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David Lang

Publisher: G. Schirmer

death speaks (2011)
Text Writer
the composer, after Schubert songs
Red Poppy
Solo Voices and 1-6 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:
  • 22 NOV 2019
    Palucca Tanz Studio 2019
    Grünen Saal der Palucca Hochschule für Tanz / Dresden / Germany

    Other Dates:
    15,16,23 November - Grünen Saal der Palucca Hochschule für Tanz / Dresden / Germany

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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