Swede Victory

Conductor Herbert Blomstedt rescues an obscure composer from the classical dustbin

In the early 1850s, a German music critic asked Franz Berwald if he was still a composer. His surly reply was, "No, I am a glass blower."

Such was the sorry fate of Berwald's career. Underappreciated and ahead of his time, the Swedish romantic composer had only the most meager of musical successes in his lifetime -- and then only abroad. Frequently forced to pursue other professions to make ends meet, through the years the reluctant Renaissance man tried his hand at glass blowing, forestry, and even physiotherapy. He would eventually establish a renowned orthopedic institute in Berlin.

Posthumous recognition certainly isn't an uncommon fate for forward-thinking artists -- countless biographies attest to that. And systematically, it seems, it is left to future generations to correct the mistake. So now, 150 years after its creation, Franz Berwald's music is performed regularly in the country that once spurned him; he is now touted as that country's greatest 19th-century composer. Yet outside of his homeland, Berwald remains virtually unknown.

"In Sweden now, everybody knows Berwald's symphonies," says Maestro Herbert Blomstedt calling from Leipzig, where he was recently appointed music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. "But there's been very little export. Sweden's a small country, and there are few Swedish conductors who are internationally active. And I think that's really the main reason."

Blomstedt is by far the best known of that elite group; the San Francisco Symphony Conductor Laureate has made a concerted effort throughout his career to promote Berwald's music through both concerts and recordings. During his tenure as music director of the SFS from 1985 to 1995, Blomstedt introduced Bay Area audiences to a number of Berwald's symphonies. For his annual spring visit to Davies Symphony Hall, Blomstedt will be doing it again, conducting Berwald's third symphony, the Sinfonie Singuliere.

Herbert Blomstedt has had a special relationship with the Sinfonie Singuliere since he was a teenager. "One of the first symphony concerts I can remember going to," he recalls, "was in a small Swedish city called Jsnksping. They had a quite good amateur orchestra, and my piano teacher was the conductor. He got me a free ticket so I could listen to a symphony concert; and the only piece I really remember from that concert was the Symphony No. 3 by Franz Berwald. It starts so characteristically that you never forget it."

Blomstedt would continue to follow -- and support -- Berwald's work throughout his career. While studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1952 -- one of several eminent institutions where he practiced the craft of conducting after taking degrees from both the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm and the University of Uppsala -- Blomstedt introduced Boston to Berwald. "That was two years before my professional debut in Stockholm," he remembers. "My teacher fell terminally ill, and I was asked to take over the orchestra for him. And we had a concert in the beginning of December, which was also aired on the local radio, and the main work was Berwald's Sinfonie Singuliere. The orchestra played it marvelously, and it was wonderfully received. So that was the first thing I performed in America."

Although the Sinfonie Singuliere is considered Berwald's most important composition -- part of a body of work that includes three other symphonies, a couple of operas, several concertos, symphonic tone poems, and chamber music -- it didn't see its first performance until 1905, 60 years after it was written. Indeed, the only symphony of Berwald's the composer saw performed in his lifetime was his Symphony No. 1, or Sinfonie Serieuse, presented in Stockholm in 1843.

"At that time," explains Blomstedt, "Sweden was completely underdeveloped in the field of symphonic music. There was nothing similar to a well-trained orchestra in all of Sweden. There was one orchestra that could play symphonic music, and that was the Royal Opera Orchestra in Stockholm; but they played operas all the time. So the soil was not prepared for this kind of music."

Another thing working against Berwald was the style of his music. Berwald lived during one of those remarkable, epoch-straddling periods in the history of classical music. Born one year before Schubert but still alive 40 years after Schubert's death, when Wagner's Tristan und Isolde debuted, Berwald saw the restrained manners of classicism give way to the turbulent gestures of romanticism. A violinist in the Royal Opera Orchestra of Stockholm in his youth, Berwald played in the Swedish premieres of five operas by Mozart and two by Weber. In fact, in the very same season, opera audiences in Stockholm witnessed the premieres of Mozart's loftily classical La Clemenza di Tito and Weber's blood-chillingly romantic Der Freischutz.

At the end of that season, Berwald left the orchestra to devote himself full time to composing. But he was split between the old classical tradition and the new romantic trend, and his music reflected this -- falling solidly into neither camp but flirting overtly with both. This unusual amalgam resulted in a highly original sound, with a distinctly modern flavor. "If you take Mendelssohn plus Schumann and add a little bit of Berlioz and divide it in three, then you have Berwald," explains Blomstedt. "Of course, you should also take Beethoven, because he was really the model for Berwald. It sounds like a crazy recipe," he admits, "but everything he writes for the orchestra just sounds superbly."

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