Program Notes

Franz Berwald
BORN: July 23, 1796. Stockholm, Sweden

DIED: April 3, 1868. Stockholm

COMPOSED: Completed sometime from January to March 14, 1842 (perhaps begun earlier), revised ca. 1843–44

WORLD PREMIERE: December 2, 1843, at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, with the Royal Court Orchestra conducted by Johan Fredrik Berwald (the composer’s cousin)

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—December 1991. Herbert Blomstedt led

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 34 mins
THE BACKSTORY Franz Berwald, the leading Swedish symphonist of the nineteenth century, was born into a family that had been musical for generations. His grandfather and great-grandfather were both town pipers in the German city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), and his father, who had been a violinist in Frederick the Great’s orchestra in Berlin, emigrated across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm, which is where Franz Berwald was born, in 1796. He grew up during tumultuous times. The Swedish King Gustav III, an “enlightened despot” who quite a few nobles found too soft on the peasants, had been assassinated at a masked ball in 1792; operaphiles know this incident from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. He was succeeded by King Gustav IV Adolf, who was overthrown by his army in 1809, having sustained great losses in conflicts with France and then Russia, the latter having seized Finland, which had previously accounted for about a third of Sweden’s territory. The next king (Karl XIII) died without issue, paving the way for the ascent of the House of Bernadotte, beginning with Karl XIV Johan, Oskar I, and Karl XV—the monarchs who reigned throughout Berwald’s maturity and the ancestors of the Sweden’s royals yet today.
Under the Bernadottes, Sweden achieved more stability and very gradually crept from being a relatively undeveloped rural country to a more modern, industrialized nation. The arts, which had only a slight presence in the Sweden of Berwald’s youth, grew in prominence. So far as music is concerned, one might compare Gustav IV Adolf, who closed the Royal Chapel and Opera House in 1806, to Karl XIII, who reopened those establishments, or Oskar I, who (when he had been Crown Prince) achieved passing distinction as a composer, producing a song-with- chorus to a Victor Hugo poem and completing an unfinished opera by a deceased protégé. Berwald, like his father, found employment as a violinist (and later a violist) in the court orchestra, through which he became acquainted with operas by Mozart, Weber, and Rossini. His earliest compositions are assumed to be lost, but several written in 1816 do survive. Among them is a Fantasia for melodicon dedicated to Crown Prince Oskar, who would figure as an occasional supporter of the composer’s future endeavors. (The melodicon was an instrument in which a keyboard mechanism caused metal bars of distinct pitches to rub against a rotating cylinder, yielding a tone rather like a glass harmonica.) By 1818 his music had earned a review in the Leipzig-based Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, though not a very good one: “One might wish the young, truly talented man would become more friendly with the rules of harmony and composition; that will take him more surely and quickly to his goal.”
Berwald was well aware of the limitations of his surroundings, and he buckled against what he considered Sweden’s musical provincialism. When he could line up the time and finances, he toured as a solo violinist in Sweden, Norway (politically linked to Sweden at that time), Finland, and Russia. On the home front, he founded two separate magazines for music-lovers. He persevered with his compositions, and by 1821 he was able to unveil his first symphony (of which only a fragment survives) in an all-Berwald concert that also included a violin concerto and a quartet for piano and winds. Again, the reviews were discouraging. “It seems as if Herr Berwald’s hunt for originality and his constant striving to impress with great effects has deliberately banished all melodiousness from his compositions,” proclaimed an unidentified critic in the Stockholm newspaper Nya Argus—and Berwald responded to the review (rarely a good idea) by protesting, not without justice, that “all attempts to establish an uncommon system, a new handling of the instrumentation, and its employment, will always begin with numerous difficulties.” Ensuing reviews were more often negative than positive, and Berwald grew increasingly testy and overweening, even with personal contacts who might have assisted him.
In 1829 he left for Berlin, intent on getting operas produced. In this he did not succeed; nor did he ingratiate himself with the city’s leading musical citizen, the usually genteel Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote to a Swedish friend, “Right now there is a compatriot of yours here in town whom I do not like,” before complaining of Berwald’s “boasting and arrogance” and dismissing his music as “a piecemeal of borrowed ideas which he tries to make new with all kinds of oddities.” In any case, Berwald did not make much of an impression in Berlin’s musical community, but he did develop a parallel talent there—in orthopedics! He invented various mechanisms to correct orthopedic defects, tallied numerous successes with his patients, and founded an orthopedic institute.
He put composition on the back burner until he moved to Vienna for a stay in 1841–42. There he consulted on orthopedic matters but he also returned to composing more actively, completing two symphonies, the Sinfonie sérieuse and Sinfonie capricieuse. Two others, the Sinfonie singulière and Sinfonie naïve, followed in 1845. Of the bunch, the Sérieuse was the only one Berwald ever heard performed, and that only at its single performance during his lifetime. Later in life he returned to Vienna and also spent time in Paris; but most of his time from 1842 on he spent in Sweden, where for quite a few years this master of the non-linear career ran a glass-making factory while slowly earning the grudging respect of the musical community, finally being awarded the prestigious Order of the North Star two years before his death. The serious championing of his works waited until the twentieth century.
THE MUSIC On aesthetic grounds, it is hard to comprehend why Berwald’s pieces met such resistance; probably his difficult personality had more to do with it than the music itself. The surface language of the Sinfonie sérieuse mostly falls somewhere in the neighborhood occupied by Weber, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, yet it does possess a distinct flavor. On the heels of its powerful opening salvo, Berwald imposes unusual sounds into the texture, such as quivering violins, flutes, oboes, and clarinets, and, later, a shivering repeated-note melody from the pianissimo winds. There is an unorthodox aspect to the piece’s syntax, strangely suggesting Berlioz in that regard, if fleetingly—an abruptness that can be surprising or even unsettling.
Berwald’s orchestration is fascinating; ears raised on Classicism would not have been prepared for the original sound of trombones and bassoons doubling the strings at the outset of the Adagio maestoso, which is by turns placid and dramatic—proto-Brucknerian, on might even say. Similarly intriguing is the sound of the third movement, which Berwald labels Stretto (rather than Scherzo, as anyone else would have called it)— Mendelssohnian but without that composer’s quicksilver lightness, with brass instruments lending a firm solidity. The movement doesn’t quite end; it arrests on what should be its penultimate note and then continues without a break into the finale, which, curiously, begins with a reminiscence of the slow movement. The music turns quick but maintains the feeling of an introduction until nearly two minutes into the movement, when it breaks into a march, again with a Berliozian cast, which carries the piece through various episodes before reaching the symphony’s formidable conclusion.—James M. Keller

Please wait...