Hans Abrahamsen: Schnee

Program Note

Hans Abrahamsen describes visualizing “pictures of music…basically, music is already there” within a given concept or narrative. This might explain his fascination with children’s fairytales (with their oft-pictorial language), such as Hans Christian Andersen’s classic “The Snow Queen”, which was Schnee’s partial inspiration. The score provides detailed guidelines to the musicians in the service of wintery images such as “like an icy whisper, but with a pulsation,” or “tender and still,” as well as fantastic, unspoken exclamations to accompany rhythmic motives such as “children hope there will be snow!” and “this is winternacht!”

During an eight-year-long period of self-described writer’s block in the 1990s, long before the beginning of Schnee’s realization in 2006, Abrahamsen spent time arranging the work of others. In his note to accompany the piece, he describes this experience:

“In the beginning of the 90s, I arranged some of J.S. Bach’s canons for ensemble – in total seven single standing works from his entire life span. I became totally absorbed into this music and arranged them with the intention of the music being repeated many, many times, as a kind of minimal music. Obviously, I didn’t know which durations Bach had in mind, but by listening to his canons in this way, a profound new moving world of circular time was opened to me. Depending on the perspective on these canons, the music and its time can stand still or move either backwards or forwards. In my own work, an ongoing idea has persisted, of at some point writing a work consisting of a number of canonical movements that would explore this universe of time.

In Schnee, a few simple and fundamental musical questions are explored. What is a Vorsatz [antecedent phrase]? And what is a Nachsatz [consequent phrase]? Can a phrase be answering? Or questioning? 

The guideline or rule for the canons is very simple: We start out with an answering Vorsatz, followed by a questioning Nachsatz. Throughout the time of the piece, these two are intertwined more and more, as more and more dicht geführt [tightly composed] canons, until, at the end, they are interchanged. Now the question and then the answer. The two canons are identical like a painting in two versions, but with different colors. And where the first one does not include the space, the second one does, as well as containing more canonical traces.”

—Hans Abrahamsen

Hans Abrahamsen studied theory at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, where Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was one of his mentors. Spurred by the example of his teacher, Abrahamsen’s music initially channeled the ideas of the New Simplicity movement, which was conceived as a reaction to the complex serialism championed as the pinnacle of modernism by the Darmstadt School in central Europe. His style evolved over the course of the ’70s and ’80s, spurred first by a fascination with minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich and, later, under the tutelage of Györgi Ligeti. The composer describes his own body of work “as one long music,” connected musically and thematically, by which token themes based on the intersection of winter and fantasy can be found in several of his compositions in addition to Schnee. These examples range from his recently Grawemeyer Award-winning, orchestral song cycle let me tell you (2013), which sets a snowy passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to far earlier Winternacht (1978) and Märchenbilder [Fairytale Pictures] (1984). Abrahamsen is currently working on an opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”.

—Josh Davidoff