At times I despair over mankind. Its inability to learn from past errors, the rampant lack of respect and dignity in politics, the belligerent tones against minorities set by some politicians and media – all this seems to me fundamentally opposed to the values we officially profess and detrimental to a harmonic society. And there’s little I can do against it. I feel rather helpless and often I turn to the blue sky for consolation. Looking up invariably makes me realize how insignificant mankind is against the backdrop of the infinity of space. How ridiculuous our small and large daily battles are. If there is a God, he must either be horrified by our behaviour or laughing out loud over our pompousness.
Music is another consolation for me, as you may well know. Here is a piece that fits into the category “Reload optimism”: Franz Berwald’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in C Minor. Berwald? Berwald? Yes, you may have a faint memory of earlier posts on this Swedish composer if you are a regular visitor to this blog, like the one from December 2018 about the second piano quintet Berwald wrote. The music writer Robert Layton notes that 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 quintet was published in 1856, but four decades elapsed before it saw its premiere.
The quintet has three movements – Allegro molto, Adagio quasi andante and Allegro assai e con spirito – and a distinctive Romantic signature like all of Berwald’s compositions. Actually Berwald is considered the first representative of the Romantic style in Sweden, influenced by Louis Spohr and Carl Maria von Weber. His debut as a symphonic composer was not crowned by success, and a malvolent critic wrote: “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.” Sweden’s larger audience was not ready for Berwald’s symphonies, and this may explain why berwald turned to chamber music.
In a text for the Swedish Musical Heritage, a project of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Lennart Hedwall characterizes Berwald’s music with the following words: Berwald “use[s] rhythm or a rhythmic pattern to the point of obstinacy, and his sequence technique can be far too blatant. What otherwise distinguishes Berwald’s [music] is the way his mind works orchestrally in his orchestral pieces and chamber musically in his string quartets and piano trios, even if his themes with their rhythmic profiling can recur in different works. Berwald’s harmonic structure is […] strict and reaches barely beyond Spohr’s, but in some of the later chamber music works he applies rather bold chromatics.”
So far for the academic point of view. As a listener and enthusiast of Scandinavian classical music, I would like to say that I like Berwald’s piano quintet. It has already rescued me a couple of times from sinking into a black hole of pessimism. What more can you expect from a piece of music? Piano Quintet no. 2 in C Minor has been recorded by the Uppsala Chamber Soloists and Bengt-Ake Lundin (piano).
© Charles Thibo