Hans Abrahamsen: let me tell you

performed by Barbara Hannigan and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons, or below with Hannigan and the Gothenburg Symphony under Kent Nagano

Abrahamsen – let me tell you from Göteborgs Symfoniker on Vimeo.

Hans Abrahamsen was born on 23 December, 1952 in Copenhagen, and his Wikipedia article says he “first got to know music through playing the French horn at school.” As with most people, he was influenced by his teachers (including Per Nørgård and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, and later György Ligeti), and his works are apparently associated with a “New Simplicity”, a “Danish reaction against the complexity emanating from central Europe, particularly the circle around the Darmstadt School.”

I know very little else (okay, nothing else) of his work, but I kept seeing all this press for let me tell you, and how amazing it was and how it was winning awards (and is continuing to do so), so I thought certainly this is something I must check out. It’s rare that a piece of classical music, much less one written in the past few years, garners such attention and praise, and let me tell you, Abrahamsen’s let me tell you is a magical, ethereal, poetic work of near-blinding beauty. In fact, it premiered just over three years ago, on 20 December, 2013.

The piece is a song cycle for soprano and orchestra, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and dedicated to its (currently sole?) performer, Barbara Hannigan, who is also kind of a mythically magical-seeming figure. Everything about this work, it seems, is quite recent. As its source text, it takes, not from centuries-old German (or as one might expect, Danish) poetry, but a 2008 book of the same name written by Paul Griffiths.

The piece was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, but apparently “at the request of Barbara Hannigan, to whom the work is also dedicated.” In the song cycle, as in Griffiths’ book, the soprano as narrator tells the story of Ophelia, Hamlet‘s Ophelia, telling the story from her perspective in a unique way. As Griffiths’ Wikipedia article states, “In let me tell you, Ophelia tells her story in a first-person narrative devised by Griffiths using only the 481 word vocabulary given to her in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” That’s in the book, and Abrahamsen’s song cycle takes its text from Griffiths’ book, so by extension also Shakespeare. But the character Ophelia herself is Danish…And regarding that character, her few pivotal appearances in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, how she is portrayed, female identity, sexuality, etc., we shall say nothing. That’s a big topic, but reading the sung text (in these Boston Symphony program notes) should give you an idea what’s going on. The score is available to read here, which, as always, is recommended.

The work is in three parts, and totals around a half hour:

Part I:

1. Let me tell you how it was
2. O but memory is not one but many
3. There was a time, I remember

Part II:

4. Let me tell you how it is
5. Now I do not mind

Part III:

6. I know you are there
7. I will go out now

The piece is scored for a not terribly huge orchestra. You’ll hear a lot of flute; there are three of them, all of whom double piccolo, and first flute also doubles alto flute. That aside, it’s a pretty standard Romantic-era orchestra. In kind of a Mahlerian fashion, it’s a big orchestra, but there aren’t many places where they all come together for a big, massive sound. For the most part it’s the glimmer of ice and snowflakes, or shimmering threads of silk, a glassy, crystalline texture that lets carries the voice but also catches sparkles and shines.

I’ll quote a recent review of the work in addressing a specific singing technique that might seem odd to some people, Hannigan’s “uh-uh-uh-uh-uh” pulsing of her held vowel sounds. It’s actually in the score that way. Andrew Clements at The Guardian explains:

Abrahamsen’s vocal writing makes much use of stile concitato, the repeated-note emphases that hark back to Monteverdi, and also exploits Hannigan’s ability to rise effortlessly to the limits of the soprano range.

It’s kind of nice, I’m sure, as a composer to know who you’re working with and write to their strengths, but that’s what it appears Hannigan is made up entirely of is strengths. She’s an angelic, beautiful, talented, captivating goddess kind of creature, and her recording of the work (likely the only one to exist for a while?) is the only one I need.

I really don’t want to go too far with explaining this work; anything I have to say about it would just be a spoiler. It’s very easily approachable in that there’s a text (in English) for it and it’s based off a story that most people have some familiarity with. To top that off, the work’s division into three sections, at least for me, presents three distinct moods. The first, as the titles of Part I suggest, seem to refer to ‘how it was’, things in the past: “There was a time…” and serve as an introduction and important setup for the work, especially the shape of the ‘let me tell you…‘ phrase in its first few appearances.

Part II, especially with no. 5, Now I do not mind, represents a drastic change in the overall atmosphere of the work, as the central section of the piece, it makes sense that this is a climax.

Compare those two to Part III. No spoilers here, but what’s being communicated? How does our Ophelia sound? What is she thinking about? What’s she expressing? How do the stunning color and texture of Abrahamsen’s music and Griffiths’ text convey what our character might be feeling, and how do you feel about it?

This music, with its stunning beauty, hits home in any number of ways: there’s the idea of a woman’s side of a man’s story, or various unique dynamics as part of a relationship, etc., but the music and the text are so viscerally real that the music is unavoidably emotional. It must mean something to anyone who hears it, be it pain, beauty, loss, love, and this very recent addition to the classical music canon is strong proof that despite the doubts about classical music, what it means and where it’s headed, there’s still some really beautiful music being made.

It is with this piece, then, not Nørholm’s third symphony from earlier in the week, that we end 2016. We finished with Danish music. If you wanted to, you could describe how this piece has parallels to what 2016 meant for so many people, but we shan’t do that. What we shall do is talk about how I’d like to get around to a bit more vocal music, one of the reasons I capped off a month of symphonies with this gem of a work, and that series is already in process, so look for that coming up next year. But there’s something before it, so stay tuned for an introductory article next week, as we start a whole new year of music. I have about 40% of the year roughly planned so far, so email me or leave a comment with suggestions! Thank you for reading. Really.

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