HANS ABRAHAMSEN: Wind Quintets
by Jens Cornelius
After a long break from composition in the 1990s Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952) is writing more music than ever. And his works have grown in volume, as can be heard in the hour-long canon work Schnee (2008), in the Double Concerto for Violin and Piano (2011) and in let me tell you for soprano and orchestra (2013), written for the Berlin Philharmonic and honoured with the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award 2015 and with the Grawemeyer Award 2016. Hans Abrahamsen is more than ever a unique voice in Nordic music.
On this album we hear two of his early works, and in Abrahamsen’s case this must be understood literally, for he was only 16 when he first had his music published. That it is music for wind quintet is no coincidence. He originally studied the French horn at the Royal Danish Academy of Music; he played in a wind quintet himself, and became familiar at an early stage with a wide quintet repertoire.
“In reality it’s a very non-homogeneous ensemble,” says Hans Abrahamsen, “but for me it was very natural to write for wind quintet. The configuration worked well with miniature movements, and I am probably a composer of miniatures.”
Hans Abrahamsen’s first work for wind quintet relied heavily on Stravinsky’s neoclassicism and was not published. Much more personal are the two quintet works Landscapes and Walden from the 1970s, which demonstrate his ideal of a new, simple and objective kind of music.
Abrahamsen’s urge to purify was in the spirit of the youth revolution’s rejection of authority. In his case, authority included German modernism, which had exerted a firm grip on post-war music. Abrahamsen wanted to rediscover expressiveness by peeling away superfluous complexity, and the actual musical performance was to be quite objective.
Landscapes was written in 1972, when Abrahamsen was 19. None of the movements deviates from its particular fixed dynamic, and they must all be played senza espressivo. The close-knit parts move stepwise up and down through tiny motifs, and the movements are not rounded off – they quite simply stop, like with a ‘cut’. It is demonstratively simple – a revolt in miniature form against both the obsolete and the overcomplicated.
“I wanted to write something expressive, but as if at a distance. From the air landscapes can be seen with very clean lines,” says Abrahamsen.
In the lyrical first movement the blocks of the music can be compared to fields adjoining one another. The second movement, in Abrahamsen’s words, is more of a sandy landscape, influenced by the American minimalism of the time, in particular presumably Terry Riley, whom Abrahamsen met in Copenhagen in 1971. The first section of the movement is a three-note canon in inversion for flute and bassoon. Towards the end one can sense associations with a flight of birds taking off, while from the depths one hears the sounds of whales.
The third movement is a wilder landscape with a manic atmosphere that could continue endlessly, but which here remains within the framework of the miniature. The three landscapes in the work stand side by side on a neutral, equal footing.
Walden was written in 1978. It is a seminal work in Abrahamsen’s production, not only because it is one of his most frequently played works, but because the combination of poetry and meticulously detailed minimalism functions so perfectly. In the four short movements, with carefully delimited material, Hans Abrahamsen creates a highly controlled, yet organic process.
The title Walden only emerged later, and comes from Henry David Thoreau’s famous book from 1854 with the subtitle Life in the Woods. It is Thoreau’s account of his poetic and political experiment with opting out of society, living in the woods at Walden Pond and only doing what is most necessary. A classic of American literature, which with its environmentally aware ‘drop-out’ thinking gained a new readership in the 1970s.
Just as Thoreau’s plan for the simple life is a construct, one must not be fooled by Abrahamsen’s newly-invented simplicity. All the music in the work originates in a narrow range of tonal material, and the progress of the movements consists of very rigorous constructions, often based on canons. Along the way the tonal material of the work is expanded, while at the same time a contrary development makes the movements accelerate in tempo and shorten in duration.
The process is set in motion by an ascending fourth played by the horn; a motif that immediately evokes associations with forest and sunrise, but also with specific musical works, for example the beginning of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony or the horn variation in Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet (which according to Nielsen should be played with “a naïve feeling for nature”). The horn continues with phrases five bars long while the other instruments ‘respond’ with phrases of four bars where general pauses are part of the pulse. The difference in the length of the phrases means that they gradually shift away from each other, staggered and the question of the horn is overtaken and is therefore heard unanswered the last time.
Then the oboe plays the inverted horn motif and opens the next section with a descending fourth. A third note is added to the material in the parts, which continue as a canon in three different tempi. With a signal the material is expanded once more before the movement ends with a condensation that ends in staccato emphases in D major, originating naturally in the material of the movement.
The second movement is a remarkable composition with the character of a funeral procession. It is based on a cantus firmus part in flute and bassoon, composed of seven small figures and their seven inversions. Over this passacaglia-like foundation we hear the free oboe, which extends its fourth-figure from the first movement into a whole 12-tone row. Horn and clarinet respond tonally with brief echoes of the phrases.
Now the tempo of the work is accelerated, and the movements become audibly shorter. The third movement is lively micropolyphony, like brooks flowing polyrhythmically on, connected to one another on the first beats along the way. In the next section the tonal compass is stretched farthest in the work, and the music seems about to crack with the strain. A warning in the horn makes the other parts stop the development. In the end only the horn’s signal can be heard in the distance.
The very short fourth movement is bright and cheerful, but should be played very quietly, as if the music is being heard from a distance. Two themes are heard at the same time: a “Duo” in a minuet-like 3/4 and a “Trio” in 6/8. Their keys, C sharp minor and E flat major, gradually adapt to each other so that the parts meet at the end in D major and cease abruptly when the destination is reached.
In the course of the 1980s Hans Abrahamsen’s striving for purity was challenged by a growing complexity in his music, and around 1989 he stopped writing new material. Only after a break in composition of ten years has he found a new basis for arriving at the desired simplicity.
During the break he began to work with transcriptions of both his own and others’ works. For Abrahamsen this is mainly a way of working analytically with music, and he has continued with this branch of his work ever since. He made his transcription of Schumann’s piano work Kinderszenen in 2005. Abrahamsen feels very attracted to Schumann’s music, its poetry and naivism as well as its madness. Kinderszenen, with its brief, contrasting scenes, has affinities with Abrahamsen’s own way of building up works, and like Schumann he has often himself incorporated a naivist ‘children’s world’ in his music, for example in the last movement of Walden. With the transcription of Kinderszenen from 1838 Hans Abrahamsen has also succeeded in giving the wind quintet repertoire a missing major work from Romanticism.
Kinderszenen has often been misinterpreted as sentimental Biedermeier culture, but this is due to bad imitations which, all the way into the twentieth century, have exploited the model for pure childish kitsch. (Probably only Debussy’s Children’s Corner – which Abrahamsen has also transcribed – is in its own way a match for Schumann’s original).
The form is symmetrical and consists of 13 scenes. At the centre stands the famous Träumerei (which is also the suite’s first movement in a flat key), whose gentleness Abrahamsen emphasizes by omitting the pungent oboe. After this, Schumann reveals a deeper, more subconscious side which leads to the sleep scene in the subtle penultimate movement, Kind im Einschlummern. As an epilogue the chorale Der Dichter spricht sends one’s thought to the musical godfather J.S. Bach. In the very last bar Hans Abrahamsen has discreetly made his only change in Schumann’s original by making a holding note in the oboe bind the final chords together (as Wagner also does in the last bars of Tristan and Isolde).
Le Tombeau de Couperin
Ravel worked with a naivistic universe in among other works the piano suite Ma mère l’Oye and the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, and even more often in the figurative sense as a longing for lost worlds. For example in Le Tombeau de Couperin, a six-movement piano suite from which Ravel later orchestrated four of the movements. In his version for wind quintet Hans Abrahamsen takes his point of departure in Ravel’s orchestral version.
Ravel’s work from 1917 is a virtuosic, elegant tribute to the French Baroque composers and their tradition of writing commemorative works for one another. Yet it is not only an homage to a lost glory in French music; it is also a personal memorial, for each movement is dedicated to one of Ravel’s comrades who fell in the Great War. Symbolically, one finds a yearning here for lost innocence which, like childhood, we shall never regain. Ravel used that dream to create the perfect piece of music, for even in an oeuvre as exquisite as his, there is hardly anything more perfect than Le Tombeau de Couperin. Creating a masterly transcription of it requires a perfectionist of the same calibre – which Hans Abrahamsen is.
© Jens Cornelius, 2015