca, NY (Subito Music Publishing).

Jurors for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music were: Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones professor of African-American Music and department chair, music department, Harvard University (Chair); Dwight Andrews, composer and associate professor, music theory and jazz studies, Emory University; Steven Blier, faculty member, Juilliard, and artistic director and co-founder, New York Festival of Song, New York City; Tim Page, music critic, The Washington Post; and Steven Stucky, composer and Given Foundation Professor of Composition, Cornell University.

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(Added April 8, 2008) David Lang and I had a brief email interchange a few hours after it was announced that he won the Pulitzer. I asked him to share his thoughts about the Pulitzer and specifically being chosen in the same year that Bob Dylan received a Special Citation and for winning the award for a piece which sounds more closely related to the American minimalist tradition than any work that has won the award thus far. Here is what he had to say:

“My piece is certainly out of the minimal tradition, but it is out of a lot of traditions—the tradition of religious vocal music, story telling, religion in general. It takes a lot from a lot of the things that go into my background and my personality. I am not sure just what it owes to the minimal or experimental worlds—it’s simplicity seems to be from those worlds but it also has a kind of old fashioned emotional directness to it, which is very much apart. I think that is the odd thing about the way its influences are mixed; the language and means are very simple but the emotionality comes from a much older musical impulse. My wife told me after the premiere that that impulse made it sound so normal that I would be kicked out of the hip composers’ club. Say it isn’t so!

“There are some great pieces and some dogs on the list of past Pulitzers. What can you do? You hope that when you grow up you will be among the former, but there is not much you can do about it, other than to keep on making the best case for doing what you do. Certainly there are some great composers who never got this prize—Cage and Feldman are two great examples—and there are several I can think of now who are my elders and betters and deserve it more than I do. But sometimes even the people who have gotten it, got it at the wrong time. I had the honor of meeting Roger Sessions towards the end of his life, and after he won his Pulitzer, quite near to when he died, he was very unhappy that it hadn’t come soon enough to have an impact on how the world listened to his music. You can’t win.

“As far as opening up the Pulitzer to other musics and other musical attitudes, I am all for it. Personally, it is an honor to win a prize that has been won by such giants as Ornette Coleman and John Adams, and it says a lot about the world we live in right now that it can include two such different masters. But there are many other masters. I think one of the great things about the music world right now is that there are lots of competing ideas, with many revolutionaries fighting many battles, on very varied battlegrounds. In a way, the health of the field depends on all these fights. They keep the present in a kind of glorious mess, in which lots of ideas rub up against each other, challenging and refreshing each other. We need all these ideas. We need all composers to be able to present their opinions with as much conviction and support as they can muster. Whatever the Pulitzer—and all other prizes, honors, and awards—can do to keep this mess glorious is much needed, and much appreciated.”

—FJO