Winters are hard, days and weeks of bleakness and death. Some insects and rodents, though, have evolved to survive by finding warmth under the snow. People, too, have learned to use ice and snow to their advantage, building caves and igloos to protect themselves from the colder winds. Within amassed ice crystals, warmth can be found. There’s a similar dichotomy in the music of the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen: a starkness that isn’t bleak, a warmth within the austere.

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Hans Abrahamsen
© Lars Skaaning

One of his most celebrated works, Schnee (German for “snow”), in fact, addresses this notion rather directly. Where other composers have depicted the vast expanses of northern winters, Abrahamsen takes a microcosmic view. This fantastically visceral hour-long piece for a large ensemble of strings, winds, two pianos and percussion is as quiet as a December morning muffled in white, but within its intricacies are details, not drifts. 

Schnee (composed in 2008) is one of the pieces to be included in the 2022 NTR ZaterdagMatinee season, during which Abrahamsen’s music will be a focal point, drawing from the two major periods of his work. The composer’s career divides fairly neatly into “early’’ and “late’’ due to a prolonged break from writing during the 1990s. Three concerts (in February, May and June) will provide a fairly thorough survey of his later work – in which, by his own assessment, he found his voice – while the first will also pull two significant pieces from his earlier years. The later concerts, featuring let me tell you (2013) and The Snow Queen (2019), will represent the composer’s more recent interest in writing for voice.

“At this festival, it’s really all my main pieces after I started writing again, and then we have Winternacht from 1976-78,” Abrahamsen noted while talking to me last month, shortly before his 69th birthday. “Winternacht is important for me,” he stated. “It’s perhaps a piece that combines in my music expressivity and coolness. That piece is still very close to me. Each moment is quite short, it’s really a miniature world with moments that are filled, for me, with expression. Schnee, in a way, has not so many ideas. Each movement is stretched, a small thing is stretched out.”

Early in his career, Abrahamsen was associated with the New Simplicity movement. He characterized his earlier work as “very metronomical, strict pulse”. But in his later work, he told me, he found “a pulse which was more organic, the tempos could be very, very slow or very, very fast but also very simple, which is only possible to find, for me, upon erasing a complexity.”

The two periods were separated by a sort of crisis in his composing, a serious case of writer’s block, that led him to find a new voice. “In all those years, I was trying to compose, I was sketching, but somehow I couldn’t find the right words, so to speak,” he explained. “I had forgotten the words.”

It was upon returning to his childhood home of Kongens Lyngby in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen that Abrahamsen found his voice again. “I lived in the countryside in the first half of the 1990s,” he recalled. “I had drawn myself away from musical life and other things. Then, I moved to Copenhagen in 1996 and then to Lyngby in 2002, but I had started writing again already in 1998.

“On a personal level, I didn’t have the tools to make what I was searching for”, he added. “I needed to stay out of the new music history. I was working, trying to compose, then at last I gave up completely, and that was a liberation.”

Home and family are important to Abrahamsen. His wife and their two children, in fact, can often be seen with him in the audience, even traveling en masse to Munich and New York City for his premieres. They form a small support system for a composer who has searched out the silence of solitude.

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Barbara Hannigan
© Marco Borggreve
“You have to live a very calm life in order to write music and I have done that for the last 20 years,” he told me. “After I started again, it was a new beginning. You have to find the right way of living in balance with what you are doing.

“When I started composing after my break, my music became very complicated and at the same time much more simple”, he added. “There are a lot of things that happen that I didn’t have the tools to do before. I think silences are very important in music.”

Abrahamsen first started composing as soon as he started playing, inventing melodies on his father’s piano. With only two functioning fingers on his right hand, however, his future as a pianist was limited. Instead, he turned his training to the French horn – one of the few instruments that can be played more or less one-handed – which led him into music theory. But all along, he explained, he knew what was waiting ahead. “Very early on, I knew I was a composer,” he said. “In a way, it was natural for me to write music.

“To play French horn, that has been a gift for me: the sound of the instrument and the singing of it, the breath, and having the experience of playing in an orchestra,” he added.

The horn has often played a featured role in his chamber work, and his instrumental background no doubt contributed to his 2015 concerto Left, alone, scored for a pianist using only one hand. But it’s the larger scale pieces that will be heard at the NTR ZaterdagMatinee. The Amsterdam audience will have the opportunity to hear soprano Barbara Hannigan sing the song cycle let me tell you, written specifically for her voice, a work that she’s performed more than 40 times. Abraham’s first major work for voice, it was inspired by Paul Griffiths' 2008 novel of the same name, which uses only the 438 words that Shakespeare gives Ophelia in Hamlet. Working under such constraints inspired the composer to venture into the realm of vocal music. The result is a fragile half hour that’s deceptively bold in its delicate structure.

“From the beginning of the work, I’m going between two tempos and also the harmonies: this kind of tension is always in the music,” Abrahamsen said. “let me tell you was my first language piece with text and then there’s The Snow Queen. I think I’m not finished with that. That music becomes storytelling and becomes emotions. I think still I have things to explore.”

The Snow Queen – commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera and premiered in 2019 – is based on the tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It has received two very different stagings already (by the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg) but at the The Royal Concertgebouw it will be heard in concert version, with soprano Mari Eriksmoen. “You can hear the music for itself and let the opera come into your mind, your inner cinema,” Abrahamsen said.

That inner cinema is the perfect venue to let the layers in Abrahamsen’s music play out. His compositions reward intellectual scrutiny, but they also allow for contemplative drift. His music is full of dichotomy: tensions and contrasting tempos, shifting harmonies, expressivity and coolness, simplicity and complexity. But maybe most of all, Abrahamsen’s music fosters an abiding curiosity, transmitted from his mind to the ear, and to the subconscious, of the audience.

“When I’m writing music I’m, in a way, the first listener,” Abrahamsen concluded. “Music opens for me a space, speaks to emotion, the intellect, the mind, the heart. Music both moves me and gets me interested in going deeper, makes me curious. It’s the same that I hope people can find listening to my music.”

Hans Abrahamsen’s new work, Vers le silence, co-commissioned by NTR ZaterdagMatinee, will be played on 29th October 2022 by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève. 

Click here to see all upcoming NTR ZaterdagMatinee concerts.

This article was sponsored by the NTR ZaterdagMatinee