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The Little Match Girl puts a different light onto Christmas

The Sound Barrier for Sunday 23 December 2018

Every year at this time of year I am acutely conscious of what I am sure many others feel too: the commodification of the Christmas message of joy and peace, as endless indistinguishable carols are piped through shopping centres strewn with tinsel and lights designed not to make you feel bright and happy but to make you buy things. And the endless messages of the one way to be happy – in the warmth of family, opening things. But all know that this is not the reality of Christmas for many people, maybe even for most.

It's not a new awareness. It is told, too, in Hans Christian Anderson's famous story of 1845, Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne, usually translated into English as The Little Match Girl. It tells of a little girl, poor and alone, on New Year's Eve, shivering in the snow as she tries to sell matches. No one buys them. She is afraid to go home because her father will beat her if doesn't make enough money. From the windows of the houses around her there are bright lights, festivities, Christmas songs, food.

To keep warm she lights the matches, one by one, that she is supposed to sell. Each one conjures up a vision of beauty, but they are only visions. She dies in the snow, and only then do the people passing by notice her, and feel pity.

It is a stark tale of the gulf between the commercial message of Christmas and the reality of life for those who are poor and lonely.

And it is has been setting to stunning music, frozen in ice, by Helmut Lachenmann, the avant-garde German composer who, when composing the opera in 1990-1996, wove into Andersen's text some writings of German revolutionary Gudrun Ensslin and also, from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Arundel, the story of the feelings of both fear and yearning in the face of a dark and mysterious cave.

Filled with Lachenmann's characteristic redefining of instrumental music, eschewing the conventional and radicalising the very sound of the orchestra that had been dominated by the Western bourgeoisie for centuries, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern is a chilling and sensational work that provides a much-needed recalibration of the commercial narrative of Christmas.

I will be playing the complete Tokyo version of the work this Sunday night at 10.00 PM (AEDT) on the The Sound Barrier. This version, in which Lachenmann himself plays the role of the narrator in the scene where the text of Leonardo is set, reforms that scene from its original version into something a little shorter and much starker. It is an arresting moment in a startling score.

Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern is a piece of music that challenges us all, just in the way we need to be challenged. It is not beautiful, at least not in the conventional sense. But like Leonardo's cave, it has a dark and frightening lure, that we cannot afford to ignore.

I hope you can tune in or log on to listen live, wherever you are – or listen back afterwards, when the full program will be available here on the website shortly after it has gone live to air.

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