Helmut Lachenmann, The Little Match Girl (1988–96)
The Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, one of the most prestigious music awards in the world, given to the composer in 1998 for The Little Match Girl (250,000 German marks at the time), may be treated as proof that the work is a masterpiece. It is difficult and controversial. But it is also very important.
Lachenmann (born 1935) based the libretto on the well-known fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It also includes nature descriptions by Leonardo da Vinci. The third layer is a letter written by Gudrun Ensslin, a member of a German terrorist organisation. The composer knew Ensslin from early childhood when she was his playground companion. She later joined the ultra left-wing terrorist group called the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In 1972, the members of the group were arrested and charged with murders, bomb attacks and bank robberies. They were sentenced to life and put in a specially built prison in Stammheim where they all committed suicide on the night of 17–18 October 1977. However, RAF supporters did not believe this version. They were convinced that it was an insidiously planned murder and suspected the police of having perpetrated it. They produced a lot of evidence, demonstrating cases of perjury and glaring mistakes made by the director of the prison.
While in the Stammheim prison, Gudrun Ensslin wrote a letter that Lachenmann used in his opera:
A criminal, a madman, a suicide.
They embody this protest.
Protesting, they die like animals.
Their dying shows
that there is no way out and that an individual is helpless when confronted with the system.
or destroy others.
You’re either dead or egoist.
Their dying does not only reflect the perfection of the system.
They are not immoral enough.
They are not mad enough.
They are not murderous enough.
This means their faster death caused by the system.
Their animal dying also contains the negation of the system.
Their criminality, their madness and their death express the rebellion
of a crushed individual against being crushed.
Not things, but people.
Write on our skins*.
The letter appears in the opera several times in three different images. First, in the fragment Aus allen Fenstern (From all Windows) that shows the match girl’s alienation. Second, in Hauswand 3 (Litanei) when the audience hears scraps of whispered text that is additionally broken up into individual sounds. Third, in Schreibt auf unsere Haut (Write on our Skin) – here, the music dies like fire together with the words, the ending of the letter appearing in the title. All that happens in two parts without any break: Auf der Strasse (On the Street) and An der Hauswand (At the Wall of the House). Leonardo da Vinci’s description used by Lachenmann mentions “fear and yearning” one feels at the moment of reaching the entry of a large cave – fear of the dark lurking inside and yearning to learn its secrets. Listening to The Little Match Girl, the audience is under the impression of experiencing these extreme feelings. Importantly, Lachenmann does not judge the actions of his childhood friend, and even turns a blind eye to her crimes. He portrays Gudrun as a particularly sensitive person who felt the cold around her and reacted to it in her own, possibly inhuman, way. Her actions become a sign of protest against the society and the world.
Lachenmann’s music often gets closer to a murmur, something barely discernible, an inner feeling that envelops the listener like a spider’s web from which he cannot free himself. As we can read in one of the critical commentaries on the work, it is ‘a whispered expression frozen in incapacity.’ According to the composer himself, the work is essentially ‘instrumental concrete music’: each sound may trigger associations with something the listener already knows. We need to bear in mind, however, that this music is not always pleasant; its brutality is sometimes likened to the brutality of Francis Bacon’s paintings.
Listeners to The Little Match Girl are stunned and ashamed in equal measure; they want to keep listening, and yet they are afraid. The most delicate and quiet sounds are enhanced electronically, which changes the message; when the opera is watched live, the system of speakers arranged in space makes the sound palpable, as if seeping straight into the ear. The dense instrumental texture in the scene in which the girl thinks about a warm stove surpasses all ideas of onomatopoeia in music. While when, at the end of the opera, the listener is transfixed by the musical representation of the freezing cold (a masterpiece!) – first, the sounds of individual instruments become increasingly rarefied, then the grand piano falls silent and can only be heard through the tapping of its hammers – he feels that he might never be free of Lachenmann’s music.
* Polish translation by Magdalena Wołczek, quoted after Ruch Muzyczny 2/2002.