Jean Sibelius, 1865-1957
Although there are literally dozens of noteworthy “Scandinavian” composers from the classical, romantic and especially modern eras, Grieg and Sibelius are apt to comprise the short list for most listeners. Sibelius was Finnish, technically not Scandinavian, though Finland is often referenced in a broader sense of Scandinavian culture. He experienced a vogue of international fame in the mid-20th century largely for his orchestral works including a celebrated cycle of seven symphonies and several tone poems representing Sibelius as a great Finnish nationalist. He was also prolific in composing chamber music though most of his quartets and trios remain outside the repertoire, regarded as “juvenilia”, house or even salon music in a light style for practical entertainment. The clear exception is the masterful String Quartet in d minor written by a 44-year-old Sibelius in 1909 just a few years after Carl Nielsen’s final quartet. The title “Intimate Voices” comes from an inscription over the staff in the third movement Adagio. Although its makes a suggestive subtitle, its meaning is cryptic at best. Melvin Berger relates that Sibelius was not fond of talking about “meaning” in his music. Sibelius explained, “You know how the wing of a butterfly crumbles at a touch? So it is with my compositions; the very mention of them is fatal.”
Nonetheless, the phrase “intimate voices” is perfect for chamber music and the quartet begins with an intimate exchange between violin and cello with a mournful, lonely melody that immediately establishes an introspective cast. The full ensemble joins spinning out a long theme in smooth step-wise motion that weaves long swatches of contrapuntal fabric in loose imitative threads eventually unified by strong, conclusive cadences. This tendency for elongated, spacious polyphony surfaces again in the finale giving a kind of symmetry to this five-movement work. Hardly a suite of independent movements, the structure has something of the “arch” form later used by Bartók and Shostakovich: the outer “bookends” embrace two scherzi (movements two and four) which frame a central slow movement of deep emotional impact, the true intimate core of the quartet. Thematic relationships further knit multiple movements into a cohesive unity.
The second movement is a swift and bright vivace with a bristling motion in the manner of a scherzo although it is in duple, not triple time. Soft, nervous tremolos slowly give rise to a scurrying theme that worries then brightens as it jumps synaptically from part to part. Within this brief transitional movement (almost an entr’acte), Sibelius seems to exercise one of his unique devises for revealing his theme over time so that it emerges only towards the end as if out of freshly formed matter. This short foray of scherzando character is more substantially plumbed in the fourth movement, a true three-to-a-beat scherzo with a similar filigree of nervous motion constantly undermining a more pronounced, stomping folk dance pattern. The tonality is dark and the restless themes insistent as if an exchange of intimate voices was forced to contend with a maelstrom.
The deep center of the work is the central slow movement where, early on, over three distinctive muted chords, Sibelius wrote the phrase “voces intimae” in the manuscript. Tender, pleading lines intertwine with lush romantic lyricism tinged by a silvery coolness characteristic of Sibelius. Passing suggestions of Wagner and Mahler dissolve into lonely individual strands that postpone harmonic resolution until the very end, one of the few moments of true repose in the entire quartet.
The finale has a fierce driving perpetual motion that surges ever forward despite the characteristic fragmentation of both rhythm and melodic lines into a great diversity of “sections.” The swirling, dizzy dance is almost a frantic tarantella with yet more nervous tremolos and synaptic sparks jumping among the players. A muscular two-part texture of close cat-and-mouse imitation between treble and base rushes the music into a final cadence that is dark, definitive and unanimous. So ends the single and singular chamber masterwork of Sibelius.