I seem to recall once owning a set of Franz Berwald’s symphonies. They made no impression on me whatsoever in the occasions I tried listening to them, and I’m not even sure if I still own the CDs. I’m not even sure what led me to listen to him again now, in 2017, but I did, and I’m glad I did so.
Berwald is a virtually canonical example of an artist whose work was obscure in his lifetime to the point of being almost completely ignored. Berwald, a Swede who lived from 1796 to 1868 — a decently long life in that time — couldn’t even earn a living as a musician, instead making his way as a surgeon and then as a factory manager. Of his four symphonies, only the first was played during his lifetime. He didn’t toil in complete obscurity; he had a few champions here and there, but virtually none in his own homeland.
His four symphonies certainly don’t deserve their obscurity, and one wonders just why they were so roundly disregarded during his lifetime. They are not massive works, nor do they place undue demands on the performers; their harmonic language is interesting but would surely not have been unlistenable in a musical climate that was trending toward Tristan. The world of art is a capricious one, and it is hard to escape the notion that what separates those who achieve recognition and those who do not is some celestial roll of the dice. (Enduring legacy? That’s another matter entirely.)
I present two of Berwald’s symphonies here: the Third in C major, titled “Sinfonie singulaire”, and the Fourth in E-flat major, called “Sinfonie naive”. Both symphonies abound with life and rustic nature, and it’s even tempting to hear — since Berwald was Swedish, after all — tantalizing hints of what would come decades later when Sibelius or Nielsen.
Here are the Third and Fourth symphonies of Franz Berwald.
Next week…I’m not sure. I want to do some more homework before I start in on Mahler.