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The String Quartets Vol. 1

Peter Heise

The String Quartets Vol. 1

Nordic String Quartet

The Strad Recommends: »A neglected Dane is compellingly revived« The Strad
♥♥♥♥♥ »The music seems important throughout« Politiken
Album of the Week – DR P2

Between 1851 and 1857, Peter Heise (1830–1879) wrote six string quartets for the intimate musical soirées of Copenhagen’s refined upper class. Heise was a celebrated and cherished composer in his native Denmark, but his quartets sadly fell into obscurity. In the first instalment of their two-part world-premiere recording series, the Nordic String Quartet revives these elegantly fluid works with a spacious and lyrical approach, infusing a sensibility attuned to Heise’s distinctive poetic touch.

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Nordic String Quartet © Nikolaj Lund
An interesting and important addition to the chamber music repertoire from the 19th century. The Nordic String Quartet plays the charming, romantic quartets vividly and with great vigour.
Niels Lyksted, Kulturinformation
The music seems important throughout, and this is a credit to both the composer and the musicians
Thomas Michelsen, Politiken
Album of the Week, week 29
It's more than welcome to have Heise's quartets awakened from their slumber, and in such precise, well-formed and sonorous performances
Valdemar Lønsted, Dagbladet Information
With great melodic thinking the musicians of the Nordic String Quartet interpret the quartets with clarity, precision and transparency
Carme Miró, Sonograma Magazine
The Strad Recommends: "A neglected Dane is compellingly revived"
Peter Quantrill, The Strad
Nordic String Quartet plays with an exquisite feel for the genre
Jeppe Rönnow, Magasinet Klassisk
Total runtime: 
72 min.
The Lost Quartets

By Jens Cornelius

Amongst Copenhagen’s upper class during the 1850s, Peter Heise’s time and milieu, string quartets were performed in private. As is often the case in affluent circles, there were many skilled string players as well as room to practise and listen in the salons. ‘There was hardly a musical house that did not have its regular weekly quartet evening’, wrote the music historian Angul Hammerich in 1886, as he looked back at the musical life of Copenhagen elite in the 1840s in which he had grown up himself.

It was not until 1854 that a string quartet was performed for the first time at a public concert in Denmark. A society devoted to chamber music was formed in 1868, the so-called Natmandsforening (The Scavenger’s Society), which is still in existence, and from then on string quartets slowly gained a new status as public music that addressed a broader, ticket-buying audience.

String quartets lived a rather hidden existence in Denmark at the time, but Peter Heise’s quartets succumbed to a quite exceptional oblivion. The six works by Heise were not part of the public music scene in his own time, and after his death in 1879, they were packed away and forgotten, each in turn, even though Heise was one of Denmark’s most popular and beloved composers. The obscurity has lasted until today, and this recording of the first three is a premiere: it is music that has hitherto been virtually unknown.

Heise was born in 1830 and died at the age of 48 when he was at the peak of his art. Shortly before his death, he had experienced success with his opera Drot og marsk (King and Marshal), arguably the best Danish opera of the 19th century. His hundreds of songs and romances were very popular and beginning to be printed in large numbers, spreading his music to the many Danish homes equipped with a piano. He was seen, to a high degree, as a vocal composer.

Peter Heise, 1864

At this point, the manuscripts of the string quartets were in the hands of the cellist Julius Holm, with whom Heise had been friends since his youth. Holm kept them until his death in 1909, when they were discovered amongst his estate by a librarian from the Royal Danish Library, who returned them to Heise’s widow, Vilhelmine. The music bore signs of having been used extensively.

Vilhelmine (‘Ville’) Heise was, by this time, 71 years old, and apparently wished to protect her husband’s high posthumous reputation, not allowing unknown works from his youth to disturb the picture. It was most probably Ville who packed Heise’s String Quartets Nos. 2–6 together in a folder labelled ‘Youth Works’. The sheet music for the String Quartet No. 1 found itself in a folder with other works which were labelled, ‘Heise’s hand-written music from old times, not to be printed, maybe better burned’.

All the quartet manuscripts were handed over to the Royal Danish Library following Ville Heise’s death in 1912, but as discarded works they received no attention. In short, there was no public knowledge of the quartets’ existence. The first biography of Heise from 1926 only mentioned, in a short quotation from a letter, that Heise had worked on a quartet at some point, but it was not until a selection of Heise’s letters was published in 1930 that one could read the entire letter in which Heise mentions his String Quartet in G minor (that which is now called No. 6). In January 1857 Heise wrote to his friend, Edvard Holm, brother of the cellist Julius Holm mentioned earlier: ‘Now I’m working on a string quartet, of which the first movement is finished, and I am very satisfied with it; it sets off in G minor. If only I could get on as well with the third movement; that’s what I’ve been hunting for these past days.’

The letter excerpt led the music journalist Richard Hove to go through the manuscripts at the Library, where he found the G minor quartet described. It was then performed in modest circumstances in Hove’s hometown, Thisted, in 1931. Ten years later, Hove wrote an introductory article about Heise as a chamber music composer in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift(Danish Music Journal) and was the first to say that Heise had written over 20 chamber works, including six quartets.

It was 1945 before the G minor quartet was performed again, in a radio transmission by the day’s leading Danish quartet, the Erling Bloch Quartet. Since the 1950s there have been occasional performances of Heise’s Quartets Nos. 3, 4 and 6, which now circulated amongst musical Danes in diverse copies. But none of the quartets embedded themselves into the repertoire in Denmark, and none were printed or recorded. This is quite strange, as there is certainly not an abundance of Danish quartets from the 19th century to compete with.

Later in the 20th century, it was probably the declining interest in older Danish music in general that was behind the neglect of Heise’s quartets. This has changed today, and in 2017 the works were printed for the first time in a collaboration between the Royal Danish Library and the University of Copenhagen. After a long period of dormancy, the six string quartets can now finally be played, heard and enjoyed.

String Quartet No. 1 in B minor
Peter Arnold Heise was born to an academic family in Copenhagen in 1830. By the time he was 13 he was already composing, taught by A.P. Berggreen, who was also the teacher of Heise’s slightly older contemporary, Niels W. Gade.

Although Heise was active in the high Romantic period, he was essentially a Classicist at heart. He sought to imbue his compositions with clarity, precision and transparency, which is evident in his string quartets, particularly in his debut work, String Quartet No. 1. The first movement is a refined and succinct introduction to the genre, characterized by its clean and precise structure. Despite its minor key, the movement exudes a disarmingly humorous quality, a trait that has traditionally been well-received in Danish music, where grandiose expressions are not typically favoured.

In the subsequent movements, Heise’s stylistic influences become more apparent. The second movement, for example, features a slow main section reminiscent of Schubert and a tumultuous middle section evocative of Mozart. The third movement is a simple scherzo with a trio section in a folk style reminiscent of Haydn, while the fourth movement showcases Heise’s mastery of Classical fugue technique.

The work was composed during the winter of 1851–52. Unlike String Quartets Nos. 2–6, the preserved sheet music for String Quartet No. 1 bears no signs of use, suggesting that this charming and masterfully crafted music may have never been performed prior to this recording.


First page of Peter Heise’s manuscript for String Quartet No. 2 (1852).


String Quartet No. 2 in G major
Though Ville Heise tried to hide the quartets, as the editor of the new sheet music edition of 2017, Professor Michael Fjeldsøe points out that it is wrong to regard Heise’s string quartets from the 1850s as youthful works, though they were composed in Heise’s formative years, the same period in which he made a breakthrough in other genres. The first quartet already shows that it has been made by a composer who is skilful in this genre. Heise had heard many performances of string quartets, as well as having played chamber music on his main instrument, the piano, and on the violin.

Heise clearly wanted to master the challenges of the quartet genre and composed his quartets each in their own key. String Quartet No. 2 in G major is from 1852. It has confidence and again a humorous character in the first movement, which surprises with its rhythmic intricacies. After the lively beginning comes the unexpectedly dark second movement in C minor: It is a tragic largo, although typically for Heise it is in a short format and with a quite unorthodox middle section. The third movement is this time a minuet, and compared to the concise scherzo movement in the first string quartet, the minuet here is more developed and has an elegant wit – Heise was known in Copenhagen’s cultural circles as a highly entertaining and witty person. This trait also permeates the final movement, which, like the first movement of String Quartet No. 1, Heise concludes with a humorous pizzicato punctuation mark.


Nordic String Quartet: Daniel Eklund, Heiðrun Petersen, Mads Haugsted Hansen, and Lea Emilie Brøndal © Nikolaj Lund

String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major
In the winter of 1852–53, Heise embarked on a transformative journey to Leipzig, where Niels W. Gade had his breakthrough in the 1840s. The stay was a revelation for Heise, who quickly developed under the guidance of his teacher Moritz Hauptmann, the cantor at the Thomaskirche. In addition, the range of music in Leipzig was way beyond what Heise could experience in contemporary Copenhagen, spanning everything from Baroque music to new works by Schumann and Wagner. This experience greatly expanded his knowledge of the repertoire, simply because a much smaller selection of European music had reached north to Denmark.

The next three string quartets were written during or immediately after the Leipzig trip. String Quartet No. 3 significantly raises the level of ambition compared to his previous quartets, and the music has moved away from the entertaining. The first movement is expanded with a slow introduction, and the entire movement is far richer and more varied than before. Similarly, the second movement, a twisted and galloping scherzo, has a greater breadth and scope.

The third movement’s Andante is a peaceful moment, but the tension is not fully released. In true Romantic fashion, the qualms last until the end: the last movement is stormy and begins with fast changes between minor and major, reminiscent of Nordic folk music and a hallmark of Carl Nielsen’s unorthodox style. In the end of the movement’s development section, Heise inserts a solo cadenza for the first violin, after which the work reaches a light and liberating coda in B flat major.

The manuscript for String Quartet No. 3 is not dated, and Heise was generally private about his music and did not actively seek to have his quartets published. Composing was not a profession he practised to achieve great fame or to make money – he became wealthy in 1859 through his marriage to Ville, the daughter of one of Denmark’s richest men – and therefore had a more private attitude towards his musical work. Not attempting to have his quartets published was not an expression of Heise’s own assessment of quality, but unfortunately his humility had a side effect: it took 170 years for the music to reach a wider audience. Hopefully, it is not too late for Peter Heise to gain recognition as a quartet composer alongside his reputation as a vocal composer.

Release date: 
June 2023
Cat. No.: 
Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded at Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen, on 24–25 February, 12–13 June and 11–12 September 2022

World premiere recording of the critical edition of Peter Heise: String Quartets Nos. 1–6. Edited by Michael Fjeldsøe (2017)

Recording producer: Tim Frederiksen
Editing: Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir and Mette Due
Sound engineering, mixing and mastering: Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir

℗ & © 2023 Dacapo Records, Copenhagen

The Lost Quartets, by Jens Cornelius, translated from the Danish by Colin Roth
Proofreaders: Jens Fink-Jensen, Hayden Jones
Design: Studio Tobias Røder,

Publisher: Danish Centre for Music Editing (DCM), Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen

Nordic String Quartet,

This production has been made in cooperation with the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen.

With support from 15. Juni Fonden, Beckett-Fonden, Solistforeningen af 1921, Weyse Fonden and William Demant Fonden