© Tine Harden
Tears of ice: Hans Abrahamsen’s music
Snow, in returning the world to whiteness, makes each winter a spring: a clean sweep, a fresh page.
‘It is snow, it is snow!’ So sing the instruments – the words to be imagined are indicated over their parts – in Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, one of the most remarkable musical compositions of this century so far. Scored for two pianos and percussion with trios of woodwinds and strings, Schnee is an hour-long set of gradually crystallizing canons that are also musical portraits of snow: its flurries, how it blankets and blanks out the landscape, its delicacy, its cold. Though based on a modal melody, the piece is by no means white-note music; indeed, microtonal re-tunings, made during the course of performance, are crucial to how it sounds, beautifully blurring the counterpoint as the canons shift in and out of focus. At the same time this snow music is pure white in its objectivity, besides being as clear as glass in its textures. The ten canons are also variations, and are paired, so that every second one is heard against the background of its predecessor. It is as if we were listening through a stereoscope, as if time were becoming three-dimensional.
Schnee when it first appeared – at Witten in 2008 and on disc the next year, in both cases played by ensemble recherche – seemed very much like a new start. However, Abrahamsen had written winter pieces for instrumental groups before, in his Zwei Schneetänze of 1985 and earlier still in Winternacht (1976-8), the defining work of his mid-twenties, music as precise as it is evocative, a perfectly balanced mobile of shifting and often simultaneous images and references. He had also been exploring the manifold possibilities of three-note patterns earlier still, and one can even find the ‘Es ist Schnee!’ motif being blown by three flutes in his Flowersongs of 1973. Moreover, this is a composer who has made the new start almost a way of life.
An early beginner – his first published works date from when he was sixteen – he had produced a sizeable output by the time he reached thirty: several orchestral works (including Nacht und Trompeten, a luminous and dramatic nocturne commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic), two string quartets and numerous other pieces, mostly instrumental. Then in 1984 came a set of seven piano studies (later increased to ten), some of which, in their furious processes, strikingly anticipated Ligeti’s of the following year. Ligeti had been one of his first heroes, for exactness and beauty, along with Steve Reich. Now that debt was repaid, and a door was opened. Abrahamsen immediately arranged six of the studies to make a companion piece for the Danish premiere of Ligeti’s Horn Trio (an arrangement subsequently reworked, with cello in place of horn, as Traumlieder); he also recomposed four of the pieces for large orchestra.
That, however, was twenty years later. The path leading on from the piano studies turned out to be not so self-evident, and Abrahamsen’s productivity slowed, then stopped. Meanwhile, he was finding a new outlet as an arranger, notably in a chorale and eight canons by Bach and in versions of late piano pieces by Nielsen that claim a place for that composer alongside Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Of original compositions, however, only a brief Rilke setting, Herbstlied, interrupted his silence between 1990 and 1998.
Having returned to creative activity with a couple more piano studies, he then produced his first extended work in a decade and a half, the Piano Concerto he completed in 2000. Here, too, a new beginning had deep roots in his past – in the turbulent lopsided ostinatos and the contrasting stillness of the piano studies, and in the polyphony of type and topic that went back to Winternacht and beyond. The concerto is also thoroughly characteristic in being at once intimate and tightly crafted, as close to Schumann as it is to Stravinsky, speaking at certain moments with intense poignancy and yet doing so by virtue of how the notes fall. Form does not screen feeling but rather enables it; nor does form hide itself. Ligeti’s metaphor of frozen expression is apt here – and this concerto, product of a thaw, has a lot to do with glaciation. Beginning at a rush – the short first movement freezes by degrees – taking the work into an ice time of near motionlessness, the piano wandering among silent instruments. Cold stasis remains a threat – or is it an opportunity? – to the end, which is at once surprising, disturbing and absolutely right.
Once again, however, what might have seemed a breakthrough proved an impasse, and it was at this point that Abrahamsen turned again to his piano studies to remake the first four as Four Pieces for Orchestra (2004). Rivalling Ravel or Boulez for orchestral transformation, and scored for a large grouping that includes Wagner tubas and plentiful percussion, these movements discover in the keyboard originals not only unsuspected intimations of bewitching sound but also an unforeseen expressive power. Familiar chords appearing in the first piece, for example, suggest light on the edges of clouds in a heavy sky. Menace and anxiety – implicit in the other piano pieces, whether whirling or static – come fearsomely forward.
Abrahamsen’s work as an orchestrator or re-orchestrator has gone on, with a reduction of Nielsen’s last symphony and an arrangement of Debussy’s Children’s Corner, now alongside the sequence of major new works that opened in earnest with Schnee. His third string quartet (2008), in four short movements, is a relatively simple piece that remains deeply puzzling. It starts with a purely diatonic invention (such things had happened before in his music, for example in the final movements of his First Quartet and of his wind quintet Walden) that might easily be a folksong, and that seems to hold the key to the movements that follow – a key they can never find.
Microtonal tunings are absent here, but return in Wald for fifteen players (2009), which – like Schnee – is at once natural depiction (in this case of shadowy forests), cultural evocation (of horn calls, hunts and lurking mystery) and elaborate musical construct. The self-similarities of tangled woodland – so many leaves, so many branches, so many trees, so many paths – are echoed at several levels, from that of the opening tremulation (fourths played by two violins, microtonally and metrically displaced from one another) to that of the large-scale variation form. One happily loses oneself in the smaller and larger circles of this music, where the same signpost can reappear, pointing in a different direction. When the texture clears, it is for a nocturne of uncanny low melodies: cello and bass in octaves, bass flute and bassoon in unison.
The ominous yet captivating misaligned fourths from the start of Wald come back at the beginning of the work that followed: the Double Concerto for violin, piano and strings (2010-11). There are flakes, too, from Schnee, such as the chilling-exhilarating quasi-unisons of high piano and string harmonic or the dancing figures of the two fast movements, the second of the four and the last. Yet this is also a work with its own atmosphere, exquisite and touching, one that reaches steadily to moments of bursting brilliance (the first movement’s climax) or consolatory embrace (the third’s descending scales). We may feel we recognize this music, even as we recognize also its unfamiliarity, the sharp scent of new snow.