Hans Abrahamsen

Hans Abrahamsen received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize 2019

Composer Hans Abrahamsen received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize 2019 of EUR 100,000 at a concert held on 26 April 2019 at the Concert House, DR Byen.


Hans Abrahamsen let me tell you for soprano and orchestra. Lyrics by Paul Griffiths (2013)

Debussy Children’s Corner orchestrated by Hans Abrahamsen (2011)

Hans Abrahamsen Left, alone for piano (left hand) and piano (2015)

Barbara Hannigan, soprano
Tamara Stefanovich, piano
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Michael Schønwandt


Bertel Krarup, vice-chairman of the board of directors of the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation, presented the Prize of EUR 100,000 and held a personal speech, which included the following official motivation:

“The Léonie Sonning Music Prize of EUR 100,000 is awarded to composer Hans Abrahamsen for his outstanding contributions to the contemporary classical repertoire with works that are deeply touching and at the same time profoundly meaningful artistic statements in our time.

For half a century, Hans Abrahamsen has within a wide range of genres created music which has developed into a coherent oeuvre signifying a synthesis of tradition and innovation as well as a distinguished composition-technical mastery.”

The prize concert was the main event of a mini festival with music by Hans Abrahamsen at concerts in Copenhagen and Aarhus:

Wednesday 24 April 2019, at 20:00 The Royal Danish Library, Queens Hall Sinfonietta evening
Winternacht (1978/1987), Märchenbilder (1984), Schönberg Lieder Opus 2. Arr. Hans Abrahamsen, Piano concert (2000)
Barbara Hannigan, soprano. Manuel Esperilla, piano. Athelas Sinfonietta
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård

Schnee (2008) Accompanied by pictures by Per Morten Abrahamsen
ensemble recherche

Thursday 25 April 2019, at 19:30. The Royal Danish Academy of Music Chamber music, evening
String quartet no. 2 (1981), 10 Studies for Piano (1983/1998), Traumlieder (1984/2009), 10 Preludes. String quartet no. 1 (1973)

Nordic String Quartet. Jens Elvekjær, piano. Trio con Brio
Concert introduction 6.30 pm by Hans Abrahamsen in an interview with Esben Tange

Sunday, 28 April 2019 7.30 pm
Århus Musikforening, Aarhus Concert Hall
Hans A til Folket! – chamber music and arrangements
Walden, Landscapes, Herbstlied, Six Pieces, Le Tombeau du Couperin, Kinderszenen, Still and Storm with capriccio for string trio, Two Fantasy Pieces by Nielsen,
Three Piano Pieces by Nielsen.

Esbjerg Ensemble and Ensemble MidtVest

The concert was broadcast directly on DR P2. You can listen to it here.

Hans Abrahamsen in brief

Hans Abrahamsen was born in Lyngby in 1952. He played the horn when he was young and was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1969. Here, his interest in composition and music theory was aroused, and during the 1970’s, Hans Abrahamsen wrote his first significant works. With 10 Preludes, string quartet no. 1 (1973), he presents himself as an expressive, complete stylist who sets music free in a highly contrasting encounter between the honest – bound by musical form – and the powerfully emotional; and with the wind quintet Walden (1978), Hans Abrahamsen creates music which, by virtue of its “new simplicity”, contributes to the contemporary search for a harmonic co-existence with nature, while possessing a dreamily romantic side at the same time.

In the orchestral work, Nacht und Trompeten, Hans Abrahamsen is recognised on the international music scene. Both in this work and in Märchenbilder, Hans Abrahamsen opens a dialogue with the music of the past and creates his own musical language, which integrates gestures with modern, mesmerizing music rich in mystique. In the 1990’s, Hans Abrahamsen underwent a composition crisis, which left room for adapting and recomposing a number of works by Carl Nielsen, J.S. Bach and Schoenberg, among others.

With the completion in 1998 of 10 Studies for Piano and Concert for Piano and Orchestra dedicated to Anne Marie Abildskov, Hans Abrahamsen was revived as a composer. With an occasionally unrestrained minimalism and eruptive exclamations of joy, Hans Abrahamsen entered the new century. Throughout the first decade, a string of new works emerged several of which were created at the instance of the German music editor, Harry Vogt. This applies not least to Schnee, which is based on ancient canon techniques, and where notions of snow and a – in the composer’s own words – “white polyphony” open up to a wonderfully poetic world.

With let me tell you dedicated to Barbara Hannigan, Hans Abrahamsen reached a new compositional peak. Here, he re-creates Ophelia’s story from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a spellbindingly beautiful work for soprano and orchestra. With Barbara Hannigan as an unparalleled emphatic interpreter in a symbiosis with Hans Abrahamsen’s soulful, wintry landscape, let me tell you is a masterpiece in the classical music of the 2010’s.

Hans Abrahamsen’s previous oeuvre consists not only of a number of works. They form a whole as the individual works are often based on a root which is present in his own, previous works. This also applies to the most recent work, Left, alone, for piano (left hand) and orchestra. In liberated and enchanted versatile music, Hans Abrahamsen reverts to the work of his youth, October, for horn and piano (left hand) – a piece which was performed in 1969 at the composer’s first performance of his own music.

A large number of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors have played Hans Abrahamsen’s music, including: The Berlin Philharmonic, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Cleveland Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductors Andris Nelsons, Sir Simon Rattle and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Hans Abrahamsen has also received a number of prizes. The most significant include the Carl Nielsen Prize in 1989 and in 2016 both the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for let me tell you and the Nordic Council Music Prize for let me tell you.

Hans Abrahamsen has taught composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, and has recently been appointed Adjunct Professor of composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

Hans Abrahamsen’s first opera, Snedronningen, based on H.C. Andersen’s fairy tale, was commissioned by the Royal Danish Theatre and will be performed for the first time in the autumn of 2019 at the Opera House. The first English-language version of the opera, The Snow Queen, will be performed for the first time at Bayerische Staatsoper in season 2019-20.

The daily press wrote the following about the prize concert at the DR Concert House and the concert at the Royal Danish Library, Queens Hall:

At the DR Concert House, she (Barbara Hannigan) was exquisite as Hamlet’s Ofelia tossing words off of her mouth and pulling down tones from a breath-taking height in “let me tell you”, while the orchestra, with a million refinements, made the music burn sand into glass before the snow – one of Abrahamsen’s favourite motives – settled gently and calmly on the landscape of the last song. Now, that’s the way to write music which, at the same time, evokes beauty and draws the complex modernism of the twentieth century into our time.

Processing music – both his own and others’ – is part of Abrahamsen’s DNA and became clear with the orchestra’s transcription of Debussy’s suite for piano “Children’s Corner”. The past can sound so amazingly clear and colourful when an expert takes the music apart – as if it were a vintage sports car – rinses each part in oil and puts it all back together again. Hans Abrahamsen was indeed the right recipient of the Léonie Sonning Music Prize.

(Thomas Michelsen, Politiken)

The most overwhelming impression was the piece which conquered the western world long ago: “let me tell you” from 2013. For soprano and a large orchestra commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic at the request of Barbara Hannigan and composed for her … The piece is based on Ofelia’s words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 481 words in total, which the British author Paul Griffeths has transformed into a novel

You may categorise “let me tell you” as a cycle of songs – the three parts contain seven sections, seven songs, about love, loneliness and death. And I insist that, here, Abrahamsen is giving his strong contribution to a great European tradition: the soprano in the symphonic poem … “let me tell you” is Abrahamsen’s first major vocal composition, and before he started writing a note, he was coached in the vocal arts’ more transgressive techniques by Hannigan.

She has been an outstanding teacher. The striking aspect of the piece is the grand scale of expressions where the depths of the human mind come into sight. Ofelia’s weakness and vulnerability is perhaps the main track, but there is much much more.

He then made his sublime orchestration from 2011 of Debussy’s charming suite for piano “Children’s Corner”. Schønwandt was in his element, the six movements were characterised by a relaxed and precise flow – so well that you sensed how deep the French spirit is anchored in Abrahamsen’s universe. Debussy and Ravel were excellent at orchestrating – and so is Abrahamsen – he is one of the best at this important discipline in Denmark ever – if not the best.

The French connection was confirmed by his last piece, the piano concert for left hand called “Left, alone” from 2015. Left alone without the comma may mean something completely different – being abandoned. You could often hear the soloist’s presence in a carefully changeable, bare, quiet and, sometimes, ghostlike room. Only on a few occasions, a storm blows through the orchestra. The soloist has a shadow, another piano in the orchestra, and a similar doppelgänger has hardly been seen before in this genre. And the Serbian pianist, Tamara Stefanovich, was a joy to follow: the expressiveness of the short lines, the sassy groove together with the double basses, her brilliant one-hand show in the last Ravel-inspired filigree music. The Frenchman’s G major concert for two hands was indeed waving somewhere in a distant past.

(Valdemar Lønsted, Information)

When receiving this year’s Léonie Sonning Music Prize of EUR 100,000 at the gala concert on Friday with the crown prince couple in the audience, he humbly stated in his speech, “thank you for the music”. He very much contributes to this gift with the pieces he creates – at the request of ensembles such as the famous Berlin Philharmonic.

The gala concert gave a varied insight into Abrahamsen’s world of sound where poetry is the connecting tone thread. Most intensive was the opening piece “let me tell you” for soprano and orchestra. Hannigan went smoothly from whispering to desperate shouting and identified herself physically with Ofelia. With her vocal, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra spread out a carpet of transparent sounds. With the same transparency, the musicians made the movements of Debussy’s suite for piano “Children’s Corner” light up in Abrahamsen’s orchestra transcription. “Left, alone”, his left-hand concert for piano and orchestra, embedded itself in the soul with its supple rhythms. The pianist, Tamara Stefanovich, brought full power to the effects with her expressive instrument. Music which the ear could not let go of again. Thank you very much for Hans Abrahamsen.

(Christine Christiansen, Jyllands-Posten)

When people all over the world get inspired by him, it is both due to the music’s atmosphere of silent trumpets at sunrise and his methods when creating music.

Some hear his music as being very minimalistic. When the German orchestra ensemble recherche played his composition “Schnee” on Wednesday evening, you could hear the whistling sound of two palms on a table for an entire hour! But if you turn on the radio on Friday evening, you will experience his music as the opposite of static – as if you were looking at a nerve-racking dispute between giants through a microscope.

For decades, there has been no liking for traditions and now you hear something as wonderful as a slow reconquering of the right to beauty and poetry. The beautiful feelings of clear and frosty days in “Winternacht” from 1978 or of endless sunsets in “Märchenbilder” from 1984 were once music’s answer to the asphalt flower, and on Wednesday evening, they presented themselves as modern classics at the Danish Royal Library.

(Søren Schauser, Berlingske Tidende)

On Wednesday, the Copenhagen ensemble Athelas started the party with an extended version of “Winternacht” from 1978 demonstrating exactly the duality of tight, modernistic music which was simple and comprehensible at the same time. With trickling distinct expressions interplaying with calm, clear tunes as frosty landscapes where everything stood still.

During the 1980’s, Abrahamsen’s music became more and more complicated. On Wednesday, Athelas played “Märchenbilder” from 1984 as proof of those days, and the flow of information became very intense along the way. Up until a point where the music came together into an expression of movements which made your head spin. But it was double. There was also room in the music for the tunes to slowly seek from darkness to light.

In addition, the German ensemble recherche reappeared for another hour of intense music by way of the key piece “Schnee” from 2008. With this piece, Abrahamsen has invented a new, simpler and often very silent music with a special intimacy which feels both poetic and systematic. Ten movements with canons of transparent sounds and short melodies sounding like falling snow or at least a sense of it.

(Henrik Friis, Politiken)

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