The singular Mr. Berwald

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Franz Berwald was a Swede who lived in the early 19th century and who made his living first as an orthopedic surgeon and later as the manager of a saw mill and glass factory. But these days, nobody cares very much about all that.

Berwald was born in Stockholm into a family that had been musicians for several generations, and even though Franz earned his living by other means, his true passion was music, and in addition to operas and concertos, he wrote four symphonies, only one of which was performed during his lifetime, and that to mixed reviews.

Berwald spent some years in Vienna, where a few of his works were performed. One year after Berwald’s death in 1868, the crusty, conservative Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick appraised him as (quote) "a man stimulating, witty, prone to bizarrerie, [but who] as a composer lacked creative power and fantasy".

Oddly enough, it’s exactly Berwald’s “bizarrerie,” or amusing strangeness, that appealed to later generations, and likewise his creative power and fantasy. In fact, for many music lovers today, Berwald is Sweden’s first great Romantic composer and symphonist.

This didn’t happen overnight, of course. Berwald’s Third Symphony, nicknamed “The Singular One,” was written in 1845, but had to wait 37 years after the death of its composer for its first public performance, which took place in Stockholm on today’s date in 1905.