Franz Berwald

Tone Poems

The half-century between the premières of Beethoven’s Ninth and Brahms’s First Symphonies saw the emergence of numerous composers who, even if they failed to achieve the ultimate greatness, left a body of work which is distinctive and thought-provoking. Among the most idiosyncratic of these is Franz Berwald, whose life was a catalogue of passing successes and lasting disappointments, made the more striking, and ironic, by his successful embracing of notably differing careers.

The orchestral works included here provide considerable insights into a creativity which was to extend over fifty years. Born in Stockholm on 23rd July 1796, Berwald was playing in public as a violinist from his tenth year, and in October 1812 embarked on a restless sixteen-year spell as member of the Royal Opera orchestra in the capital. He was already composing apace, and a benefit concert in January 1818 was a not inconsiderable success. A further such concert in March 1821, however, was far less successful, the criticism aimed at his Symphony in A (of which only a torso of the first movement survives) drawing a typically forthright response from Berwald. His music for Kellgren’s Gustaf Vasa had a more positive response in 1828, and it is hard to imagine the Konzertstück for Bassoon and Orchestra, composed the previous year, would not have enjoyed a similar reception.

First performed by the bassoonist Franz Preumayr on 18th November 1828, the Konzertstück is in three sections. After a sprightly, Mozartian Allegro non troppo with two contrasting themes, the Andante quotes directly the aria ‘Home Sweet Home’ from Henry Bishop’s then hugely popular opera Clari, or The Maid of Milan. Its opening phrase without the second-half refrain, is paraphrased at length, before a resumption of the initial Allegro brings this modest but highly attractive work to a spirited close.

The restrictions of being a professional musician, coupled with general indifference to his music in Stockholm, led Berwald to quit his home city for Berlin in May 1829. Once again he was to meet with disappointment in the frustration of his operatic plans, none of which came to fruition in this period. The running of an orthopaedic institute, which he founded in 1835, was soon absorbing most of his time, and it was only on his move to Vienna in March 1841, to be followed by his marriage a month later, that Berwald resumed composition as a full-time activity. The ensuing decade saw the composition of almost all of his mature orchestral works, including the four tone-poems included here. At least two of them were on the programme of a Vienna concert on 6th March 1842, when their individual approach to harmony and orchestration afforded Berwald some of the most favourable notices of his career.

Elfenspiel (Play of the Elves) begins quietly and ruminatively, after which, a lively but muted music redolent of Mendelssohn emerges as the main portion of the work. A brief and rather dissonant climax on horns and trumpets is reached, after which the main ideas are recalled on the way to the peremptory coda. As the Berliozian opening infers, Ernste und heitere Grillen (Serious and Joyful Fancies) is a much more demonstrative piece. Its scherzo-like main section is almost relentlessly active, and with a rhythmic agility seldom encountered in music of the period. In keeping with this elusive nature, the sudden ending comes as a not inappropriate surprise.

Erinnerung an die norwegischen Alpen (Reminiscence of the Norwegian Mountains) opens with a searching introduction which only gradually assumes greater momentum. There follows a compact sonata form, replete with purposeful development of its main ideas and a ‘false ending’ which permits a recall of the opening music to form a pensive close. Least known of these tone-poems, Wettlauf (Foot-Race) could almost be an alternative scherzo to one of the symphonies Berwald was shortly to write. Although subtly defined, its main themes follow one another almost as a through-composed sequence, culminating in a breathless dash to the finish.

Berwald’s industriousness throughout this period was not to be complemented by either frequent airings of his music or critical acclaim. The Sinfonie sérieuse, the only one of four symphonies written during this period to be performed in his lifetime, was all but dismissed at its December 1843 première, and response to two operettas was equally cool; the first performance of Modehandlerskan (The Modiste) in March 1845 was also its last. A sojourn in Vienna during 1846-9 was less auspicious than its predecessor and, on returning to Sweden, Berwald accepted directorship of first a glassworks, then a sawmill in Sandö, restricting his musical activity to private teaching and the composition of chamber works.

Ironically, it was the successful assimilation of these pieces into the Austro-German musical canon over the following decade that led to a resurgence of interest in Berwald’s music in his home country. In April 1862 the Royal Opera in Stockholm staged Estrella de Soria, twenty years after its completion, and the response encouraged Berwald to embark on a second grand opera. Finished in 1864, Drottningen av Golconda (The Queen of Golconda) was already in rehearsal when the production was summarily cancelled by the Royal Opera’s new director and only heard in its entirety in April 1968. Despite this final setback, Berwald was officially recognised by the award of the Order of the North Star on his seventieth birthday, and was appointed a professor of composition at the Stockholm Musical Academy the following year. There were no more major works, however, before his unexpected and untimely death from pneumonia in Stockholm on 3rd April 1868.

Designated a ‘romantic opera’, The Queen of Golconda is cast firmly in the mould derived from Weber and Spohr, as the overture itself makes plain. Poised between curtain-raiser and anticipation of the drama to come, it alludes to several of the items contained therein, fashioning them into a succinct design which confirms that, in this last creative phase, Berwald had lost none of his expertise in the domains of form and orchestration. Alas that such prowess went, as so often before, unrewarded.

Reminiscence of the Norwegian Mountains: Symphonic Poem for Large Orchestra
Konzertstück for Bassoon and Orchestra
Wettlauf (Foot-Race): Etude for String Orchestra
Ernste und heitere Grillen (Serious and Joyful Fancies): Fantasiestück for Orchestra
Overture to Drottningen av Golconda (The Queen of Golconda)
Elfenspiel (Play of the Elves)

Richard Whitehouse