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Hans Abrahamsen

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Let me tell you (2013)
Commissioned by Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker with the support of Danish Arts Foundation
Edition Wilhelm Hansen Copenhagen
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes

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Programme Note
Hans Abrahamsen Let me tell you (2013)
The orchestral song cycle let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen, based on the novel let me tell you (2008) by Paul Griffiths, has been initiated by Barbara Hannigan. In the work, 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. He uses a constrained writing technique similar to those employed by the avant-garde Oulipo group. It is a text of delicate and fragile atmosphere and the selections for the song cycle have been a joint effort by all three artists.

This is the second commission Abrahamsen has received from Berlin Philharmonic with the support of the Danish Arts Foundation. It follows Nacht und Trompeten in 1971 which was championed by Hans Werner Henze, who was, at that time, composer in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.


Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Large-Scale Composition 2015

Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition 2016

Gramophone Classical Music Award for Contemporary Music 2016

Nordic Council Music Prize 2016

Diapason d'Or 2016

Edison Klassiek prize 2016

Danish Radio P2 - Album of the year 2017

Score preview


  • Ensemble
    Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks
    Barbara Hannigan, soprano
    Andris Nelsons
  • 03 MAY 2020
    Opernhaus / Hannover / Germany
    Niedersächsisches Staatsorchester Hannover
    Nicole Chevalier, Soprano; Titus Engel, conductor

    Other Dates:
    4 May - Opernhaus / Hannover / Germany

★★★★ Abrahamsen’s 'let me tell you' confirmed its rare power as a contemporary work that partners eerie lyric grace with a startling original musical palette of colours. They beguile but unsettle in the same, frozen breath. As so often with Abrahamsen, this is winter music, from the resonating icicles we hear at the start from piccolo and celeste to the brass that rips and groans like melting polar floes. Griffiths’s text, however, re-engineers Ophelia’s laments so that her words become not a hymn to suicide but a song of survival: “I will go on in the snow/ I will have my hope with me.” (...) we could the exquisite artistry Barbara Hannigan brings to writing that calls for the same notes and syllables to reverberate spookily: Monteverdi’s stile concitato, but thrillingly updated. The effect feels a bit like traditional ululations, either of mourning or celebration. With these spine-tingling echoes captured in Hannigan’s vocal line, the music itself shivers. (...) The LSO flourished in Abrahamsen’s crystalline but ever-changing soundscape, from the frozen stillness of the plucked basses to keening cellos and the closing bell-peals that sound like carillons heard across snowbound valleys. Both familiar and alien, Abrahamsen’s music skates around the edges of conventional tonality until, towards the end, microtones blossom into lovely, unearthly frost-flowers of delicate sound.
Boyd Tonkin,,11/01/2019
★★★★ Few contemporary song-cycles have created as big a stir as Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you premiered in 2013. This has as much to do with the intensity of emotional expression in the half-hour work as the extraordinarily effective orchestration. It is the kind of piece that sends shivers down the spine. (...) Imagine the sounds produced by a suffering sentient being stretched as far as the vocal cords will allow, with regular tremors shooting through the vocal line by dint of stile concitato, (a device first used by Monteverdi involving clusters of repeated syllables), and you come some way to comprehending this unique musical landscape. The orchestral colours are those of the glacial north: metallic glints produced by a range of percussion instruments set against the spectral qualities of high violins. In climes where snow blindness can be a real threat, phantasmagoria is suggested by the dazzling, dizzying vocal leaps and sudden whirlpools of sound from the full orchestra.
Alexander Hall,,11/01/2019
a richly theatrical journey
Neil Fisher, Gramophone,01/03/2016
The abstract musical idiom is mildly dissonant with occasional lyrical moments. By holding back any sustained sense of tonality until the final song, Mr. Abrahamsen delivers a powerfully affecting denouement. Click to read the whole review
Barbara Jepson, The Wall Street Journal,19/01/2016
Only once was the huge orchestra used at its most powerful, in the fifth song: the breaking of glass, the madness of nocturnal and diurnal (“...I do not mind if it is day, if it is night”), and a few vocalizations of birds. But it is in the seventh song, where Ophelia “will go on in the snow” that one feels the falling, the sheer white on white until paper rubbing against a drum, in the composer’s words, “like walking in the snow”. (An homage to Debussy?) Click to read the whole review
Harry Rolnick,,17/01/2016
The direct appeal of this work's winter magic is exceptional. For long passages I felt inside a snow globe, watching flakes fall in exquisite slow motion. In another chunk, Abrahamsen almost blinds us with a stunning representation of light. Pale or bright, crafted with echoes of music's harmonic past, these beauties cradle a dramatic monologue ingeniously built from Ophelia's vocabulary in Hamlet bu the writer Paul Griffiths. Luckily, Hannigan's creation is never mad or suicidal. Most deftly performed and warmly received.
Geoff Brown, The Times,20/06/2014
What was so fascinating about Abrahamsen’s setting was not so much the words themselves but the way in which they were sung: single syllables were frequently repeated and oscillated. Hannigan achieved this effect so artlessly that this style of singing could have been written for her. The contrasting movements are inventively orchestrated for a large ensemble. The piece opened with piccolos and celesta and featured sparkling tuned percussion, including a glockenspiel that was both struck and bowed. The subject matter of the text was often matched by explicit evocations in the orchestra. For example, “showers of light” was accompanied by high wind and string harmonics, whilst “light that cannot end” featured an impossibly sustained chord fading away to nothing. I was not prepared for how desperately sad the final movement, “I will go out now”, would feel. Sinewy, descending chromatic passages in the orchestra evoked the falling snow described in the song whilst microtonal tuning only added to the sense of desolation. Emotionally, it left me in a similar place to, say, the closing pages of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde or Strauss’s Four Last Songs. That, for me at least, is a measure of this fascinating work’s success and I hope to hear it again before long.
Peter Marks,,19/06/2014
the writing is of an intricacy and translucency that effortlessly carries the word-setting as it pivots between thoughts of oblivion and transcendence - before eventually being subsumed into the orchestral whole.
Richard Whitehouse,,19/06/2014
The result is ravishingly and astonishingly beautiful. 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. And he surrounds the voice with glistening, deliquescent textures that can seem almost weightless until a growling line in the bass brings them fluttering to earth. The music sometimes seems as much an exercise in memory as the text, touching on familiar, tonal shapes and harmonies without being explicit and embracing microtones in the final section. (...) It's a very special piece indeed.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,19/06/2014
Perhaps the writer Paul Griffiths and the composer Hans Abrahamsen might have thought : "Come on, let’s write something for Barbara Hannigan, something with snow, light and a beautiful human being, something that must carry the listeners away” - and just like that, it is has come about. “Let me tell you” is the title of the new seven-part cycle for soprano and orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the piece, conducted by Andris Nelsons. It was a triumph. Normally the Philharmonic audience does not welcome contemporary pieces with such impetuous affection, but here both music and text spoke directly to the listeners. As in Griffith’s novel with the same title, “Let me tell you” is limited to the 481 words that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in “Hamlet”. The fifth movement culminates with the sentence: “You have sun-blasted me, and turned me to light.” The ecstatic skyward flying soprano is surrounded by high strings, the tender shine of the trumpets and the glitter of metal percussion. Ophelia is not drowned like in Shakespeare, she does not float away as a dead flower-garlanded nymph, here she goes into the snow. It was shockingly beautiful how Hannigan – singing everything by heart – set the extremely high tone, soft and bright, floating down from there. “Snow falls. So: I will go into the snow. I will have my hope with me.” Abrahamsen, one of Denmark’s most prominent composers, knows what the human voice is like and how to intensify its effect. The orchestration is exquisite, the whole work in its discrete and tasteful neo-tonality is more proof that contemporary music can take or even shatter larger audiences.
Jan Brachmann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,24/12/2013
"Let me tell you" is a virtuosic, unconventional, enigmatic and beautiful piece. Paul Griffiths compiled the text of words used by Ophelia in Shakespeare's "Hamlet", and with this material he reaches up to metaphors of modern physics: "time bended, time blown up here and there." Similarly Abrahamsen writes music of finest moods and nuances of expression with triads, scales and clear intervals. The fifth song evokes love, exuberance and "showers of light" - but despite the familiar idiom nothing is unambiguous, nothing is stable in this score: everything is refined and shifts against each other as if one perceived the sounds through cracked glass.
Peter Uehling, Berliner Zeitung,22/12/2013
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