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8.223170 - BERWALD: Piano Trios Nos. 1-3

Franz Berwald (1796–1868)
Trio No. 1 in E-flat Major (1849) • Trio No. 2 in F Minor (1851) • Trio No. 3 in D Minor (1851)


In Franz Berwald the nineteenth century Swedish musical establishment failed to recognise the most original and arguably greatest composer that country has yet produced. While he enjoyed considerable success in German-speaking areas of the continent and even the honor of election to the Salzburg Mozarteum—an honor that no institution in Sweden could hope to equal—he remained unappreciated in his homeland.

Franz Adolf Berwald was born in Stockholm on 23 July 1796 to a German family that had been active in music for a century and a half. His father was the first Berwald to settle in Sweden. A former student of Benda and a violinist in the Royal Orchestra, he hoped to see his son become a virtuoso violinist. Though Franz held a position first as a violinist and later as a violist in the court orchestra from 1812 to 1828, his true musical vocation lay elsewhere.

The first signs of creativity revealed themselves in 1817 with the composition of a now lost orchestral fantasy, a septet (which probably survives at least in part in the later septet of 1828) and a concerto for two violins and orchestra. The G minor string quartet the first of three surviving works of the chamber music genre in which Berwald excelled was written in 1818 and was soon followed by a second, B-flat major quartet, now lost. Of an A major symphony from 1820 only a fragment of the first movement survives. Berwald was a rigorously self-critical composer and a man generally reticent about himself; it is not possible to know whether the compositions no longer extant were indeed lost or intentionally destroyed.

When the A major symphony and the violin concerto of 1820 were first performed, the Swedish critics took the young composer to task for merely seeking originality and effect. Excessive and unorthodox modulation, lack of melody, painful dissonance and an impression of chaos were the critics’ chief complaints. Some admitted that Berwald might have talent and urged him to learn and follow the rules of composition, but he was impervious to their suggestions. He never doubted his genius. In fact he intimated in 1829 that his opera Leonida, when completed, would consign even Fidelio to the shade.

Attempts to win a scholarship for study abroad failed in 1822 and again in 1828, but with the financial support of Prince Oscar, a lifelong patron, Berwald set out for Berlin in 1829. Alienated by his own outspokenness and arrogance from Sweden’s musical and academic circles, he happily left provincial Stockholm and its dilettantish critics behind. Berlin was an important musical capital where he expected to make a name for himself. Unable to disguise his contempt for musical mediocrity, he again impressed with his arrogance and failed to win the support of those who could have helped him most, including Mendelssohn. When success finally came, it was in a different form altogether.

Though the temperamental Berwald had little formal education, having stormed out of school one day as a child, never to return, he had become interested in the treatment of physical disorders by means of exercise, and in 1835 he opened an orthopedic institute in Berlin. His intolerance in musical matters was matched by his humanitarian generosity in non-musical affairs. He offered free treatment to the poor, invented therapeutic devices that remained in use long afterward and won respect from the medical profession for the efficacy of his treatments. After six years the now financially comfortable composer married an institute employee, sold the institute and moved to Vienna. The year spent there was productive and successful, and a concert devoted to his orchestral music was warmly received.

After thirteen years abroad Berwald returned to Sweden in 1842, hoping his success would accompany him. Sadly he failed to make much of an impression at home. Though the 1840s were the most productive decade of his life and saw the creation of the four symphonies upon which his fame rests, the few works that were performed in Sweden met with mixed reaction. The Sinfonie sérieuse, the only one of the four to be performed during his lifetime, was conducted badly by his cousin Johann Friederich Berwald, who bore him no love, and elicited the same criticism of two decades earlier: the pursuit of originality at all costs.

And so in 1846 Berwald embarked on a second exile that was to be the happiest period of his life. Six months of Paris failed to win a following there, but he found success in Germany and Austria. The election to the Salzburg Mozarteum came in 1847. The next year one Salzburg critic ranked him with the foremost composers of the day. Another found “the imprint of perfection” on his music and praised its purposefulness and homogeneity. A marked contrast to Stockholm’s musical myopia!

It is inconceivable that Berwald could not have felt bitterness and disappointment when financial conditions forced his return in 1849 to Sweden, where further disappointment awaited. He failed to win either an appointment to Uppsala University or the conductorship of the court orchestra, left vacant by his cousin’s retirement. Once again the most distinguished composer in the whole of Scandinavia had to seek a livelihood unrelated to music while the musical positions in Sweden were filled by men of negligible talent.

Berwald became the manager of a glassworks in northern Sweden in 1850 and was made a partner three years later, launching a sawmill nearby that same year. He spent the winters in the relatively milder climate of Stockholm, where his social activities encouraged the composition of chamber music. The two piano quintets and three of the five piano trios appeared in the early 1850s. Most were published in Germany and were well received there. Franz Liszt found much to admire in the Second Quintet and encouraged Berwald not to bow to criticism but to remain true to his own inspiration.

The first formal recognition came in Sweden when Berwald was made a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1864. Three years later his colleagues nominated him to the post of professor of composition, but even that was only a qualified victory. The full board refused to confirm the appointment and named a rival candidate, who thought it best to decline in the face of public indignation and pressure from Prince Oscar. Humiliated, Berwald accepted the professorship.

The influence he might have brought to bear on Swedish music will forever remaindebatable. The following year on 3 April 1868 he succumbed to pneumonia.

He had instructed only five pupils in that brief time. His finest works would remain unperformed until the 20th century, when later generations and the efforts of men like Tor Aulin and Wilhelm Stenhammar would at last bring his music the recognition so long denied. Berwald’s lifetime spanned a period of fundamental and far-reaching change in the musical language that was perhaps without historical precedent. In his own highly individual way Berwald, who was born when Beethoven was a young man and who lived three years beyond the première of Tristan und Isolde, reflected some of those changes though by no means with chronological consistency. Since nationalism arrived late in Scandinavia and made no significant impact during his lifetime, we must turn to the musical lingua franca, German classico-romanticism, to discover Berwald’s roots. Hummel and Spohr are discernible influences in the early music, and from Beethoven Berwald inherited a predilection for short motifs and the structural use of insistent rhythmic patterns. But from the beginning an independent spirit was also at work. As early as in the string quartet of 1818 and the violin concerto of 1820, critics did not know what to make of the bold, seemingly wayward modulations. Since Swedish musical life was in the thralldom of suffocating conventionality and the demands of the salon, Berwald’s eccentricities must have seemed all the more startling. Nevertheless, assured craftsmanship and contrapuntal expertise were never lacking.

Berwald was no romantic in the sense that Chopin or Tchaikovsky were, nor was he an innovator comparable to Berlioz or Wagner. His was no heart-on-the-sleeve bearing of personal emotion or the assertion of a hypertrophied ego. In spite of his audacious experimentation, he stood (perhaps anachronistically) closer to the past century’s classicism, which better served his own emotional equilibrium, humanity and nobility. His newness lay not in the invention of things thitherto unheard but in his fascinating approach to musical resources already there. That is especially true of his harmonic language, which has a freshness all its own while rarely adventuring as far as that of Berlioz, Chopin or Liszt. Berwald’s melodies are based predominantly on the triadic intervallic patterns of classicism. Rhythmically they show a preference for sequential repetition, and if that is perceived as weakness in an age of greater melodic plasticity, one need only cite Bruckner and Schumann to show that Berwald was in good company. More significant are his fresh, spontaneous thematic invention and the ability to create evocative moments with a striking economy of means.

In general the feeling for structure in romantic music is comparatively weak, but it is in that very area that Berwald made his boldest strides. As early as 1828 he experimented with the idea of structural unity by enclosing the Scherzo within the slow movement of his septet. The procedure recurs in his farthest-reaching attempt at integration. There, not only is the Scherzo encapsulated within the slow movement but in turn the slow movement is contained within the Allegro, and what emerges is a single structure consisting of an introduction and five connected sections.

The earliest of Berwald’s five trios for violin, cello and piano, in C major, dates from 1845 and is still unpublished. The next three were published in Hamburg between 1852 and 1854 as Nos. l, 2 and 3. A fifth trio, again in C major, was published posthumously in Copenhagen in 1896 as No. 4. It was composed during the same period as Nos. l, 2 and 3, but more specific dating is not possible.

Generally speaking, Berwald’s chamber music is melodically and harmonically more chromatic than his orchestral works, and that has been attributed to two factors. One is the exposure to opera during his years in the orchestra pit, and the other is a direct influence from Spohr, whose music Berwald must have known quite well. But the composer with whom he shares the greatest kinship in the trios is Mendelssohn. As an experienced string player Berwald wrote idiomatically for the violin and the cello, but balancing them with the piano presented problems that few composers after Beethoven and Schubert have resolved with total success. Berwald seemed in large part unaware of the expressive depths that had developed in the piano and its literature during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the brilliant style of Moscheles and Hummel remained his model.

Trio No. 1 in E-flat major was composed in the autumn of 1849. Its first movement, Allegro con brio, is perhaps the most perfectly realized of all Berwald’s trio movements. There is an admirable balance and interplay of the instruments. Trills and pizzicato effects lend coloristic interest, and the lilting first subject, which almost could have come from the pen of the young Sibelius, establishes a Nordic tone rare in Berwald’s music. A bridge passage based on the first subject leads directly into the Andante grazioso, a slow movement marked by simplicity and lyric charm. The finale, Allegro spiritoso quasi presto, follows without pause and recalls Mendelssohn in its fleetness.

If the First Trio is arguably the finest, the Second is the most problematical, exhibiting those qualities regarded as the weaknesses in his chamber music. Fortunately they are concentrated in the first movement, where the excessive repetition of rhythmic and melodic motifs—a fault that also makes the Sinfonie capricieuse the weakest of the symphonies—and difficulties with instrumental balance obscure the Beethovenian dramatic climate that may have been Berwald’s intention. The driving initial theme curiously gives way to a scherzo-like subsidiary idea in the first group, and a whimsical figure punctuates the lyrical second subject as well. Any sense of ennui that this Allegro molto movement may engender is quickly dispelled by subsequent events. The Allegro passes without break into the Larghetto, a fairly conventional slow movement at first but one that grows into a grotesque cortège. There follows a flowing movement in triple time marked Scherzo—Molto allegro, though its character seems more appropriate to a finale. It is a fine movement in the spirit of Mendelssohn, and it indeed turns out to be the finale, appended by a coda that compresses a restatement of the first movement into a mere 65 bars.

The Second Trio was finished in March 1851 and the third followed in December of that year. Fine melodic inspiration marks the flowing Allegro non molto, which has an overall mood of serenity, colored by imaginative instrumental writing. There are many points of interest in the Adagio quasi largo, which follows without a break. Here a simple melody given to the strings is underpinned by the piano in a most unorthodox way that employs 128th notes to produce a strumming effect. Without pause the Allegro molto finale begins with one of those propulsive, wonderfully quirky themes that no one but Berwald could have conceived and which proclaims a familial tie to the Sinfonie singulière. A slower, folk-like episode that bears a close relationship to the second subject of the E-flat major symphony’s first movement intervenes, and later the theme returns in a fleeting reference that ends a truly original work in a no less remarkable fashion.

David Nelson

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