©Lars Skaaning

Resonant with the western tradition in all its facets, with ancient folk melody, with nature, with the vibrant structure of sound itself, the music of Hans Abrahamsen yet has the freshness of something untouched – untouched, and touching by being so. We are in a world we partly know. Bach and Ligeti are just over the horizon. That tune rings a bell. Memories stir of sound as clear as light. And yet everything is different.

            No wonder this is a composer of so much snow music, for snow shapes itself on what we know to offer the possibility of a new start. This, the new start, Abrahamsen has achieved several times, not least in his Schnee (2006-8), scored for two pianos and percussion with contrasting trios and justly esteemed one of the first classics of twenty-first-century music. Gradually crystallizing canons, playing for close on an hour, are also musical portraits of snow: its flurries, its delicacy, its cold. Though based on a modal melody, the piece is by no means white-note music; indeed, characteristic microtonal retunings, 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.

            An early beginner – his first published works date from when he was sixteen – Abrahamsen started out with a flair for rediscovering fundamentals. By the age of thirty he had produced a sizeable output: several orchestral works (Nacht und Trompeten, a luminous and dramatic nocturne, was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic), two string quartets and numerous other pieces, mostly instrumental, including another fine example of wintry musical poetry, Winternacht.

            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, briefly his teacher, had been one of his first heroes, for exactness and beauty, along with Steve Reich. Now the debt was repaid, and a door opened. Abrahamsen immediately arranged six of the studies to make a companionpiece for the Danish première 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, did not come until 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 of pieces by Bach and Nielsen. Of original compositions, 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, not for the last time, a new beginning had deep roots in his past – in the turbulent lopsided ostinatos and the contrasting stillnesses 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.

            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.

            Abrahamsen’s work as an orchestrator or reorchestrator 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 folk song, and that seems to hold the key to the movements that follow – a key they can never refind.

            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 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.

            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. Yet this is also a work with its own character, reaching to moments of bursting brilliance or consolatory embrace.

            Each composition joins its companions as a sibling, related but distinct. Abrahamsen’s Fourth Quartet (2012) begins in a glacial world of high harmonics and ends in a typical use of rhythmic intricacy to create irregular dance. His let me tell you (2013), a monodrama for soprano and orchestra, again finishes in a winter landscape but is perhaps most remarkable for its reinvention of vocal melody, keenly expressive, on the part of a composer who had written very little for the voice. The achievement won him the Grawemeyer Award in 2015.

            His concerto for piano left hand, Left, alone (2014-15), is again a drama, a story of conflict, solitariness and communal exhilaration, and proves him ready for the next challenge he has set himself, that of opera, on a subject made for him: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

Wilhem Hansen


" Vers le silence "

For orchestra

Wilhelm Hansen



The natural music of numbers

Vers le silence was written during the COVID-19 lockdown and is a new milestone among Hans Abrahamsen’s orchestral works. For the first time since Nacht und Trompeten from 1981, Abrahamsen has composed a brand new purely orchestral work, not a concerto for one or more soloists, nor an orchestral work based on previous works.

Vers le silence is the last work in a series of three, following Left, alone for lefthanded piano and orchestra (2015) and Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (2019). After composing for solo instruments, which are dear to him and have a biographic dimension, the perspective has now broadened and is focusing on the orchestra’s span from grand expression to chamberlike.

With four movements, the work is longer than the two previous ones and the format is wider.

Vers le silence is dedicated to his friend, the composer George Benjamin, making it a work from composer to composer.

Despite external differences, the three works are built on the same foundation. The music’s time, rhythm and harmony are based on the first 9 prime numbers, which together add up to the beautifully round number 100. By using these prime numbers with their superb nature and irregular relationship to each other, Hans Abrahamsen manages to create an original architecture for his music, both in the grand form and in smaller sections of the music that are proportional to each other.

When we look closer at the music, we see, according to Hans Abrahamsen, how it arises from five elements: “Fire, earth, wind, water and the fifth, which could be wood, growth or maybe humans.”

At the beginning of the first movement, the five elements are presented in concentrated form, unfolding in a sort of ‘flash forward’ motion, in the following movements. Where the first four elements are more tangible, as known elements of nature, the fifth element is of a transcendent nature, associated with the antique philosophers’ idea of quintessence, the fifth element from which the heaven and stars are formed.

With an interplay between the natural habitats of the five elements, Hans Abrahamsen has composed “silence music”, which during Vers le silence returns with a growing inner force. The title also refers to Alexander Scriabin’s Vers la flamme, where the music moves towards the flame. Whereas in Vers le silence it is the silence that is nurtured and gradually takes over. The silence is a catalyst for a musical journey which after the emotionally torn fire music of the beginning, at the end moves towards a more transpersonal and metaphysical world.

Esben Tange (2021)