A Bright Light on a Grey Winter Day

Berwald new-1
Autumnal memories. © Charles Thibo

The moment I sat down to write this post, I was suffering from an acute lack of daylight. I mean real daylight, a shining sun. Instead I get several variations of grey and I have the choice between pouring rain or freezing temperatures. It’s time for a little artificial light then, the memory of a sunny afternoon and a long autumn stroll, the sound of a lively, joyful piece of music: Franz Berwald’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 6.

Franz Berwald was a Swedish Romantic composer. He lived from 1796 until 1868, which makes him a contemporary of Hector Berlioz, Franz Schubert and Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. He wrote the piano quintet between 1850 and 1857, towards the end of his life. At that time he directed a glass factory in the north of Sweden, owned by Ludvig Petré, an industrialist and amateur violinist. Winter in the north of Sweden is much darker and colder than it ever gets here, and I am not surprised that Berwald spent the winter mostly in Stockholm, which is lovely under the snow. Parallel to composing, Berwald also began to teach privately.

In a piece for Oxford Music Online, Daniel M. Grimley, a researcher on Scandinavian music, quotes the composer with the following words: “Art may be coupled only with a cheerful frame of mind. The weak-willed should have nothing to do with it. Even if interesting for a moment, in the end every sighing artist will bore listeners to death. Therefore: liveliness and energy – feeling and reason.” You can hear Berwald’s own cheerfulness in the piano quintet, and I guess he created his own sunny days while composing, what ever the weather may have been like.

According to Grimley, Berwald did not seem to have been interested in forging a Swedish national identity in his music. “His works could also be heard in a broader Scandinavian context: his music reflects formal and expressive preoccupations similar to those found in the works of other Northern composers.” Berwald dedicated the quintet to Franz Liszt who was mesmerized. In a letter to the composer he wrote: “You express yourself in an imaginative, artful and lively language. Your expositions and recapitulations are masterfully executed, and your style is both elegant and harmonically interesting.” And he gave him the friendly advice to ignore an ignorant audience: “They have ears, but they don’t hear anything.”

So let’s prove Liszt wrong and listen to Berwald’s Piano Quintet No. 2, performed by Bengt-Ake Lundin and the Uppsala Chamber Soloists.

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.