Nominated for Gramophone Awards 2022, Best Contemporary Recording
★★★★ 'Album of the Week', The Guardian
Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee (2008) is a gorgeous marvel which encapsulates winter. The instrumental cycle, already a classic of the twenty-first century, comprises a set of ten canons making up an hour of ghostly, feathery music. There is no hurrying, but great depth. As Abrahamsen himself says: 'In Schnee, a single moment is stretched as far as possible. At some point, the music disappears. There is just a breath of air left'.
A snow-decked eternity
By Jens Cornelius
It begins in white, empty space and with violin notes so high that Hans Abrahamsen describes them as ‘an ice cold whisper’. The piano picks out a solitary descant melody on the white keys. It is as though the first flakes of snow are in the air.
Hans Abrahamsen’s feelings for snow are reflected in the titles of his works, for example in Winternacht (Winternight), in the opera The Snow Queen and more straightforwardly in Schnee (Snow). In his music, the snow has many different states, and the colours are graduated with finely felt accuracy: snow white, cool blue white, blinding white, crystal clear.
Hans Abrahamsen was born in 1952, and as a young composer at the beginning of the 1970s, was one of Denmark’s leading contributors to the stylistic trend, ‘New Simplicity’. His music developed over the years in a more complex direction, but by 1990 he felt that he had reached a deadlock. At the age of 38, he took a step back, and stopped composing.
When he returned to composition almost a decade later, it was with a new clarity. Abrahamsen himself has described how he came to a point at which he could combine the very complex with the very simple, and since then he has composed more, and longer, works than at any earlier point in his career. This led to his definitive breakthrough onto the international scene with his song cycle let me tell you for soprano and orchestra, written in 2013.
Another of Hans Abrahamsen’s central works is Schnee (2008). It has acquired nearly cult status and is a unique piece of music. It is, perhaps, Abrahamsen’s most radical piece since the works he wrote in a minimalist style in the early 70s, influenced, amongst other things, by a meeting with Terry Riley. Schnee emerged from the pause in composition in the 1990s, which Hans Abrahamsen now simply calls a ‘fermata’ and does not see as an actual interruption of his musical work. During that interlude he occupied himself with arrangements of other composers’ music, and it was the study of Bach’s short, intriguing canons, BWV 1072-78, which set him on the path which later led to Schnee. ‘I was completely absorbed by this music, and arranged the canons with the idea that they might be repeated again and again’, he has explained. ‘For me, this way of hearing music opened an entirely new and inspiring world of time set in motion. Depending on how one hear these canons, the music stands still, moving forwards or backwards’.
Bach’s musical mirror chamber gave Abrahamsen the idea to write music based on canonic and other imitative techniques. When Harry Vogt from Westdeutscher Rundfunk and the German group, ensemble recherche, commissioned Abrahamsen to write a work for the festival Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik in 2006, the moment had arrived. The piece became the opening movements of Schnee, though it was first performed with the titles Canon 1a and Canon 1b.
What we have in these canons are two versions of the same music but with more layers and open spaces in Canon 1b, rather like an extended ‘double’ variation in a Baroque suite or, as Abrahamsen describes it, ‘a painting in two versions with different colours’. The idea of a double identity also allowed the composer to investigate whether a musical process could be experienced three-dimensionally, as in stereoscopic pictures, where two nearly identical pictures are viewed simultaneously, giving an unexpected experience of depth. ‘I wanted to see if that could also be realised in music’, Abrahamsen explains. ‘Perhaps the effect would also occur when one heard a repeated figure (as in Bach’s C major prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1) or in the experience of form (as in Bach’s Contrapunctus 13a and 13b from The Art of Fugue, where the second is an inversion of the first). And if one lays two ‘times’ over each other, will a deeper, three-dimensional pace then arise? That was at least what I tried to find out with Canons 1a and 1b. The two movements form a pair, which, heard from a distant and slightly unfocused ear, may create a third, three-dimensional piece’.
After the first performance of Canons 1a and 1b, Hans Abrahamsen went further with this train of thought, and by 2008 Schnee was completed as a substantial work formed of five pairs of canons, or as suggested by its subtitle, 10 Canons for 9 Instruments. Typically, Abrahamsen decided the proportions in advance according to a numerical system: the duration of each of the five pairs became gradually shorter. The first pair lasts twice nine minutes, the second twice seven minutes, then twice five minutes and twice three minutes until, finally the last pair are twice one minute.
Another basic structure is evident in the division of the musicians, who sit in two groups on either side of a percussionist. Placed on the left, group 1 has the strings, violin, viola, cello and piano; and group 2 to the right with the woodwind, flute, clarinet, oboe and a second piano.
Canon 1a is played by group 1, while both groups collaborate in Canon 1b. The percussion appears here for the first time, in the gentlest incarnation one could imagine: a sheet of paper pushed back and forth on a table. Canon 2a begins when the woodwind of group 2 exploring a minimalist motif in dense and rapid turmoil, accompanied by the piano, which has been prepared with paper. The music reminds one of walking against the wind in swirling snow without being able to find the way. In Canon 2b the groups are reunited, and the swirling now comes from all sides at the same time.
In Canon 3a and 3b, the polyphony moves at such a slow pace that the ensemble appears to be a wholly new body with a different breathing pattern. Abrahamsen compares the two slow-motion movements with Chinese tai chi exercises. Canon pair no. 4 are, by contrast, very restless. Here Abrahamsen is sending a winter greeting to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (‘Hommage à WAM’) by using the same sleigh-bells as Mozart inhis snow-piece, ‘Die Schlittenfahrt’ (‘The Sleigh Ride’) from Three German Dances, K. 605. Canon 4a even has the subtitle, ‘German Dance’.
The five pairs of canons are interrupted three times by pulseless interludes in which some of the instruments are tuned down to a slightly lower pitch. The interruption reminds us of traditional tuning, but here it has the reverse function: the ensemble will hang less closely together. At the same time the interludes function as a pause for thought, like the ‘Sphinxes’ in Schumann’s piano work, Carnaval, which stops the course and asks as many questions as it gives answers. This happens first in Intermezzo 1, placed between Canon 2a and 2b, where the strings, alto flute, cor anglais and bass clarinet are tuned down a sixth of a tone. In Intermezzo 2 it is the violin and viola which slide down another sixth of a tone, while the piccolo flute and the cello do the same in Intermezzo 3. The lowering of the pitch creates interference because the instruments move away from the piano’s immoveable tuning, as well as from each other internally. It is as if the music slowly melts, reaching a point at which, like an ice floe, it can break apart and glide away.
‘All this is perhaps a bit cold and formal, but for me these considerations are tied to the piece’s poetic world, which springs from notions of snow and white polyphony’, says Hans Abrahamsen.
So it is neither the numerical relationships or traditional canon technique that the ear catches first when one listens to Schnee. Abrahamsen’s dogmas and his incomparably precise compositional technique are merely the technical basis for a sensory experience of multidimensionality and the changing sensations of direction. The music moves not only forwards, but backwards and in circles, and sometimes remains completely still. At the same time, the music’s weightless softness, the hissing sounds of the wind, the white noise and the crystalline sounds create a mosaic of large, white pictures. It is not actual programme music, as for Abrahamsen the snow is a poetic performance, an esoteric symbol in white nuances. They lead, in Canon 5a and 5b, to an enchanted, naive fairyland where non-inverted and mirrored, in canon-language ‘rectus’ and ‘invertus’, mirror each other and give us a glimpse into a snow-decked eternity.
Schnee is introverted, very solitary music which provides space for a relieving happiness through freedom in an objective clarity. This piece lasts an hour, and is Abrahamsen’s longest instrumental work. ‘Even if a piece is long, it can be concise’, explains Hans Abrahamsen. ‘In Schnee, a single moment is stretched as far as possible. At some point, the music disappears. There is just a breath of air left’.
Schnee in Lapland
By John Storgårds
When the Lapland Chamber Orchestra and I were to perform and record Schnee, Hans came up here to Lapland to rehearse the work with us. We had some good and intense days. Hans’ musical world is very rich with nuances, colours and fantasy, and in it, one comes into a very special universe. He certainly has a very personal musical voice. This is a feeling I have had for a long time since I was a violinist in Avanti! Chamber Orchestra and performing his 10 Preludes. Since then, I have conducted several of Hans’ works, including the first performance in Finland of let me tell you and his chamber version of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 6.
When we perform Schnee, we must first and foremost spend a great deal of time on preparation. There is no way of trying to play the work before every single musician has mastered their own part and all the technical details required to play it well. Then there must be time to rehearse it, so that everything can fall naturally into place. Above all, Hans’ music is very natural. It feels so suggestive and so human, and despite the complicated technique behind it, the music is full of positive energy. We were really taken by its groove! Once you have reached the right level of strength, you will enjoy how the music flows, as if it were improvised, despite having been created with the utmost precision. Only very few composers can write such music.