About this work
Although Swedish composer Franz Berwald's Symphony No. 3, "Sinfonie singulière" was completed in 1845, it did not receive its first performance until 1905. In fact, only one of Berwald's four symphonies was performed during his lifetime. Considered by many to be the first great Scandinavian composer, he has been described as a cross between Felix Mendelssohn, an acquaintance of Berwald's, and Finland's Jean Sibelius, born three years before Berwald's death.
Not only is it widely held that the Sinfonie singulière is Berwald's finest work, but that it may be the first great Scandinavian orchestral work. The symphony is unique for this time period in that it has only three movements rather than the traditional four. While Berwald's earlier symphonies are right at home in the German Romantic school of Schumann and Mendelssohn (Berwald lived in Berlin and Vienna at various times), this piece looks forward with the robust and rustic quality one associates with later Nordic composers such as Edvard Grieg, Sibelius, and Carl Nielsen or Nationalists such as Antonín Dvorák.
The first movement, Allegro fuocoso, is in the traditional mid-nineteenth century sonata-allegro form. But, Berwald combines the organic compositional technique of Beethoven with one resembling tone painting to establish an atmosphere. Starting quietly, there is a feeling of great anticipation. Utilizing the interval of a fourth in various guises, Berwald uses motivic development and transformation rather than long, spun-out melodies, creating a sense of transition and evolution. This is a section of "gestation" rather than introduction in the traditional sense. The middle movement, in ternary form (ABA), begins with a heartfelt, Brahmsian Adagio. With a startling thump in the tympani about four minutes in, Berwald breaks into a scherzo that would have made Mendelssohn envious. Playful exchanges between winds and strings show Berwald's skill as an orchestrator and his mastery of manipulating thematic fragments. His not so subtle harmonic sequences are very much like Bruckner's in that they do not always advance the tonal scheme, but are, nonetheless, terrifically appealing. After a few minutes, the Adagio returns as abruptly as it disappeared. The final movement is highly charged and dramatic. Another Brucknerian moment occurs with a soft woodwind chorale over pizzicato strings, which flowers into a grand statement of this same theme. There is a quotation of the middle movement's Adagio melody about five minutes in, followed by a new lyrical theme that precedes a recapitulation of the beginning of this movement. A quiet return of the woodwind chorale in minor explodes into a joyfully victorious final statement, back in major, bringing this richly Romantic symphony to an end. In Franz Berwald's Sinfonie singulière one can hear some of the stylistic qualities that anticipate later composers such as Brahms, Bruckner, Sibelius, and Dvorák.