Repertoire Search

David Lang

Publisher: G. Schirmer

death speaks (2011)
Text Writer
the composer, after Schubert songs
Red Poppy
Solo Voice(s) and up to 6 players
Year Composed
26 Minutes
Soprano(bass drum)
Programme Note
David Lang death speaks (2011)

First performance:
January 25, 2012
Bryce Dessner, Shara Worden, Nico Muhly, and Owen Pallett
Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, cond.
Stanford Lively Arts
Stanford, CA

Composer note:
Death Speaks was commissioned specifically to go on a program with my piece The Little Match Girl Passion. The opportunity came without many other parameters, so there were a lot of questions I had to answer. Would the new piece be for an existing ensemble or some group I would assemble for these performances only? Would it relate to The Little Match Girl, musically or emotionally, or would it start from its own place?

Something that has always interested me about The Little Match Girl story is that the place where we are left emotionally at the end is so far away from where the match girl is. We are all weeping and yet she is happily transfigured, in the welcoming arms of her grandmother in heaven. The original story switches starkly back and forth at the end, between her state and ours, perhaps in order to show us just how far away from redemption we are; it is Andersen's way of making us feel left behind.

I was reminded of certain other stark comparisons between the living and the dead. I remembered the structure of Schubert's beautiful song Death and the Maiden, in which the text is divided in half; the first half of the song is in the voice of the young girl, begging Death to pass her by, and the second half of the song is Death's calming answer.

What makes the Schubert piece interesting is that Death is personified. It isn't a state of being or a place or a metaphor but a person, a character in a drama who can tell us in our own language what to expect in the World to Come. Schubert has a lot of songs with texts like these, and I wondered if I assembled all of the instances of Death speaking directly to us then maybe a fuller portrait of his character might emerge.

I went alphabetically in the German through every single Schubert song text (thank you, Internet!) and compiled every instance of when the dead sent a message to the living. Some of these are obvious and some are more speculative — Death is a named character in The Erlking, the brook at the end of Die schöne Müllerin speaks in Death's name when it talks the miller into killing himself, the hurdygurdy player at the end of Winterreise has long been interpreted as a stand-in for Death. All told, I have used excerpts from 32 songs, translating them very roughly and trimming them, in the same way that I adjusted the Bach texts in The Little Match Girl Passion.

The question then arose of what musicians should play and sing this new piece. Art songs have been moving out of classical music in the last many years — indie rock seems to be the place where Schubert's sensibilities now lie, a better match for direct storytelling and intimate emotionality. What would it be like to put together an ensemble of successful indie composer/performers and invite them back into classical music, the world from which they sprang? I asked rock musicians Bryce Dessner, Owen Pallett, and Shara Worden to join me, and we added Nico Muhly, who although not someone who left classical music is certainly known and welcome in many musical environments. All of these musicians are composers, all of them can write all the music they need themselves, and it is a tremendous honor to have them to spend some of their musicality on my music.

— David Lang

  • Soloist(s)
    Shara Worden (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Owen Pallett (violin), Nico Muhly (piano); Maya Beiser (cello)
    Cantaloupe Music:
  • 25 NOV 2018
    Elzenveld, Antwerpen, Belgium
    Soloists of Brussels Philharmonic, Flemish Radio Choir
    Ola Gjeilo, piano; Lore Binon, soprano; Stephen Layton, conductor

    Other Dates:
    27 November - Concertbebouw, Brugge, Belgium
    28 November - Jezuieten Church, Lier, Belgium
    29 November - MIRY Concert Hall, Gent, Belgium
    2 December - Flagey, Brussels, Belgium
  • 09 OCT 2018
    Dialogue Brewery, Albuquerque, NM
    Chatter: A Chamber Ensemble
    David Felberg, conductor

    Other Dates:
    13 October - SITE, Santa Fe, NM
  • 01 AUG 2018
    Hortus Festival
    Amsterdam, Netherlands

    Other Dates:
    2 August - Amsterdam, Netherlands
    3,4 August - Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • 28 JUN 2018
    City Music Foundation
    St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Barts Pathology Museum, London, UK
    Andrey Lebedev (guitar), Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano)
  • 28 JUN 2018
    Barts Pathology Museum, London, UK
    Lotte Betts-Dean, mezzo-soprano; Andrey Lebedev, guitar; Iona Allan, violin; Joe Havlat, piano
  • 17 FEB 2018
    Guilford, VT
    Friends of Music at Guilford
  • 16 FEB 2018
    Masters of Dance
    Long Center, Austin, TX
    Ballet Austin

    Other Dates:
    17,18 February - Long Center, Austin, TX
  • 29 NOV 2017
    Centre National de Création Musicale Albi-Tarn, Albi, France
  • 08 OCT 2017
    Spectrum NYC, New York, NY

    Other Dates:
    29 October - Cornelia Street Cafe, New York, NY
  • 04 OCT 2017
    University of Southern California, Newman Recital Hall, Los Angeles, CA
    Thornton Edge Ensemble
    Theodosia Roussos; Dr. Donald Crockett, conductor
  • 18 JUN 2017
    death speaks Country Premiere
    Four Studies
    Sonar Festival | Sampler Series
    Barcelona Auditorium, Barcelona, Spain
  • 15 JUN 2017
    Northwestern University, Galvin Recital Hall, Evanston, IL
    Northwestern University
    Chelsea Lyons
  • 13 JUN 2017
    Los Angeles, CA
    Dance Downtown LA

    Other Dates:
    29 July; 25,24,22,21,17,16 June - Los Angeles, CA
  • 05 JUN 2017
    De Doelen Heerenveen, Netherlands
    Doelen Ensemble
  • 19 MAY 2017
    Rostock, Germany
    Orchester der Hochschule für Musik Rostock
  • 18 MAY 2017
    Transfigured Light
    Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver, BC
  • 02 FEB 2017
    De Doelen Concertgebouw de Vereeniging Nijmegen, Netherlands
  • 19 JAN 2017
    (le) poisson rouge, New York, NY
    Eliza Bagg, soprano; Ashley Bathgate, cello; Karl Larson, piano; Brendon Randall-Myers, electric guitar
  • 17 JAN 2017
    Jurriaanse Zaal, De Doelen, Rotterdam, Netherlands
    De Doelen Ensemble
    Nora Fischer, voice; Yannick Lutz, violin and voice; Wiek Hijmans, guitar; Maarten van Veen, piano

    Other Dates:
    19 January - Grote Zaal, Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands
    23 January - Kleine Zaal, Muziekgebouw, Eindhoven, Netherlands
  • 18 NOV 2016
    Albuquerque, NM
    University of New Mexico
    Lauren Breden
  • 12 JUN 2016
    Melbourne, Australia
    Rubiks Collective
  • 05 JUN 2016
    Milan, Italy
    Sentieri Selvaggi
    Carlo Boccadoro, conductor
  • 13 MAY 2016
    Leeds, UK
    Leeds College of Music Student Ensemble
  • 16 APR 2016
    Ulm, Germany
    Ensemble European Music Project
    Maria Rosendorfsky, Soprano; Antonis Anissegos, Piano; Thimios Atzakas, Oud & E-Guitar; Anna Clementi, Sprecherin; Haegar, Visuals
  • 28 FEB 2016
    Sherbrook, Glasgow
    Glasgow Sinfonia
    Gerrard Doherty, conductor
  • 25 FEB 2016
    The Venue, Leeds College of Music Leeds, West Yorkshire
    LCoM New Music Collective
  • 04 FEB 2016
    Fontys Hogeschool voor de Kunsten
    Rianne Wilbers; Arjan van Baest, conductor
  • 11 DEC 2015
    stargaze orchestral
    Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, Berlin, Germany
    Bryce Dessner, guitar
  • 31 OCT 2015
    Milan, Italy
    Ensemble del Conservatorio di Milano
    Francesco D'Orazio, conductor
  • 21 OCT 2015
    San Francisco, CA
    San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

The results connected the dots between Romantic morbidity and emo rock: “Schubertgaze,” a musician in the audience memorably called it afterward. And throughout the work’s dolorous scope, numerous subtleties — flickers of distorted guitar amid a gloomy fog of piano and violin in “Pain Changes”; the instruments’ sudden absence at the end of “I Am Walking” — showed that Mr. Lang, like Schubert, is an exacting illuminator of mood.
Steve Smith, New York Times,31/01/2012
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