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ClassicsOnline Home » ABRAHAMSEN, H.: Marchenbilder / Lied in Fall / Winternacht
PICTURES OF MUSIC
A PORTRAIT OF THE COMPOSER HANS ABRAHAMSEN
By Anders Beyer
"Music is pictures of music. That is a strong underlying element in my
world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around
in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures -basically, music
is already there."
Thus Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952) describes his view of music. The quotation tells
us something about the composer's musical thinking, and about the impression
he wants to convey. Mirroring, reflections, labyrinths, echoes, meta-music -
music is music is music
What kind of world does Hans Abrahamsen condense into the vibrations that constitute
music? What is the music about? From the works on this CD it is evident that
the music has a narrative quality. Hans Abrahamsen wants to tell stories, and
he wants to create pictures for the listener. But not in the form of over-specific
forms and figures: Abrahamsen's works never reveal their innermost secrets.
They communicate with one another through underground passages in the material,
works speak with and to one another, new productions borrow materiality and
structure from older pieces. This creates shared identity, recognition, without
representing that identity directly.
Do we know the music of Hans Abrahatnsen? Does the composer know the music?
Perhaps the music has left him and insists on living its own life. After all,
it was already there before the composer came and tried to make it comprehensible.
The storyteller Hans Abrahamsen never presents the listener with simple solutions.
There are always several possible ways of interpreting the music. What is the
meaning of the 'Fall' which forms part of the title Lied in Fall from
1987? It can mean autumn (in American English), it can mean fall (in German).
'Lied' suggests German, yet 'in Fall' is clearly to be pronounced in English.
The poetic ambivalence and the very brief programme by the composer also eschews
"In an autumnal landscape of ever-descending lines, the cello moves singing
through its Lied, surrounded by shadows of what has been and what will be, along
with other melodies which are at present between these lines
The cello has the recurrent 'Lied' in the work, which was written for cello
and 13 instruments. The music consists, as described, of descending lines. The
overall form of the work is governed by the canon principle.
At a general level one can say that Hans Abrahamsen's music is about (among
other things) time. About a musical sense of time, about the historical sense
of time, about displacements and layering of various experiences of time. And
so it is in Lied in Fall, where the cello moves through a musical landscape
which is coloured by the experiences along the way. Descending and ascending
motions form the phrases Sometimes the notes fall together in unison meeting-points,
elsewhere the cello sees its Lied mirrored or echoed by other instruments.
Time means precision. One becomes aware of this by studying the development
of Lied in Fall, which is precisely calculated. On the basis of each note in
the basic row Hans Abrahamsen composes descending lines. He himself calls this
lydstyrt (soundfalls or sound cascades). These soundfalls correspond in their
use of scales to chords that can be traced all the way back to the septet Winternacht
(1976-78). Soloist and ensemble (or resonance group) reproduce these eternal
falls throughout the piece.
Along the way things become increasingly complex. In the third section Hans
Abrahamsen composes in two time layers. This creates a sense of temporal instability,
and the cello is woven into a texture of voices and reflections. The soundscape
has become a veritable labyrinth - which harmonizes with Abrahamsen's statement
about the work: "Lied in Fall is probably based on the strictest structure
I have ever worked with." And furthermore: "When I sit working on
the form of the music, it is after all also about something inside oneself.
So the cello is in many ways inside a labyrinth, in an autumn landscape. The
cello tries to find a way out of the maze."
Out of this mirror world grows the fourth section, which rounds off the work.
This part is characterized by a simplification of the texture, and takes the
form of a rudiment compared with the preceding sections.
A picture of a picture
About the relations between strict structure and the free play of the imagination,
Abrahamsen says: "My imagination works well within a fixed structure. Although
my works are sometimes very structural, in the course of creating them I feel
great freedom to compose with the material. Things can arise along the way within
the form. In a 'square' piece like Skum (Foam, 1970), there is a completely
square structure: all the sections are exactly the same length. But on the other
hand I can put whatever I like into the form. The stricter it is, the more freedom
I have to go into detail. Form and freedom: perhaps much of my music has been
an attempt to bring the two worlds together."
Lied in Fall ends with an ascending figure - one could say that it transcends;
the writing lifts itself up and shifts into a different locus. The endings of
Hans Abrahamsen's works are a study in themselves. One gets the impression that
for the composer composing is like flying: 'the beginning' (taking off) and
'the end' (landing) are perhaps the two most interesting and difficult elements
in a compositional plan; when the movement or the plane has momentum and is
flying, there is less to worry about.
In Märchenbilder for chamber orchestra (1984) Hans Abrahamsen builds up
towards the third movement, which is the place where the music 'takes off'.
In this work a long prelude in the form of two movements is necessary before
the music has gained so much momentum that the third movement can be fired off
attacca in a dizzying scherzo prestissimo.
With no intention of making the observation absolute, I can say that Märchenbilder
is not alone in ending with a friendly, accommodating attitude. Hans Abrahamsen
often ends his works on a 'light' note, although this does not mean that the
ending is experienced as exaltedly optimistic. This way of ending goes back
to the end of the string quartet Winternachtof 1973. This work ends in an
unmistakable C major, and the effect is repeated at the end of the last movement
of Winternacht, which is four different kinds of music in four different keys,
meeting at the end, resolving in the same key. We see the same thing happen
in the last movement of the wind quintet Walden, where there are two kinds of
music in two different times, which at the very end meet in the same key.
The last movement of Märchenbilder is diatonically structured with
C major as the prevalent key. This kind of (tonal) amenability can also be heard
at the end of the orchestral work Stratifications (1973-75). In the composer's
own words: "If it is possible in music to create pure energy, then I do
it. There has to be a polarity between total light and total darkness in the
This is experienced as a shared identity in the works, which is underpinned
by the affinities between for instance the last movements of Märchenbilder
and Winternacht. In Märchenbilder it is a large woven texture in two ayers
(C major and B flat minor) -that is, the same key relation as in Winternacht
(between F major and E flat minor).
The affinities with other works in the family are sometimes veiled; they are
never directly emphasized. Abrahamsen's Piano Studies are related to the Horn Trio of 1984, which is a re-composition of the piano etudes. The material re-emerges
in the chamber ensemble work Märchenbilder (1984), which gives us a hint
of the composer's fondness for using musical material so as to show it in new
lights and contexts. The third movement (the scherzo) of Märchenbilder
is related to the Boogie Woogie in Abrahamsen's Piano Studies and thus also
to the Scherzo misterioso in the Horn Trio.
One could say that in Märchenbilder the whole piece is present in the
first bar. The work begins with a clash of two movements from Abrahamsen's Horn Trio. There is the movement which is called Arabesque (in the violins = second
movement of Märchenbilder) and then there is the movement called Märchenbilder
(in the piano = third movement of Märchenbilder). These form the starting-point
for the whole piece.
In Märchenbilder the composer has built in both accelerando and ritardando
(again the time aspect). In the third movement the listener can be taken on
an exciting voyage of discovery through rich realms of technical variation One
finds temporal compression and spatial expansion, tone rows ordered by ingenious
The character of the piece is derived naturally from the title, which is borrowed
from Schumann, who also wrote a Märchenbilder Of the Danish work Abrahamsen
writes in a programme note:
"There are a total of six folk tale pictures, where the first three make
up the first movement, the next two the second movement, and the last the third
movement, which begins attacca after the second movement. The first two pictures
have the same duration - a minute each - and the next four hesitantly increase
their length until the last, which lasts almost five minutes."
The composer as stage director
The simplicity of the large formal principle also applies to the movements
of Winternacht; the first movement is the longest, then the movements become
shorter and shorter. In a sense what is happening is an accelerando (again the
time perspective is relevant).
In Winternacht too there is good reason to recall the composer's words about
music as something living in an imaginary space. This permits the composer to
create pictures of music - for example a horn motif which takes form as a triad
motif in the course of its development. In isolation the horn motif would be
banal, but in the context it sounds like a meaningful interpolation - like a
picture of a fanfare. In that sense Abrahamsen's mode of composition is fundamentally
not far from Mahler's musical thinking. It becomes musically unreal, rather
like the way a misty landscape is experienced in the work of the film director
Andrei Tarkovsky. His fellow composer Poul Ruders has described the music in
Winternacht as "dreamingly poetic" and "classical in terms of
the clarity and discipline in the instrumentation and form." One understands
why the four movements are dedicated respectively to Georg Trakl, M.C. Escher,
Igor Stravinsky and Georg Trakl again.
The music of Winternacht becomes pictures of something else, but not imitations.
Nor does the title, taken from a poem by the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, mean
that we can be sure of a particular mood in the work. It is rather a matter
of a simultaneity of moods, timbres, forms and figures, created by an artist
with a talent for delicate weaving.
The composer sees something in the existing material and deciphers it in his
own quite special way. This way of "thinking music" has been realized
by Hans Abrahamsen in his work with Carl Nielsen's Three Piano Pieces op. 59
(1928). Abrahamsen reworked the piano pieces for ten instruments (1990)
Of the work of making Nielsen contemporary, the composer says. "I felt
that there was something in the music that was not resolved on the piano. I
have always thought that our image of Nielsen has been a little conservative.
The Danish musical world has used Nielsen as an exponent of resistance to contemporary
music. In the piano pieces I believe I can hear that Nielsen is on his way towards
a modernist idiom. His own musical language is being broken down. One feels
in the music that the composer does not know where he is going. With curiosity,
he listens to the music. He can sense that the world is in motion and he dares
open his mind to receive it. This means that his own style is about to be ruptured,
which in turn means that something imperfect, something awkward will enter the
music. Nielsen's piano pieces encompass an old and a new world. The sound of
these pieces reminds me of the sound of Schoenberg's pieces for small ensembles.
The actual situation Nielsen was in when he composed these pieces fascinates
Nielsen's contrast-filled music, which fluctuates between idyll and catastrophe,
inspires the Abrahamsen who sees potential in the splintered tonal idiom. Abrahamsen
profiles the rupture in Nielsen in his recomposition of the pieces. In a programme
note about the work Abrahamsen discusses this aspect of Nielsen's music.
"In these pieces, which are among Nielsen's last works, it is as if he
is about to develop his music into something new. At certain points they are
almost atonal (a new side of Nielsen) but always mixed with a strange, tonal,
multidimensional colouring. Like Ives, or perhaps Mahler, Nielsen brings many
different materials together from simple melodies in an idyllic folk-like or
chorale-like tone to a more ominous, desperately grotesque music, often as if
in eruptions which disturb the idyll, or even cause it to break down."
Märchenbilder was commissioned by and dedicated to The London Sinfonietta.
Lied in Fall was commissioned by The London Sinfonietta and Christopher
van Kampen for their twentieth anniversary season and dedicated to Per Nørgård.
Nielsen: Three Piano Pieces was reworked for The Esbjerg Ensemble.
Christopher van Kampen (cello) studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London.
At the age of twenty-four he was invited to become principal cello of the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he held for three years. He has held the
position of principal cello with the London Sinfonietta since the early seventies,
and has appeared as soloist with most of the leading British orchestras. He
is a specialist in contemporary music and has collaborated, as soloist under
their batons, in works by Luciano Berio, Hans Werner Henze and Sir Michael Tippett
Premieres he has given include Hans Abrahamsen's Lied in Fall and the
UK premiere of H.K. Gruber's Cello Concerto, which he also played at
the 1991. Proms His solo recordings range from works by Janácek, Hindemith,
Debussy, Kurt Schwertsik, Tim Souster and Nicola LeFanu, to Schubert's String
Quintet (with the Fitzwilliam Quartet). He has also recorded numerous works
as a member of the Nash Ensemble.
Founded in 1968 by David Atherton and Nicholas Snowman, the London Sinfonietta's
Artistic Director from 1972 to 1989 was the late Michael Vyner. He was succeeded
by the pianist Paul Crossley (1988-1994), and since September 1994 the Principal
Conductor has been the young German, Markus Stenz. The London Sinfonietta performs
an enormously diverse repertoire, ranging from small to very large forces. Of
233 world premiere performances, over 100 have been specially commissioned,
very often for the core group of 16 principal players. The ensemble enjoys fruitful
associations with many of the world's most established living composers, including
Adams, Berio, Birtwistle, Boulez, Carter, Górecki, Henze, Kurtág,
Maxwell Davies, Ligeti, Schnittke, Stockhausen and Xenakis. It has also formed
close working relationships with the composer/conductors Oliver Knussen and
George Benjamin and continues to champion the music of younger generations,
in particular such British composers as Simon Holt, Mark-Anthony Turnage and
most recently Thomas Adès and Julian Anderson. The London Sinfonietta
is a regular visitor to major international festivals and has made over 100
recordings, and has won awards for its discs of works by Benjamin, Birtwistle,
Britten, Carter, Kern (Show-boat), Stravinsky, Takemitsu, Tippett and
Weill. Its CD of Górecki's Symphony No. 3 has sold almost 1 million
copies worldwide, and has won a growing number of prestigious international
awards since its release.
Elgar Howarth studied music at Manchester University and the Royal Manchester
College of Music, where his first study was composition. His conducting career
began in the early 1970s and since then he has appeared regularly with all the
leading orchestras of Great Britain, both in the concert hall and in the recording
studio. He has appeared at major festivals abroad - mostly in Europe - and toured
Japan with the London Sinfonietta, an orchestra he has conducted regularly both
in the UK and abroad from the beginning of his career. His operatic achievements
cover a wide repertoire and include the world premiere of Ligeti's Le Grand
Macabre at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, followed by productions of the
same work in Hamburg, Paris and London. In 1985 he made his debut at Covent
Garden with Tippett's King Priam which he later performed with the same
company at the Athens Festival. He conducted the world premiere of Birtwistle's
Gawain at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in May 1991 and the revival
in 1994, which has been released by Collins Classics. In 1996 he conducted Henze's
The Prince of Homburg and Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, both at the
English National Opera. For his work on these productions he won the 1997 Olivier
award for "Outstanding Achievement in Opera". He retains an interest
in composing especially, as a former trumpet player, for brass instruments.
His works are published by Chester Music and Novello, and are much recorded,
particularly on the Decca label.
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