If Rued Langgaard was the outsider of Denmark’s musical scene, Franz Berwald fared no better in Sweden. His music provoked hostile reactions at home while he was moderately applauded abroad in Austria and Germany. As a matter of fact his orthopedic clinic and later the management of manufacturing businesses were much bigger successes than anything he endeavoured in the field of music. However unfair this may seem considering the quality of his compositions, such was his fate, but thanks to enthusiastic musicians we are able to appreciate the beauty of his beauty today.
A difficult symphonic start
In 1842 he composed his Symphony No. 1 in G minor which he called “Sinfonie sérieuse” and which has been recorded by the San Fransisco Symphony. And a serious symphony it certainly is. Solid symphonic tradecraft with well-developed themes, a clear structure and – emotion! It has passion in the first and third movement, lyric and solemn elements in the second movement, tender moments that remind me of some string figures written by Ludwig van Beethoven, some lovely counterpoint* – how could one not like this piece?
Symphony No. 1 is the only one of Berwald’s four symphonies to have been performed during the composer’s lifetime; the premiere took place in 1843 in Stockholm without much success. The Viennese music journalist Eduard Hanslick, known for his acid critic of pieces he didn’t like, called Berwald in 1869 “a man stimulating, witty, prone to bizarrerie, [who] as a composer lacked creative power and fantasy”. The Danish composer opined in 1911: “Neither the media, money nor power can damage or benefit good Art. It will always find some simple, decent artists who forge ahead and produce and stand for their works. In Sweden, you have the finest example of this: Berwald.”
How many of those composer we praise today as representatives of the finest classical music ever written did meet strong criticism if not outright diffamation in their lifetime? Bach and Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Shostakovich… and there are so many more. The objective assessment requires distance, and if contemporary composers are confronted with a lack of understanding or scathing reviews – only time will tell anything relevant about the quality of their work. The fact that we dislike a piece, often after having heard it only once, says more about ourselves then the composer’s proficiency.
Does a piece have a message? Is the message intelligible? Does the language match the message? What is the social, political, philosophical context that gave birth to the piece? These elements should be considered, and in Berwald’s case few contemporaries were willing to make this effort. Berwald’s first symphony is written in the language of German Romanticism and expresses typically Romanticist ideas, some “Sturm und Drang” enthusiasm – let’s change the world – and at the same time a certain melancholy – mankind is lost and so am I. Berwald was an outsider, but he had a message and he knew how to express it. May his music be heard for many more years!
© Charles Thibo