Let me tell you Hans Abrahamsen – Ophelia resumes control

Hans Abrahamsen hopes to celebrate his 70th birthday in December 2022, but is already a central composer in NTR ZaterdagMatinee. On 29 January his Horn Concerto received its belated Dutch premiere; in May Asko|Schönberg will perform his trilogy Winternacht / Wald / Schnee and a month later his opera The Snow Queen, based on an Andersen fairy-tale, will get its first performance in The Netherlands. On Saturday 12 February his song cycle Let me tell you will sound for the second time in this radio series.

Abrahamsen wrote Let me tell you for the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who premiered it in 2013 with the Berlin Philharmonic, ensuring his international breakthrough. In February 2014 Hannigan sang the first Dutch performance both with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Rotterdam, and with the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Amsterdam. Now she returns for a second run in NTRZaterdagMatinee.

Hans Abrahamsen


Let me tell you continues to deeply impress both critics and audience. ‘An effervescent fountain sprays indefinable, high-pitched sounds of glockenspiel, woodwinds and violins, making the power of Ophelia’s love tangible’, wrote Biëlla Luttmer in de Volkskrant, after its Dutch premiere. She described the sweeping brushes in the death scene at the end as ‘a snow scene from Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg congealed into sound’.

In 2016, Abrahamsen was awarded the authoritative American Grawemeyer Award. A year later, the serene song cycle was released on a CD, again incurring rave reviews. According to the daily newspaper NRC, a ‘magical prism of sound’ was transformed into ‘blinding rays of light or downy snowfall’; The Guardian heard a ‘typically spare and wintry’ orchestral sound, offering ‘a magical panoply of spangly microtonal sounds’. The Gramophone dubbed it ‘a small, tragic Winterreise’.

Abrahamsen composed Let me tell you at the request of Barbara Hannigan, who was impressed by his subtle use of colour and the emotional eloquence of his music. In an interview with yours truly, she said: ‘I admire his originality and gentleness.’ She added: ‘I have gone through all the possibilities of my voice with Hans, but have made it clear to him that boundaries can always be broken.’


The title Let me tell you is taken from Paul Griffiths’ 2008 novella of the same name, in which Ophelia tells her story in exactly the 481 words Shakespeare allows her to speak in Hamlet. By arranging these differently each time, Griffiths creates a kind of autobiography, in which Ophelia reflects on her life. In about thirty minutes, she transforms from a defenceless victim into a self-confident woman who resumes control over her fate.

‘In some 30 minutes Ophelia transforms from a defenceless victim into a self-confident woman who resumes control over her fate.’

Griffiths composed a libretto of seven songs, divided over three movements. In the first, ‘Let me tell you how it was’, Ophelia looks back to a time when there was ‘no music’ in her life. With high piccolo tones and bell-like sounds of a celesta, Abrahamsen sketches a tenuous, dreamlike world in which each and every movement seems to be solidified. The soprano gropes her way through stratospheric heights and abyssal lows, with sustained tones; sometimes with a stuttering voice that evokes Monteverdi’s stile concitato.

The second movement, ‘Let me tell you how it is’, is a passionate declaration of love to Hamlet – ‘you have sun-blasted me / and turned me to light’. The music is agile and passionate, with fierce coloraturas from the soprano and swirling cascades of crystalline sounds after her sighed ‘You have made me like glass – like glass in an ecstasy from your light / like glass in which light rained’.


In the concluding movement, ‘I know you are there,’ Ophelia looks to the future: ‘I will find you’, she sings, as she steps into a snowy world full of identical frost flowers. The serenity of the first movement returns, with spun out lines of the soprano swaying on a sea of fragile, slowly drifting sound fabrics.

‘I will go on’, she concludes, while a percussionist imitates her shuffling feet in the snow by rubbing a sheet of paper over a large drum. While the music slowly fades away, a question floats up from the almost sacred silence: does Ophelia die, or does she enter a new life?

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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