Hans Abrahamsen is one of the most individual composers to emerge in Denmark after the end of the Second World War. Born in 1952, he learnt the horn as a teenager, going on to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen. Among his composition tutors were two outstanding and very different figures in Danish music: Per Nørgård and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen - the former extrovert, charismatic and breathtakingly eclectic, the latter introvert, rigorous and ascetic. Both, however, left their imprints on Abrahamsen's later development.
For a while Abrahamsen was a member of the 'Group for Alternative Music', which sought to free new music from the restrictive and inhibiting environment of the traditional concert hall. He also became more politically aware, embodying his views in works like the Symphony of 1972, originally subtitled Anti-EEC Movement. But Abrahamsen came to realise the futility of such gestures, changing the symphony's title to the simple Symphony in C - as he put it at the time, 'Music cannot be against'.
Abrahamsen's first mature works show that, like many of his Danish contemporaries, he felt the need to distance himself from the complex, thorny Central European modernism that still held ideological sway in the early 1970s. The radical simplicity of pieces such as the chamber-orchestral Foam (1970) led to his being identified with the so-called 'New Simplicity' movement. But despite his inclination towards an at times almost Romantic lyricism - reflected in such titles as Märchenbilder ('Fairy-tale Pictures', 1984) and Lied in Fall ('Song in Autumn', 1987) - Abrahamsen was also prepared to learn from the modernists. Serial elements were incorporated in his music, but within the structures they create Abrahamsen allows himself a good deal of creative freedom: in his own words, 'My imagination works well within a fixed framework'.
With time, this synthesis has led to the formation of a highly personal style, on certain levels apparently familiar and rooted in 19th- and 20th-century tradition, on others deeply, unsettlingly unfamiliar. As one Danish critic has put it, Abrahamsen's music often has a superficially 'epic' expressive quality, while at heart it remains enigmatic and elusive.
In the 1990s Abrahamsen experienced something of a compositional crisis, and a long period of silence followed. But with the turn of the millennium, ideas began to flow again. The Four Pieces for Orchestra is one of the most impressive products of this newly reborn creativity.
Profile © Stephen Johnson, 2005