String Quartets No. 1-4

Some composers identify early on with a particular genre. A quick glance at a list of works by the Dane Hans Abrahamsen seems to indicate a very different attitude. The profusion of titles suggests a mind that picks up a form, engages with it for the duration of the work itself, and then moves on to something fresh. There has been one significant exception however - the string quartet.


Abrahamsen's four quartets span almost the whole of his composing career: Quartet No. 1 was composed in 1973, when Abrahamsen was in his early-twenties; Quartet No. 4 appeared in 2012, as he entered his sixties. Not only so, but the quartets also draw a vital thread across the chasm at the heart of his life's work. In the 1990s Abrahamsen experienced a compositional crisis, and a long period of creative silence followed. It was only with the turn of the millennium that ideas began to flow again: the breakthrough began in 2000 with the Piano Concerto he wrote for his wife Anne Marie Abildskov.


So we have two pairs of quartets, perched either side of this nearly ten year-long hiatus [Abrahamsen likes to call it a 'fermata'], each the product of a particular decade. To an extent they can be heard to reflect the changing stylistic emphases and ideologies of their times, but the more one gets to know the music, the more these reflections resemble light glancing off the surface of water: it's what's going on below that surface that becomes truly absorbing.


Nature imagery is unavoidable when discussing Abrahamsen's music, and the composer makes no attempt to discourage it. Air, silence, the way natural processes constantly return to and recycle used resources - all of this finds a radical fulfillment in the astonishing Quartet No. 4 [2012]. The first movement [high in the sky singing] is almost entirely piano, dolcissimo, employing nothing but harmonics throughout. The instruments enter in fabulously slow imitation, in two great symmetrical waves, punctuated at the mid-point and at the end by two extremely high cello harmonics, pianissimo. The third movement then revisits and reworks this movement hushed, airy, light-filled textures and canonic structure, recreating them as something 'Dark, earthy and heavy', sub-headed "with a heavy groove".


A similar relationship unites and contrasts the second movement [dance of light] and the 'Gently "rocking"', 'babbling' fourth movement. So many of Abrahamsen's earlier preoccupations fuse in this music: the extreme simplicity of minimalism, the canons and invertible counterpoint of Bach, the sense of expression increasingly pared down in Schubert's Winterreise - echoing the wintry preoccupations of his recent chamber cycle Schnee ['Snow', 2006], and the opera he is currently working on, The Snow Queen. At the same time it is a celebration of all that has been subliminally learned, and distilled, during that long, difficult creative silence of the 1990s.


'In music', says Abrahamsen, 'many different things maybe running together'. That could almost be a motto for the Fourth String Quartet.
In the opening of Quartet No. 3 [2008] we can hear Abrahamsen approaching the Fourth Quartet's lucid clarity. Disarmingly simple diatonic phrases emerge on the four strings - perhaps recalling the tunes Abrahamsen remembers picking out on the piano as a child. Yet each phrase unfolds in its own metre: complexity and extreme simplicity co-exist almost nonchalantly. Throughout this Quartet the language appears distilled, concentrated, radically economical. The Third Quartet was, says Abrahamsen, a kind of 'detour' on the way to what eventually became Quartet No. 4. Realizing that the work he'd planned was getting stuck, he gave up and started this one instead. But this too came into being via a kind of creative detour. Several times in his career, Abrahamsen has gone back to a work from an earlier stage in his career and re-engaged with it. Thus the first four of his Studies for Piano [1983] were expanded and hugely enriched in 2000-2003 as Four Pieces for Orchestra. Thus too Three Little Nocturnes for accordion and strings [2005] eventually became Air for accordion solo when Abrahamsen decided to remove precisely the restless, nervy elements that he'd originally thought most interesting and let the music's simpler heart speak for itself. This eventually was reworked into the Third Quartet, whose final movement, like the closing bars of No. 2, seems poised on the edge of silence - only this time with far more of a sense of acceptance.


In Quartet No. 2 [1981] Abrahamsen felt for the first time that in writing for the string quartet he was engaging with a particular medium, and one with a very particular tradition. The influence of Stravinsky, evident in the First Quartet, persists - it can be felt most strongly in the second movement, along with a hint of American minimalism - but now it rubs up against a strong awareness of the late romantic and expressionist quartet masterpieces of Schoenberg, Berg and Bartók. There is something highly productive about this friction: the intensity and gestural complexity of German expressionism, Stravinsky's crystalline concentration and the lilting, semplice tunefulness of the third movement are brought into a kind of fertile dialogue: where in all this is truth to be found? The finale seems to answer this with defiant fury, but at the last minute it sputters into a long-held bar of silence - eerily prophetic, when one knows what was to come.


Even though Abrahamsen was only 25 when he wrote his First Quartet [1973], in an important sense it outlines the course he was to follow through the next four decades - something which becomes even clearer when the Quartets are experience in reverse order. Originally this wasn't actually called 'String Quartet'. Abrahamsen's first title was Ten Preludes, and he regarded it at first as a composition for four solo strings rather than a work in the great string quartet lineage stemming from Haydn and Beethoven to Bartok and Shostakovich. If he had a precursor in mind it was Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, in which the combination of two violins, viola and cello often seems more or less fortuitous. The ninth movement, in which the four strings play [almost] entirely in unison, seems to take a naive pleasure in defying rules of 'good' quartet writing.


The discovering, or uncovering of that sense of naivety, simplicity - half calculated, half genuine - is at the heart of the First Quartet's musical thinking. The first movement begins with the kind of complex, astringent textures common the kind of self-consciously forward-looking music typical of the early 1970s. But as composition progressed Abrahamsen began to notice that a simplification process was going on, rhythmically and harmonically. Not only did the notes G and C force their way increasingly into the foreground, they began to behave more and more like dominant and tonic of C major. In the end Abrahamsen decided to let them have their way: the last movement is a kind of late-renaissance-early baroque dance in C major. This wasn't planned, Abrahamsen says, but he was delighted with the way it turned out. At a time when the categorical imperative was to be complex and atonal, then to be simple and tonal was to be truly radical. At the same time it offered a sense of resolution: 'just like Beethoven's Fifth', says Abrahamsen, 'we come through to C major'. The pure, ecstatic, airborne harmonics of the Fourth Quartet's opening movement - in clock time nearly forty years in the future - seem spiritually only a few short steps away.   


July 2017, Stephen Johnson

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