Herbert Blomstedt conducts Dvořák and Berwald

13 Feb 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert Blomstedt

  • Franz Berwald
    Symphony No. 3 in C major “Sinfonie singulière” (32 min.)

  • Antonín Dvořák
    Symphony No. 7 in D minor, op. 70 (52 min.)

  • free

    Interview
    Herbert Blomstedt on Franz Berwald and Antonín Dvořák (19 min.)

When you to take a look at Herbert Blomstedt’s current concert schedule, it wouldn’t occur to you that the man is already a veteran of the classical music scene. That’s because the world-class conductor, who was born in the US in 1927 and grew up in Sweden, has a workload that would do credit to a youngster: “Music is of course hard work – as Richard Strauss used to say – but it also gives you strength. If you’re healthy, and you notice you’re still needed, it’s an unstoppable inspiration.”

As a regular guest of the Philharmoniker, Herbert Blomstedt stopped off again in Berlin in the 2015/2016 season – on this occasion with an exciting new repertoire discovery. Blomstedt placed a work by the most important Swedish symphonic composer of the 19th century on the programme: Franz Berwald’s Sinfonie singulière, an opus “largely unknown today – unjustifiably” (Blomstedt). The “uniqueness” referred to in the title of this symphony, Berwald’s Third completed in March 1845, seems already to be confirmed in the work’s first bars. What is unusual here, however, is not the harmonies but rather a curious oscillating of the music, since a simple motif is layered over varying harmonic sequences. After an original second movement, in which the Scherzo is integrated into the middle of the Adagio, there follows a Finale that is impetuous and gives off sparks, whose stirring vitality provides a perfect contrast to what came before.

After Franz Berwald’s Sinfonie singulière, which Herbert Blomstedt also edited in the Critical Complete Edition, there follows Antonín Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, whom no less a figure than Hans von Bülow, full of admiration, called “the most God-gifted composer of the present day next to Brahms”. At the London premiere the work “had an exceptionally brilliant success” (Dvořák); even the recalcitrant critic George Bernard Shaw praised “the variety of rhythm and figure”.

Bülowʼs Berwald, Bülowʼs Dvořák

Two utterly different Philharmonic careers

Weird and whimsical: Franz Berwald’s Symphony No. 3 in C major, “Sinfonie singulière”

Franz Berwald had an image problem. He didn’t fit into the parochial Stockholm of his time. He was a couple of sizes too big and too cocky. But he was also the terror of all the Biedermeier salons of Berlin and Vienna. No one understood the accomplishments on which Berwald’s blustering self-confidence was based. Felix Mendelssohn, who became acquainted with him in the Prussian capital in 1830, complained of the “swaggering arrogance” of this odd bird and the “peculiarly bombastic harmonies” of his vocal works. Berwald lived for a solid twelve years in Berlin, where he grew impoverished as a composer and was forced to find a different trade. He founded an orthopaedic institute and developed many devices with which he successfully treated disabled patients, often at no charge, and achieved recognition in the medical profession.

In 1841 he gave up his business and travelled to Vienna, where he met Mozart’s son Franz Xaver and reverently visited one of Beethoven’s apartments and his grave at the Währing cemetery. The new freedom led to an explosion of compositional activity. In the next few years he created his four symphonies and numerous other orchestral works. But the breakthrough he sought eluded him in Vienna as it did later in Paris. He remained the uncouth outsider, falling between two stools everywhere and on only one occasion finding a more comfortable seat abroad – and it was practically a throne.

The year that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was founded, 1882, Hans von Bülow, who was soon to lead the orchestra to lofty heights, undertook a tour of Scandinavia. In a travel sketch from Stockholm he mentioned Berwald, calling him “a genuinely musical independent thinker”. How did this former friend of Wagner and vigorous champion of Brahms, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky happen upon this Swedish composer who had already been dead for 14 years and never performed anywhere? During his first period in Berlin, Bülow had organized evenings of chamber music, and in 1858 he included Berwald’s D minor Piano Trio on the programme, provoking a huge scandal. Bülow already knew other works of Berwald and recommended them to a friend: “The Trio by Berwald, moreover, is a real gem. Have a look sometime at the 3 Trios as well as the two Piano Quintets by this old musician of the future, and you will be delighted by them.”

When Bülow became the Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor in 1887, he was unable to do anything on the Swede’s behalf. The four symphonies were unpublished. Only one of them, the Sérieuse, had been performed during Berwald’s lifetime, in an 1843 Stockholm concert that ended in disaster. After that, the composer chose to leave those works in the drawer. Finally, he forgot about them. Berwald’s Fourth, the Sinfonie naïve, received its first performance in 1878, ten years after the composer’s death, the Sinfonie singulière in 1905, and the Sinfonie capricieuse in 1914.

What Berwald’s contemporaries objected to in his works seems today original and progressive: abrupt changes of mood, disconcertingly spare melodic material. Yet that bit of material becomes something quite unique through Berwald’s treatment of it and his harmonies. An exemplary illustration comes with the very opening of the Sinfonie singulière: the oscillation between two notes a 4th apart which climbs from the basses and violins to the woodwind. But how skilfully Berwald manages to avoid monotony by means of dissonant pedal points and allowing the whole procedure to culminate in a disarming flute trill! The main theme is generated over several short motivic ideas, bursting forth sonorously on horns and trumpets. It isn’t a proper theme, however, only the signal-like repetition of the same notes, interrupted by harmonically shifting, churning string runs. As the piece progresses, the music swells to demonic dimensions, and the chain of quavers (eighth notes) angrily expelled by the orchestra, each time displaced by a semitone, threatens nearly to demolish the symphonic construction. But Berwald suddenly terminates the assault and inserts brief recovery phases, only immediately to set off the next outburst.

The following movements are every bit as original. The Adagio has just found its dreamlike melos when it is rudely interrupted by a fff timpani whack and immediately ousted by the Scherzo. The latter unfolds as a witty alternation of humorously fantastic images before a brief return of the Adagio. Thus the Scherzo is treated as the Adagio’s Trio section, an unprecedented formal solution. The slow section’s dreamy melody surfaces once again in the presto Finale, but can hardly be viable in a movement full of spleen whose main theme is more frenetic than frivolous. It is mostly in C minor and only at the very end does it safely reach the home key of C major. A German concert guide in 1919 declared that in his Sinfonie singulière Berwald succeeded in “lending technical expression to Nordic substance, most effectively through his treatment of harmony.”

Sensibility raised to irascibility: Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor

Maybe Berwald’s chance of success would have been greater if Bülow had been able to present in Berlin a symphony by this only Scandinavian musical genius before Grieg. Bülow was a staunch champion of composers who impressed him. He wasn’t bothered by grumbling audiences, by malicious critics or, least of all, by political headwinds. And those were blowing especially strongly against him and inflaming his obstinacy in the case of Antonín Dvořák. This headstrong Bohemian was actually fortune’s darling. He made a friend of Brahms and the Berlin-based Fritz Simrock became his publisher. The Germans offered him enormous support while also attempting to steer his symphonic ambitions into the tracks of their own tradition.

The success of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony in Germany was founded on the work’s serious nature. Czech national echoes can be heard in the Scherzo, but only the Trio strikes a naïve, folklike tone. Otherwise a gloomy D minor prevails even in this movement, and a sensibility raised to the point of irascibility. The Scherzo, like the work as a whole, reflects the internal conflict Dvořák experienced as a Czech patriot trying to be a popular rhapsodist and an internationally recognized symphonist at the same time. The work’s tendencies are immediately apparent in the Allegro maestoso’s opening bars, a portentous yet pugnacious idea in the low strings. Lyrical passages are drastically swept aside and the movement hurtles towards a martial end but then expires in resignation. There follows one of those consoling nature songs that are obligatory in a work by Dvořák. Romantic horn calls and a yearning hymnlike string melody, but also violent protest, culminating in visions of a dark triumph, make this Adagio the greatest and most profound of Dvořák’s slow movements. Following the D minor Scherzo, the Finale in the same key comes as less of a surprise than its concluding turn towards D major.

Dvořák’s Seventh took its audiences by storm because of his genius in fulfilling the familiar scheme of a tragic-heroic symphony, overcoming all resistance. Berwald’s C major Symphony from 40 years earlier never found its place in the repertoire because it was published too late and not performed by Bülow, but above all because its bizarre idiosyncrasy contradicted the central European tradition. The Singulière has remained, as its name suggests, weird and whimsical – up to the present day.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

Herbert Blomstedt was born in the United States to Swedish parents. After early lessons at the Stockholm Conservatory and the University of Uppsala, he studied conducting in New York, contemporary music at Darmstadt and Renaissance and Baroque music in Basel. After working as an assistant to Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein, he made his professional debut as a conductor with the Stockholm Philharmonic in February 1954 and soon went on to become principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he remained from 1975 to 1985. He spent the next decade as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, returning to Europe in 1996 as principal conductor as of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, a post he held until 1998. From 1998 to the end of the 2004/2005 season he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Herbert Blomstedt is now conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted on a regular basis since 1982. In 2007 the Dresden Staatskapelle awarded him its Goldene Ehrennadel. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest conductor are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, all the leading American orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. Herbert Blomstedt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in January 2015, when he conducted three concerts with Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. He is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and holds several honorary doctorates. He was awarded the “Großes Verdienstkreuz” (Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2003.

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