Sibelius String Quartet in Dm, op. 56 ‘Voces Intimae’

performed by the Voces Intimae Quartet, or below by the Copenhagen String Quartet

(cover image by Hans Eiskonen)

It turned out as something wonderful. The kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death. I will say no more.

The composer, to his wife about his quartet

You knew we wouldn’t leave Sibelius out of the Finnish series right?

It’s been a very long time since we’ve seen Sibelius on the blog (coming up on two years) and even longer since we’ve seen one of his symphonies (about three and a half years). Oops. We’ll get to that soon.

As for chamber work goes, Sibelius had a number of early efforts in the string quartet genre. This most famous (and only) mature work in the form is at least his fourth. He had two early quartets, in E flat and in A minor, but his first quartet to be granted an opus number (no. 4) was a work in B flat dating from 1890. It was then nearly two decades before he wrote another quartet, today’s work, completed in 1909, putting it between the composition of the third and fourth symphonies.

The work has a duration of about a half hour, and is divided into five movements, as follows:

  1. Andante – Allegro molto moderato
  2. Vivace
  3. Adagio di molto
  4. Allegretto (ma pesante)
  5. Allegro

Composition began in December of 1908, in London, and was apparently finished within a few months. The ‘inner voices’ subtitle is in reference to a “conversational quality” about the work, but this “inwardness” makes it different than, say, a quartet from Haydn, or even one of Sibelius’s more contemporary composers. Besides being more than a century distant from Haydn or early Beethoven, Sibelius’s approach is different in that it’s not a casual, friendly conversation that we hear from other quartets. It’s closed, blinds drawn, fireplace cracking, snowflakes falling outside, our conversationalists speaking huddled around in a room so as not to disturb the stillness or wake those in another room.

But that’s not to say the music is all whispers and quietude, for it is not. John Henken is cited in the Wikipedia article for the work when it says that “The first movement contrasts “murmurous figuration with firm chords”.” One of the most obvious areas of note is the thickness of the sound. This is not a diaphanous, transparent texture, and that’s not a criticism. It sounds probably not unlike you’d imagine a mature Sibelius quartet to sound if you’re familiar with the symphonies.

In fact, in later years, Sibelius would later comment on this quality of the work, stating that “The melodic material is good but the harmonic material could be ‘lighter’, and even ‘more like a quartet.'” We’ll talk about that again shortly, in the response that the work got.

In some contrast to the brooding nature of the first movement, the second movement is the first of two scherzos, and it is by far the shortest of the five movements, at only two and a half minutes. It’s a bit lighter, but feels like a spinoff of sorts from the first movement, sharing some of its thematic material, and feeling more like an afterthought or aside rather than a fully formed movement of its own, leading to the central and longest movement.

The adagio di molto is perhaps the heart of the work, not just because it’s the central movement, or the longest, but because it arguably captures the spirit of the whole work, and might be the most quartet-like in its transparency and use of voices. Some of the bigness of the sound, the symphonic nature, reminds me a bit of Grieg’s string quartet. Here, though, it does sound a bit more intimate in texture, four real voices rather than a mini-orchestra. Mini-orchestra is no criticism, but there are thinner passages here, some real poignant climaxes, and powerful pauses.

The effect here is almost like we’ve warmed up in conversation, gotten through the small talk, have gotten comfortable with each other and are getting to the real meat of the conversation, the personal things, stuff you can’t just jump into right off the bat. Have you ever had that kind of conversation, either with a person/people in person or on the phone, one that drifts into unexpectedly personal territory? In a good way… That’s what I’m hearing here. While sentimental and deeply personal, there’s no overwhelming bleakness or tragedy here.

Once that’s done… we have what feels much more like a real scherzo we can sink our teeth into, especially being as thickly scored as it is, and rather busy. If I’m being honest, though, this movement, as short as it is, overstays its welcome a bit, but ends satisfyingly, leading to the final and second-shortest movement of the work.

In keeping with the composer’s “hour of death” statement that opened this article, I feel this final movement is kind of like the string quartet equivalent to something like… the string quartet equivalent of Chopin’s ‘wind howling around the gravestones’ final movement of his second piano sonata. It’s nervous and busy, but in a subdued way, and there’s a sense of finality to the work, although what that final conclusion is, I’m not sure.

Of the work’s reception, ahead of my own small criticism of the work, one reviewer in a Helsinki publication said:

The composition attracted a great deal of attention, and it is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant products in its field. It is not a composition for the public at large, it is so eccentric and out of the ordinary.

I’ll agree with the ‘eccentric’ and ‘out of the ordinary’ sentiments.

It might be a little sacrilegious to say, but while this work has its undeniable moments of frisson, from the first time I listened to it years ago, I just haven’t been terribly compelled by it. I’m not sure why. I don’t have any particular qualms against it, but it’s so very ‘internal’ or ‘inward’ that I feel like it could use a drawing of the curtains or a bit of cheering up. I wouldn’t say it’s depressing, but maybe just a bit… musty, like the stuffy air in the home of someone who’s been sick for a little too long without opening a window.

But that’s just me, and if either of my readers have read to this point, I am not surprised if you’re offended. Oh well. I have much more praise for Sibelius on the way later this week, so please do stay tuned for that.

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