SIBELIUS Jean, String Quartet Op.56 ‘Voces Intimae’

Andante–Allegro molto moderato 
Adagio di molto 
Allegretto (ma pesante) 

In February and March 1909, Sibelius came to London to conduct concerts of his own music and it was during this stay that he composed most of the Voces intimae (Intimate Voices) quartet. He first stayed at the Langham Hotel (across the road from Queen’s Hall) but asked his friend Rosa Newmarch to find cheaper lodgings where he could also work in silence. She found quiet rooms for him in Kensington and having installed him, ‘left the composer to settle down (as I hoped) to write his string quartet, Voces initimae.’ Word travelled in the neighbourhood that a composer was staying, emboldening one elderly lady to play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata repeatedly, as a sign of solidarity. Newmarch intervened, there was no more Beethoven, and Sibelius was able to make good progress on the quartet in Kensington. 


According to his diary, he began the second movement on 16 February, and sketched the third on 25 February. Work continued throughout March (at the end of which he left London) and the quartet was finished in Berlin on 15 April. The first performance took place a year later, on 25 April 1910, in Helsinki. 


Voces intimae is a characteristically bold exploration of musical form: there are five movements (including two scherzos), with a highly expressive slow movement at the centre. There has been speculation about the title and the likeliest explanation is that it has some connection with the fear of death which Sibelius confided to his diary in London. It was clearly a personal reference that will probably remain a mystery, but it is entirely apt for a work that embodies such an intense musical dialogue between the four instruments.  

© Nigel Simeone


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