by Michael Hickman
Origins of "The Little Match-Girl"
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Match-girl” began unconventionally. Typically, authors commission illustrators after completing their texts; however, for “The Little Match-girl,” this process was reversed. Publishers approached Andersen with woodcuts by illustrator Johan Thomas Lundbye and solicited a story based on the one Andersen found most intriguing. The image of a melancholy girl, barefoot and wandering a cobbled street quickly arrested him.
In The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen (TAHCA), editor Maria Tatar notes that below Lundbye’s beleaguered girl appeared the phrase: “Do good when you give.” TAHCA also includes a transcription of Andersen’s emotional and introspective reaction to the image: “‘While I was at [an opulent manor in Denmark],’ Andersen later recalled in his travel diaries, ‘in this time of luxury and plenty, a publisher sent three woodcuts asking me to pick one and write a little story around it. I chose a scene that depicted poverty and deprivation, a ragged little girl with a handful of matches—‘The Little Match-girl’—the contrast between our life at Augustenborg and her world.’” His humility and empathy are poignant, especially for those of us today who live in the midst of plenty.
Andersen’s choice to call this figure the ‘little’ match-girl bears importance. TAHCA relates that the denotation ‘little’—when used in fairy tales—indicates that the anointed character will invariably experience tragedy. Such is the plight of our little match-girl.
Lang’s setting of her narrative truly embodies the sorrow of Lundbye’s woodcut and Andersen’s response to it. While Andersen felt torn between his world of luxury and the girl’s life of poverty, Lang explores this dichotomy by extrapolating the tensions between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane.’ Through the introduction of Christ’s suffering via Bach’s passion texts, Lang provides a ‘this-worldly’ treatment of the girl’s suffering alongside something more fundamentally ‘other-worldly’ and spiritual. Lang’s music is—by itself—striking, but the more we peel back the layers of the little match girl passion, the more complicated and rich it becomes.
"The Little Match-Girl" in print
“The Little Match-girl” (Danish: “Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne”) debuted in Dansk Folkekalender for 1846 (Danish Folk Calendar for 1846); the publishers who contacted Anderson with Lundbye’s woodcuts commissioned several stories to give their calendar more appeal. Regarding the story’s first publication in book form, “The Little Match Girl” was first found in 1848’s Nye Eventyr (New Fairy-Tales) and soon thereafter in 1850’s Eventyr (Fairy-Tales). The last Danish publication during Andersen’s lifetime came in the March 1863 Eventyr og Historier (Fairy Tales and Stories).
Regarding Andersen’s broader literary impact, several of his acclaimed fairy tales actually appeared in America before they saw Danish release. In the introduction to The Andersen-Scudder Letters, Jean Hersholt, a celebrated Danish-American film and radio personality, noted that “The widespread acceptance of his work in America was a never ending source of gratification to him.” Andersen felt it appropriate to ‘reward’ American audiences for their support by offering exclusive access several stories (which would become highly lauded), including “Lucky Peer,” “The Great Sea-Serpent,” “The Gardener and the Manor,” and “The Flea and the Professor.” And while his “American editor, publisher, and translator” Horace Elisha Scudder encouraged him to visit the United States to greet his adoring fans, unfortunately, Andersen’s “susceptibility to seasickness was one reason why he did not cross the Atlantic.”
Andersen’s mark on the literary world is evident, and the fairy tale category of his oeuvre is impressive; Anderson published 168 fairy tales between 1835 and 1872. Likewise, the staggering number of illustrations and translations (both professional and amateur) produced since then are a testament to Andersen’s strengths as a storyteller.
I own a 1942 edition of Andersen’s Fairy Tales, translated by the same Jean Hersholt mentioned above and illustrated by Fritz Kredel. There’s only one image of the little match-girl; it portrays the delicious roast goose she fantasizes about while lighting those few remaining matches in an attempt to keep herself warm.
It’s been an absolute pleasure learning about the provenance and publication of “The Little Match-girl” in preparation for the little match girl passion. While most composers usually provide musicians with performance notes to inform their performances, the little match girl passion has required a more investigative approach for The Valley 7. Practicing and polishing Lang’s epic piece has been an unforgettable experience, but truly immersing ourselves in the nuance, the depth, and the history of this text’s composition has been equally rewarding.