Franz Berwald’s reputation rests largely on the four symphonies that he composed in the first half of the 1840s, and more particularly on the highly original and aptly named Sinfonie singulière
. The chamber music, with the possible exception of the Grand Septet of 1828, maintains a more peripheral hold on the repertory and is rarely encountered in the concert hall outside the composer’s native Sweden.
Berwald did not really come into his own until the present century, one of his earliest champions being Wilhelm Stenhammar. But why, it may be asked, did his music make so little headway either in Sweden or, for that matter, anywhere else, and why was he cold-shouldered by the Swedish musical establishment of his day? First, he left Stockholm at important periods of his career and so was not on hand to press the claims of his music; secondly, in his dealings with others Berwald was far from being his own best friend (Mendelssohn met him in Berlin early in the 1830s and found him arrogant, and no doubt his demeanour played a part in ensuring his neglect); and thirdly, the few works of his that were played in Sweden in the 1840s were largely uncharacteristic and many of the performances poorly prepared. Stockholm heard two operettas, Modehandlerskan (‘The modiste’) and Jag går i kloster (‘I enter a convent’), and a couple of cantatas during the 1840s, and the picture derived from these works is very different to the one posterity has formed from the four symphonies of the composer’s maturity. Berwald himself heard only one of these, the Sinfonie sérieuse, although he had, of course, seen performed the early A major symphony of 1821 (which survives in fragmentary form and is now recorded on Hyperion CDD22043).
In any event there was no really first-class symphony orchestra in Stockholm at the time: indeed there was no permanent orchestra at all apart from the Royal Opera Orchestra (‘Det kgl. Hovkapellet’) in which the young Berwald had himself played at various times in the 1810s and ’20s. No effort was made to present symphony concerts on any regular basis until the 1870s. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Berwald tried so hard to make his way as a composer of operas; in all he composed (or planned) more than eleven, though of the two best known Estrella de Soria was not mounted until 1862 and Drottningen av Golconda (‘The Queen of Golconda’) was not performed in Stockholm until 1968 on the centenary of his death. Even the Piano Quintet No 1 of 1853, included in this set, was not given in public until 1895. This was the work that Berwald had taken to show Liszt on his visit to Weimar in 1857 and which the great composer had sight-read, making an indelible impression on the Swedish master: ‘I once heard my C minor quintet played by a marvellous and truly poetic pianist—sight-reading!—that really was music. Suddenly it was not just a piano—it was like a full orchestra!’ Indeed such was the impact this encounter with Liszt made on the composer that he dedicated the work’s successor, the A major quintet to him. Liszt’s reply proved only too prophetic: ‘Vous êtes vraiment original, mais vous n’aurez pas de succès de votre vivant. Et pourtant il vous faut continuer dans cette voie.’
Although Berwald was born in Stockholm the family were of German stock, and the name has been traced back to Bärwalde in Der Neumarck, south of Stettin. Born in 1796, a year before Schubert, he died the same year as Rossini and a year before Berlioz. As a sixteen-year old, Franz joined his father in the Royal Swedish Opera. He had already shown considerable creative prowess as well as a many-faceted and resourceful intelligence. By 1818 it had become obvious to him that he should try his fortune as what we would today call a ‘free-lance’ composer and performer. He undertook a tour with his violinist brother Christian to Helsinki and St Petersburg, and began publishing a Journal de musique to further disseminate his music.
As with so many nineteenth-century composers, circumstances forced Berwald to pursue a dual career, spending many years on non-musical projects. When he moved to Berlin in his thirties and made little headway in the musical world, he founded an orthopaedic institute, based on the most highly developed techniques and largely following the principles of Ling. Some of the apparatus that he himself devised for the treatment of patients was in all essentials still in use as a basis for therapy well into the 1900s—all the more remarkable since Berwald had no scientific training and, indeed, precious little formal education of any kind. In the 1840s he returned to Sweden but again failed to make headway in the musical world. By the 1850s he had given up hope of advancement in the Swedish musical establishment, having been passed over for two posts to which he felt his talents entitled him—conductor of the Opera Orchestra and Director of Music at Uppsala University. Berwald turned to another non-musical activity, moving to the north of Sweden each summer as manager of a saw mill and a glass works. He even briefly ran a tile-and-brick factory, and his pen was in constant use as a polemicist on a wide variety of social issues, showing a progressive vision and sympathy.
Quartet in E flat for piano and wind
The first of the chamber works in this set, the Quartet in E flat for piano and wind (clarinet, bassoon and horn) dates from 1819, when Berwald was in his mid-twenties. By this time he had already composed the 1817 Septet, two string quartets (the second of which does not survive), a set of variations for two violins, and a number of keyboard pieces which he published himself in his Journal de musique. Composed in the received idiom of the day and indebted to Hummel, Weber and Spohr, the Piano Quartet in E flat breaks no new moulds. It follows the usual formal conventions—the outer movements are in sonata form and the middle movement is in a simple lied form. At the same time there are some signs of individuality, and a lively intelligence and wit shine through. Though not a major part of the Berwald canon, it remains a worthwhile contribution to the chamber music repertoire.
Piano Trio No 2 in F minor
During the 1850s Berwald composed a number of chamber works with piano, largely because of his interest in the pianist, Hilda Thegerström. It was with her in mind that he wrote his two piano quintets and the Piano Concerto. In all he composed five piano trios, four of which are numbered. The first in C major dates from 1845 and the first numbered essay in the genre, a Trio in E flat was composed four years later. The Piano Trio No 2 in F minor comes from 1851 and the autograph score is dated 3 March. The piece is dedicated to Matthäus von Rosthorn, an Austrian businessman in whose home at Oed bei Wien the Berwalds had stayed at the time of their son Hjalmar’s birth. It is basically a three-movement piece played without a break. After the last movement, which Berwald calls a Scherzo, he returns us to the material of the opening in a short coda of some sixty-five bars. The writing is full of original touches and rhythmic vitality, and the placid Mendelssohnian surface is disturbed by all sorts of characteristically Berwaldian flourishes and, in the theme of the slow movement, a sudden and unexpected modulation down a semitone from F to E major. The Swedish historian Ingvar Andersson speaks in his two-volume study of ‘the wine which Berwald’s music offers us: at its finest moments, dry, elegant and of great finesse’—and on hearing the F minor Trio, one is tempted to add sparkle.
Grand Septet in B flat
Of course Berwald’s best and most characteristic music comes from the 1840s, immediately after his marriage and the successes he enjoyed in Vienna, but two early works stand out for their originality. First, the String Quartet in G minor of 1818 with its inventive resource and modulatory audacities, and then the Grand Septet in B flat (1828). In the early years of the nineteenth century, Beethoven’s Septet was often played in Stockholm—and pretty well everywhere else for that matter. Like Hummel and Kreutzer, Berwald chose the same combination—clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double-bass—for his first essay in this form, written in 1817. No autograph of the 1817 Septet survives and the work we know comes from 1828. At the time Berwald spoke of it as a new work but it would seem more likely to be a re-working of the earlier piece. Sten Broman believed the two were different pieces but since, in a letter from Berlin to his sisters in 1831 discussing his early works, Berwald refers to the Septet, I incline to the view that it was a revision. Whether or not this is the case, the Septet is among his most delightful pieces. Formally it is innovative and anticipates the Sinfonie singulière (1845), enfolding the scherzo into the slow movement so that the middle movement functions both as a slow movement and as a scherzo. This has relatively few precedents, though Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach adopted the practice in his C minor Klavier Concerto, Wq43 No 4. Later on in his String Quartet in E flat of 1849, Berwald takes this a stage further by putting the slow movement, complete with its scherzo enclosed, inside the main body of the first movement so that the whole piece is like a Chinese box. In its musical language we are in the tradition of Spohr and Kreutzer: inventive, urbane and attractive. In the finale there are occasional touches that even foreshadow the highly individual fingerprints of the Berwald of the 1840s.
Piano Quintet No 1 in C minor
As his orchestral works went unplayed, Berwald turned naturally to chamber music. The Piano Quintet No 1 in C minor was completed in December 1853 and was among a number of chamber works with piano that were inspired by his talented young protégé, Hilda Thegerström (the dedicatee of both this quintet and the piano concerto written two years later). Although she played it in private, the first public performance, as we have already noted, did not take place for a further forty years, though the work was published in 1856. Berwald’s first attempt at a piano quintet had, in all probability, come in the late 1840s or early 1850s. A fragment from a quintet in A major, comprising a larghetto and scherzo, survives, and from this autograph all of the first movement has been torn except for the last few bars which are the same as those of the corresponding movement of the second quintet (1857). Berwald was an inveterate self-borrower and the finale of the C minor quintet includes material from the symphonic poem Wettlauf (‘Racing’) of 1842. As was the case in earlier works such as the Septet and the Sinfonie singulière Berwald makes use of an innovative formal device and incorporates a scherzo into the body of the opening allegro movement, furthermore quoting its theme again in the finale.
Duo in D major for pianoforte and violin
The Duo in D major for violin and piano is one of Berwald’s most neglected pieces. Like the companion Duo in B flat for cello and piano it was written in the latter part of the 1850s; Berwald specialists favour 1858 as its probable date. There are three movements separated only by short pauses, the centre-piece being an Andante, or Romance, in F sharp minor which is folk-like in character and leads into a high-spirited finale. This eventually returns to the main theme of the Romance movement.
Piano Trio No 4 in C major
Two years ealier Berwald had composed the third and best known of his piano trios (there are five in all). The first, like the trio recorded here, is in C major, and is unnumbered. It dates from 1845, the same year as the Sinfonie singulière and the Symphony No 4 in E flat. The remaining trios were composed in relatively rapid succession: No 1 in E flat in 1849, No 2 in F minor in March 1851, and No 3 in December the same year. The Piano Trio No 4 in C major was composed in 1853, the same year as the C minor Quintet. Like all its companions, save for the F minor Trio, it is in three movements. In 1867 Berwald offered the score without success to the Leipzig publisher Schuberth, who had published its three predecessors, and his widow later tried to interest the same house in this and a number of his other unpublished scores, but the work had to wait until 1896 when a Copenhagen publisher brought it out.
Robert Layton © 1997