BERWALD: Tone Poems
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Franz Berwald (1796-1868)
The half-century between the premi?¿res of Beethoven'sNinth and Brahms's First Symphonies saw theemergence of numerous composers who, even if theyfailed to achieve the ultimate greatness, left a body ofwork which is distinctive and thought-provoking.
Among the most idiosyncratic of these is FranzBerwald, whose life was a catalogue of passingsuccesses and lasting disappointments, made the morestriking, and ironic, by his successful embracing ofnotably differing careers.
The orchestral works included here provideconsiderable insights into a creativity which was toextend over fifty years. Born in Stockholm on 23rd July1796, Berwald was playing in public as a violinist fromhis tenth year, and in October 1812 embarked on arestless sixteen-year spell as member of the RoyalOpera orchestra in the capital. He was alreadycomposing apace, and a benefit concert in January 1818was a not inconsiderable success. A further such concertin March 1821, however, was far less successful, thecriticism aimed at his Symphony in A (of which only atorso of the first movement survives) drawing atypically forthright response from Berwald. His musicfor Kellgren's Gustaf Vasa had a more positiveresponse in 1828, and it is hard to imagine theKonzertst??ck for Bassoon and Orchestra, composed theprevious year, would not have enjoyed a similarreception.
First performed by the bassoonist Franz Preumayron 18th November 1828, the Konzertst??ck is in threesections. After a sprightly, Mozartian Allegro nontroppo with two contrasting themes, the Andante quotesdirectly the aria 'Home Sweet Home' from HenryBishop's then hugely popular opera Clari, or The Maidof Milan. Its opening phrase without the second-halfrefrain, is paraphrased at length, before a resumption ofthe initial Allegro brings this modest but highlyattractive work to a spirited close.
The restrictions of being a professional musician,coupled with general indifference to his music inStockholm, led Berwald to quit his home city for Berlinin May 1829. Once again he was to meet withdisappointment in the frustration of his operatic plans,none of which came to fruition in this period. Therunning of an orthopaedic institute, which he founded in1835, was soon absorbing most of his time, and it wasonly on his move to Vienna in March 1841, to befollowed by his marriage a month later, that Berwaldresumed composition as a full-time activity. Theensuing decade saw the composition of almost all of hismature orchestral works, including the four tone-poemsincluded here. At least two of them were on theprogramme of a Vienna concert on 6th March 1842,when their individual approach to harmony andorchestration afforded Berwald some of the mostfavourable notices of his career.
Elfenspiel (Play of the Elves) begins quietly andruminatively, after which, a lively but muted musicredolent of Mendelssohn emerges as the main portion ofthe work. A brief and rather dissonant climax on hornsand trumpets is reached, after which the main ideas arerecalled on the way to the peremptory coda. As theBerliozian opening infers, Ernste und heitere Grillen(Serious and Joyful Fancies) is a much moredemonstrative piece. Its scherzo-like main section isalmost relentlessly active, and with a rhythmic agilityseldom encountered in music of the period. In keepingwith this elusive nature, the sudden ending comes as anot inappropriate surprise.
Erinnerung an die norwegischen Alpen(Reminiscence of the Norwegian Mountains) openswith a searching introduction which only graduallyassumes greater momentum. There follows a compactsonata form, replete with purposeful development of itsmain ideas and a 'false ending' which permits a recall ofthe opening music to form a pensive close. Least knownof these tone-poems, Wettlauf (Foot-Race) could almostbe an alternative scherzo to one of the symphoniesBerwald was shortly to write. Although subtly defined,its main themes follow one another almost as a throughcomposedsequence, culminating in a breathless dash tothe finish.
Berwald's industriousness throughout this periodwas not to be complemented by either frequent airingsof his music or critical acclaim. The Sinfonie serieuse,the only one of four symphonies written during thisperiod to be performed in his lifetime, was all butdismissed at its December 1843 premi?¿re, and responseto two operettas was equally cool; the first performanceof Modehandlerskan (The Modiste) in March 1845 wasalso its last. A sojourn in Vienna during 1846-9 was lessauspicious than its predecessor and, on returning toSweden, Berwald accepted directorship of first aglassworks, then a sawmill in Sando, restricting hismusical activity to private teaching and the compositionof chamber works.
Ironically, it was the successful assimilation ofthese pieces into the Austro-German musical canonover the following decade that led to a resurgence ofinterest in Berwald's music in his home country. InApril 1862 the Royal Opera in Stockholm stagedEstrella de Soria, twenty years after its completion, andthe response encouraged Berwald to embark on asecond grand opera. Finished in 1864, Drottningen avGolconda (The Queen of Golconda) was already inrehearsal when the production was summarily cancelledby the Royal Opera's new director and only heard in itsentirety in April 1968. Despite this final setback,Berwald was officially recognised by the award of theOrder of the North Star on his seventieth birthday, andwas appointed a professor of composition at theStockholm Musical Academy the following year. Therewere no more major works, however, before hisunexpected and untimely death from pneumonia inStockholm on 3rd April 1868.
Designated a 'romantic opera', The Queen ofGolconda is cast firmly in the mould derived fromWeber and Spohr, as the overture itself makes plain.
Poised between curtain-raiser and anticipation of thedrama to come, it alludes to several of the itemscontained therein, fashioning them into a succinctdesign which confirms that, in this last creative phase,Berwald had lost none of his expertise in the domains ofform and orchestration. Alas that such prowess went, asso often before, unrewarded.Richard Whitehouse