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8.553970 - BERWALD: Piano Quintets

Franz Berwald (1796-1868)
Complete Works for Piano Quintet

Almost everybody would agree that Franz Berwald was the music world's leading light in nineteenth-century Sweden. Many regard him as Sweden's foremost composer, but during his lifetime few of his countrymen appreciated his art. This was partly because symphonies, the genre at which he excelled, were little appreciated. Besides operas and Singspiele, more intimate forms of music practised in the home with friends were preferred, such as piano pieces, chamber music, works for male choir and solo songs. Most of what was written was unpretentious in the salon music vein.

Orchestral concerts were given sporadically by the Hovkapellet, the orchestra of the Royal Opera, but the few symphonies that were presented in these concerts were foreign and usually quite old. For decades in Sweden no new symphonies appeared, Adolf Lindblad's Symphony No. 1 being the only example. Its first performance in 1832 is significant from a musical historical point of view, but it hardly made an impact. Around ten years later the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra played it, but in Sweden Lindblad remained known exclusively for his songs and chamber music.

It is therefore easy to understand why Berwald the sophisticate found the antiquated Swedish music scene suffocating. In 1829, at the age of thirty-three, he left Sweden and moved to Berlin, where he remained for twelve years, working not as a musician but in one of the other professions he was obliged to practise during his lifetime in order to support himself. As a skilled orthopaedic surgeon he managed to make a successful living, from 1835 running his own orthopaedic institute. In his free time he wrote a not insubstantial amount of music, first and foremost operatic fragments, although nothing complete has emerged from this time. One can wonder why, since he ad found a more inspiring milieu.

In the spring of 1841 he closed the institute and moved to Vienna, by all accounts to continue his work in the orthopaedic field. He discovered, however, that the Viennese showed an interest in his music, which seems to have cleared his writers' block. Although he only remained in Vienna for a year he managed to write several works, including two symphonies, four orchestral fantasies and the opera Estrella de Soria. Some of the works were played immediately, including most of the opera. He himself conducted three of the shorter pieces. The reception he was given in this cosmopolitan city was more positive than any he had experienced before. One can understand why he might have felt that the world was ready for his music, even Sweden. After thirteen years abroad he decided to return home. In April 1842 he arrived in Stockholm with his bags full of new music.

His hopes had been in vain however. The Swedish music scene had not changed noticeably at all. Stockholm, was, apart from the Opera, as provincial as it had always been, at least it seemed that way to Berwald, who was now used to the rich concert life on the continent. The few compositions he managed to have performed met with little success. Some works were deemed uninteresting, others the work of an eccentric outsider. Yet he did have some new ideas – ­from a Swedish perspective. Inspiration came from innovators such as Beethoven and Cherubini and, to a certain extent, Weber. When it came to inventiveness, sudden leaps and unexpected key changes, he often went further than they did. The musical development of apiece by Berwald was far less predictable than most of the music that was known in Sweden at the time, and for us it is precisely the unexpected which makes it so exciting.

During his years abroad Berwald must have heard the music of Europe's true innovators; Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, although their influence is noticeably absent from his music. He continued to draw inspiration from the classicists and early romantics, Gluck and Mozart being among those he admired What was foreign to Swedish audiences of the day was his pronounced personal style, rather than anything truly revolutionary.

Of Berwald's four symphonies, only the Sinfonie sérieuse (Naxos 8.553051) was played during his lifetime; once, badly rehearsed and with a greatly reduced orchestra. The performance took place at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm in 1843 under the direction of a conductor who, it seems, showed no great interest in the work. This was Berwald's cousin Johan Fredrik Berwald, renowned as an imaginative director of music, but not on very good terms with cousin Franz, ten years his junior.

Whether through personal animosity, a lack of understanding of the music or quite simply insufficient rehearsal time, Swedish audiences' only opportunity to hear the symphonic genius of Berwald was thus lost. The Sinfonie sérieuse was not performed again until 1876, eight years after Berwald's death. Several of his other symphonies had to wait until the beginning of the twentieth century for first performances.

In 1846 Berwald departed once more for foreign shores, stopping in Paris, Vienna, Salzburg and southern Germany. In Vienna he was once again warmly received, on one occasion in a performance with Jenny Lind. In Vienna he became one of the few Swedes accorded the honour of being elected an honorary member of the Mozarteum. He also received warm receptions elsewhere.

Economic difficulties forced Berwald to return to Sweden for good in 1849 and for seven years he managed a glassworks in Ångermanland in northern Sweden. He was still able to spend his winters in Stockholm where, amongst other things, he was able to take part in performances of chamber music in the homes of various musically-inclined families. His failure to gain an audience for his larger works caused him now to concentrate almost completely on chamber music. In the ten years after his return to Sweden he completed two piano quintets, two string quartets, three piano trios as well as duos for violin and piano and cello and piano. Six of these works he had published by the Hamburg publishing house Schuberth.

As a young man Berwald had spent several years as a violinist in the Opera House Hovkapellet, but he had far less practical experience with the piano, and does not seem to have been especially familiar with the ways in which Schumann, Mendelssohn and other contemporaries used the instrument. His piano parts are therefore not especially pianistic, which was noted by critics at the time. That he continued to write for the instrument was probably due to the fact that most private ensembles had access to a piano.

Berwald's interest in chamber music was further encouraged by an unusually gifted pupil of his, Hilda Thegerströbm. On the recommendation of Berwald she went on to study in Paris with Antoine Marmontel, who taught Bizet, Debussy and other great musicians, as well as with Franz Liszt in Weimar. It was in Weimar that she made a successful début when she was barely twenty and she soon came to be regarded as Sweden's foremost pianist.

It was for Hilda Thegerström that Berwald composed his Piano Quintet in C minor, as well as his Piano Concerto (Naxos 8.553052). From the beginning Berwald referred to the C minor Quintet as Quintet No. 2, from which one can deduce that the Piano Quintet in A major, completed in 1857, was conceived before its sister work, probably around 1850. Presumably it then also included the two movements Larghetto and Scherzo, which have survived separately, as these are preceded in the original manuscript by the last few bars of the first movement of the A major Quintet. Both finales borrow material from two orchestral works from 1842; the tone poem Wettlauf (‘Racing’) and the overture Bajadärfesten (‘Festival of the Bayadères’). In common with Handel and Bach, Berwald often used material borrowed from earlier compositions.

Berwald took the Quintet in C minor with him when he paid a short visit to Liszt in the spring of 1857. Liszt immediately played through the work and Berwald later wrote: 'I have had the opportunity to hear my Quintet played – straight from the score – by a true poetic master. This was music! No longer just a piano but a whole orchestra! I shall never forget his name!'

As a gesture of thanks Berwald dedicated his Quintet in A major to Liszt. The following February, when the published work reached him, Liszt sent a message to Berwald: 'You express yourself with invention, skill and agility, your developments and recapitulations are masterfully executed, your style both elegant and harmonically original. If I must pronounce on your work I would say that its most outstanding qualities are its lively invention and an exquisite feeling for development. Thus you satisfy the demands of the art without once abandoning common sense'.

Liszt also wrote of audiences' lack of understanding, saying 'unfortunately such audiences are everywhere. As far as supposed connoisseurs and musical experts are concerned, I quote from the Good Book: "They have ears, but they hear not". Believe me, sir, you must not allow yourself to be influenced by these many critics with big ears, rather continue to compose as your heart and fantasy dictates…You truly possess originality but you will not enjoy success during your lifetime. Nevertheless you must persevere'.

The Quintet in C minor was performed on several occasions with Hilda Thegerström at the piano. It was not until 1874 that a public performance seems to have taken place. The Quintet in A major, as far as can be ascertained, was first performed in 1895 by the Aulin Quartet and Wilhelm Stenhammar.

Sven Kruckenberg
English version: Andrew Smith

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