1. In sehr langsamer Zeit, immer ausdrucksvoll [In very slow time, always expressive]
2. Stürmisch, Bewegt [Stormy, with (e)motion]
3. Fliessend und unruhig (wie ein ‘Scherzo-Fragment’) [Flowing and restless (like a ‘Scherzo-Fragment’)
4. Sehr langsam [Very slow]
In 1983 Hans Abrahamsen wrote the first seven of his Ten Studies for Piano. In the early eighties most composers who wrote for the piano were still making strenuous efforts to distance themselves from the instrument’s romantic past – for example treating it as a percussion instrument rather than exploiting its expressive, ‘singing’ potential. The piano’s modern identity as a mechanical, rational, emotionally cool instrument is reflected in Abrahamsen’s studies 5 – 7; but in the first four studies Abrahamsen allows the piano to ‘recollect’ its past: especially what the composer calls ‘the golden German romantic time full of expression, night, timelessness, dream and the irrational’. Accordingly these first four studies were given German – one might specifically say Schumanesque - titles: Traumlied (‘Dreamsong’), Sturm (‘Storm’), Arabeske (‘Arabesque’) and Ende (‘End’).
While Abrahamsen was in no way dissatisfied with the first four Studies as piano music, he soon felt the urge to expand them in both time and space. In their new identity as Four Pieces for Orchestra, created between 2000-2003, the original studies nearly doubled in length, while the forces required expanded from one soloist to an orchestra of Mahlerian/Straussian dimensions, including instruments beloved by the late-romantics: Wagner tubas, bass trumpet, guitar, mandolin, and the hammer used so memorably in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. The results are not so much ‘arrangements’ of the four piano studies, more recompositions. A helpful comparison might be made with certain painters: Cézanne, portraying the same mountain from different angles; or Monet, obsessively returning to Rouen Cathedral in different lights and weather conditions. Abrahamsen himself remembers an important visit to the Munch Museum in Oslo, where he saw how Munch painted the same subject over and over again, ‘investigating it in many different ways from the small black-and-white sketch to the huge painting. For me it is the same. I have been haunted by these pieces for years and have been challenged to re-investigate the material to understand why.’
Listeners with some knowledge of the great works of the post-Wagnerian orchestral repertoire, from Bruckner to early Schoenberg and Anton Webern, will certainly find echoes of that ‘golden German romantic time’ in Abrahamsen’s Four Pieces for Orchestra. But they are only echoes – like the fleeting memories of feelings or scents encountered in dreams or as déjà-vu. There remains the distance of the modern observer – the distance which (in the words of the poet Thomas Campbell) ‘lends enchantment to the view’. One may sense Abrahamsen’s own enchantment with the romantic masterpieces he evokes over and over again in this music; but at the same time there is the pathos of distance – of contemplating the works of the past from a very different kind of world. It is the artful exploitation of this tension that makes Hans Abrahamsen’s Four Pieces for Orchestra both intriguing and haunting.
© Stephen Johnson