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.”

Nevertheless, the “crazy recipe” didn't appeal to the tastes of Berwald's conservative compatriots. Musicians and listeners in Sweden at the time considered Berwald insane. “For those people at that time, his music was much too modern,” say Blomstedt.

Berwald made several lengthy excursions abroad in the hope that his work might fare better with the more open-minded audiences in Europe's cosmopolitan capitals. But his attempts at opera in Berlin were a failure, and were replaced by his more successful — and lucrative — orthopedic ventures. “Do not think I have abandoned music,” he wrote in a letter to Sweden, “but it cooks a meager soup.” Then, in 1842, Berwald traveled to Vienna, where his new tone poems were well-received. Inspired by this long-awaited recognition as a composer, Berwald returned to Stockholm — only to encounter the same cold reception he had experienced years earlier.

Berwald completed four symphonies between 1841 and 1845, and gave them all French titles, suggesting that he thought he might have better luck with his music in Paris. “Berwald knew that in the 1820s and 1830s, Beethoven was best performed in France,” says Blomstedt. “So perhaps that was why he focused his interest on Paris.” However, Berwald's trip to France in 1846, just before his 50th birthday, brought no new results. He once again returned to Vienna, this time with moderate success; he was even elected an honorary member of the prestigious Mozarteum.

But when he went back home in 1848 with the thought of securing a position in the Swedish musical establishment, he was passed over. With a wife and young son to support, Berwald changed his career for the second time, becoming the manager of a glassworks. The glass-blowing Berwald continued to compose part time, devoting much of his musical energies to opera. In 1862, a revised version of his 1840s work Estrella de Soria was staged at the Stockholm opera and was favorably reviewed. But his new opera, The Queen of Golconda, had to wait 100 years before being staged there.

In 1864, an aging Franz Berwald was finally accepted as a fellow of the Swedish Academy, rising to the post of professor of composition in 1867. It was the pinnacle of his career, the recognition from his country that he'd been seeking his entire life. But, as fate would have it, his satisfaction would be short-lived: Only one year after his appointment as professor, the composer died of pneumonia.

There are currently a couple of dozen CDs of Berwald's music in print — the vast majority on Swedish labels, mostly released in the last few years. While his work is still rarely performed in the United States, a few American critics have begun to take an interest. New York Times critic Bernard Holland wrote that “Berwald's is an original voice, not always successful in its eloquence, but hard not to pay attention to.” Alex Ross, also writing in the Times, said that “in Berwald's case posterity might have misspoken.”

“It's music that is very witty, and has wonderful lyric passages,” asserts Blomstedt. “And a special characteristic of Berwald is the element of surprise. He loved to surprise his listeners, and even to shock them.” The Sinfonie Singuliere, says Blomstedt, is no exception. “There's a passage in the symphony where the orchestra slows down, and gets softer and softer and softer until it's almost inaudible, and then suddenly there comes this big bang of the timpani, just to wake those up who have possibly gone to sleep.”

The music, it seems, mimics the man. There's a story that Berwald once took shelter in a cottage in the north of Sweden; he found it empty, the home of very poor people who were out at work. Before he left, he emptied the contents of his wallet onto the table, thinking of how astonished the tenants would be when they returned home and made the discovery. Berwald would never know their reaction to his surprise, of course — just as he was never to know how audiences would react to the surprises in his music. But with conductors like Blomstedt firmly behind him, Berwald might finally have the last laugh.

Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony perform Berwald's Symphony No. 3 and Brahms' Symphony No. 3 March 18-20 at Davies Symphony Hall, and March 21 at the Flint Center in Cupertino. Call 864-6000 for more information.

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