Franz Berwald: Symphony no. 4 in E flat, ‘Sinfonie naïve’

performed by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Okko Kamu

I’ve been very excited about this Swedish Symphony Series for some time, and I think we got off to a great start with the first symphony of Adolf Fredrick Lindblad last week, but today’s work is another one I’m very excited about. It’s really stunning. (I don’t necessarily agree with the image choice for that video though.)

(Let me also say that I include those videos for your listening convenience, but in almost all cases, when possible, I’ve purchased the recording(s) I reference, and if you enjoy the music, you should too.)

Franz Adolf Berwald was born on 23 July, 1796 in Stockholm to a family with a rich musical history. He started learning the violin and had occasion to travel in the summer holidays while he wasn’t playing violin in orchestras. Berwald’s father died in 1825, bringing economic hardship to the family. He earned a scholarship to study music in Berlin, and wrote a few operas that (at least at the time) were not staged.

A decade after his father’s death, he opened “an orthopedic and physiotherapy clinic in Berlin… which turned out to be profitable. Some of the orthopedic devices he invented were still in use decades after his death” says Wikipedia. It wasn’t until an eventual move to Vienna in 1841 that he again set his hand to composing. A year later, a concert of his tone poems was very well received, and this obviously encouraged him. In the next three years, he wrote four symphonies, only the first of which was ever heard by the composer. Wiki points out, though, that these were not the first symphonic attempts by Berwald, as there are fragments and parts of other symphonic sketches that have gone missing; there is the “torso” of a first movement of a symphony in A, which has been recorded, but his music was received better in German-speaking nations of Austria and Germany than it was in Berwald’s native land. His output includes the four (not lost) symphonies, a number of concertos, a handful of stage works and a larger deal of chamber music.

Berwald died of pneumonia in his hometown, Stockholm, in 1868. The second movement of his first symphony was performed at his funeral. Let it also be known that while he was born a few years before Lindblad, he’s coming in here because the work at hand appeared later.

Think of other symphonies you know of in E flat. There’s Bruckner’s fourth, Stravinsky’s, a few from Glazunov, Schumann’s Rhenish, Mahler’s eighth, a few from Mozart, a handful from both Haydns, and obviously many others, but there’s one major E flat major symphony standout, and it’s a symphony number 3, also with a subtitle.

Franz Berwald wrote his symphonies in pairs, and they all had subtitles. Does that help? The first and second date from 1842. The first was called Sinfonie sérieuse and the second was Sinfonie capricieuse. The second pair, numbers 3 and 4, came around in 1845, and were called Sinfonie singulière and Sinfonie naïve, respectively. The subtitle of the fourth was subsequently removed from the work by the composer, but it has stuck in the books. No. 4, like apparently all of his symphonies but the first, was never heard in the composer’s lifetime. It had been scheduled for an 1848 premiere in Paris, which was cancelled “because of the political unrest of the time.” It finally got its premiere in 1878, a decade after the composer’s death, under the baton of Ludvig Norman.

In trying to decide which of these four I’d address, I realized that really all of them are worthwhile works. That is to say, none of them bored me. It seems to me that the third is quite popular, because it floats to the top of search results pretty often, but in a recent reading of the fourth (score in hand), I was blown away by the level of excitement and crispness in the material.

If you’re a lover of classical music, it’s quite likely that you’ll listen to the first ten seconds  of this work and recognize something pretty familiar. It’s that heroic third symphony from another famous composer. Instead of two crisp chords to punctuate the opening of our E flat major symphony, though, we get a swell of what sounds like triplets (actually just eighth notes in 3/4 time) before a final powerful E flat crunch in the third bar. Then, who follows but the cellos, in a melody outstandingly similar to the aforementioned heroic symphony. The contour of the melody is different from Beethoven’s but c’mon. One can’t help but hear the similarity. I must think this was intentional, but aside from the familiarity of the opening, there isn’t much more borrowing. I am left wondering what any intention there might have been behind it, but Berwald’s music is crisp, lively, and full of excitement.

After a few statements of that familiar cello theme, the music just bursts with life. There are passages of bouncy strings, lyrical woodwinds, triumphant brass, but all the contrast and color and ups and downs fit perfectly together into a first movement that teems with energy and vitality. The overwhelming feeling is one of forward motion, of development, likely increased by the lack of an exposition repeat, which I usually enjoy. Here, though, there seems to be too much forward energy to deal with one. It’s exhilarating.

We do have a development section and the recapitulation, bringing back with it everything that compelled the listener from the beginning. It’s bright, crisp, fresh, and clean, but without lacking any weight. There’s plenty of weight.

But we have a wonderful contrast to the powerful, sunny first movement. The second movement is marked adagio, and is really very slow. It, too, is in 3/4, and it is broad and expressive, nostalgic, and comforting, almost like a lullaby, but even in its more slowed-down atmosphere, still has a sense of carrying on the momentum of the first movement. Even here we have some climactic passages, some contrasting staccato, plenty in which a listener can relish. Hyperion tells us that “not surprisingly the theme (based on an unpublished tone poem, A Rustic Wedding for organ) has taken on the status of a national song.”

The more I listen to this work, the more I appreciate what a gem it is.

The gorgeous second movement leads without pause into the third movement scherzo, the shortest movement of the symphony. What we have here is not a scherzo like you’d hear from Bruckner (obviously not yet) or even Beethoven. It’s a little more rounded off, like most of Brahms’ symphonic scherzos, with the edges and corners polished down and rounded off, at least at the beginning (obviously this is before there existed such thing as a Brahms symphony). It gets a bit more lively with the second part of the scherzo, which sounds, for lack of a better term, with some more punch here and there, but generally playful and bucolic if not a bit repetitive. The trio is nice and brings something new to the movement that I’d like to have enjoyed a bit longer.

After two more polite movements, we’re back to the kind of bubbly, vibrant energy of the first movement. It’s music that sounds like the composer enjoyed writing. He only ever heard it in his head, but there’s a sense of conviction, of humor, of pleasure in the movement. It’s quite a short, little symphony, and the final movement is full of contrasts, sudden bursts of brass, call-and-answer passages, bold, exciting lines for strings, and there’s plenty to enjoy in its pages. The finale is a great example of this. There’s plenty of content packed into this six and a half minutes, but it’s all logical, organized, easy to follow, and exciting. It might seem overkill to say, but the music is absolutely breathtaking. The finale ends with a brassy coda that’s at once triumphant, playful, exhilarating and humorous. It gives us a few false endings, and it’s music you can’t help but smile to.

There’s something that makes me the slightest bit sad, though, when thinking that this phenomenal, straightforward symphony was never heard by the composer in his lifetime.

Berwald’s fourth symphony (and more) is full of a compelling, almost intoxicating vibrance. It’s difficult for me to put into words what makes Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique such a hypnotic, mind-blowing captivating listen, and while Berwald’s fourth doesn’t have the wild, drug-induced narrative that Berlioz’s does, it does have the kind of sumptuous richness of harmonies, detail, contrast, and forward thrust that grabs you by the soul and demands to be heard. As to this music not being heard until his death, I see an inspired composer, buoyed up by success in Vienna, returning to his homeland and writing such incredible music as this, only to be ignored. Was he discouraged, unfazed, frustrated, patient, confident? I don’t know. But you’ll often read of Berwald’s music as being ‘ignored’ or ‘neglected’, even (or especially) by his own countrymen, and it baffles me that this could be the case. Imagine the satisfaction and joy that would have come from the composer being able to hear that premiere in 1878 and see the success of the work.

Instead he made his living as an orthopedic surgeon, and later as owner of both a saw mill and glass factory. A man of all trades, for sure, but after hearing a work like this, one wants to hear more from him, and wishes he’d given us more.

Another word you’ll often see used to describe Berwald’s music, or specifically his harmonies, is “pungent,” and one can forget that this is a work from only 1845. While that seems like right about the time for a not-so-early Romantic Era work, I often listen and think of it as being later than that. It has such confidence, such polish, a carefreeness to it, and I think there’s something to be said for a work from more than three decades prior earning recognition and getting a successful premiere when it did, at a time when music had moved so far away from what happened half a century before. Perhaps Berwald was just ahead of his time, or at least ahead of his nation.

It’s works like this that make me extremely excited to be spending as much time on this blog as I am, thinking of series, reading articles and reviews and biographies, listening to music. It’s all quite recreational, sort of a hobby bordering on whatever is more than a hobby, but when you come across something like this, it’s a real pleasure. Granted, Berwald isn’t some never-before-premiered composer who languishes in complete obscurity, but how many times have you heard a Berwald symphony live (or recorded, for that matter)? Listen and enjoy!

Like I said, there’s lots to listen up for this month, and this week is one of multiple posts, so do stay tuned for what’s coming up, and vi ses snart igen


3 thoughts on “Franz Berwald: Symphony no. 4 in E flat, ‘Sinfonie naïve’

  1. Lovely post. I knew the name of Berwald, but actually never heard a piece written by him. I thought he was German… Thank you for idea. Your Swedish series is a great idea as I know virtually no Swedish composer of classical music.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s