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Suicide & Obscurity:
A Very Brief Introduction to Oswald Kabasta & Franz Berwald

2,937 words


Carl Eldh, Berwald, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, 2011

Oswald Kabasta, Conducts Mozart and Schubert, with the Munich Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, ©1996, 1940, 1941, 1942-43 Preiser Records 90303, Compact disc.

Ulf Björlin, Berwald: Overtures, Concertos & Symphonies, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, ©2007, EMI Classics, 3 CDs.

On February 6, 1946, the Austrian conductor Oswald Kabasta “wrote a poignant letter . . . to the Mayor of Munich, thanking the orchestra and audience for their great enthusiasm and loyalty, and expressing the wish that the orchestra would thank him when they next played Bruckner’s Eighth.”[1] He then committed suicide by overdosing on the barbiturate Veronal, along with his wife, who survived the attempt only to try again and succeed a few months later.[2] He had enjoyed considerable status in Nazi Germany and had been an enthusiastic Party member–even signing all correspondence with ‘Heil Hitler.'[3] ‘But this all changed after the war. Mr. Kabasta’s tragic act was prompted by his having been deemed unfit to continue holding his position as the conductor of the Munich Philharmonic by the occupation Military Government. Historian David Monod, one of only a very few scholars to deal with the issue of de-Nazification as it pertained to German music, writes:

Clemens Krauss, the Opera director, had long fled [Munich] and the Philharmonic’s maestro, Oswald Kabasta, had been relieved of his post as a “borderline case”: not a Parteigenosse (party member) perhaps, but a Parteianwärter (applicant for membership). Edward Kilenyi, one of Bavaria’s music officers, while acknowledging Kabasta’s musicianship, felt it was impossible to allow a leading artist to occupy “the same position under American control which he held under the Nazis”; at least until “extensive investigation had cleared him.”[4]


Oswald Kabasta

The American authorities were actually correct to be initially suspicious. Mr. Kabasta had denied that he was a Party member but “by November 1945 [the Americans] had found not only his 1938 membership number, but also evidence to suggest that he had joined the party in Austria six years before.”[5] His career had been on a clear upward trajectory until after the war. He had been, among other things, the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic prior to being appointed to the Munich Philharmonic as music director in 1938. However, the stress of having been fired and blacklisted was too much for him to bear. His suicide was due to the Military Government’s attempt at the negation of his life’s work in its quest not only to de-Nazify but to crassly and arrogantly deconstruct Germany’s music culture by force.

Oswald Kabasta’s demise is indicative of the tragic postwar conditions which prevailed in Germany under the occupying Military Government. In addition to the horrors of de-Nazification like those described in Thomas Goodrich’s book Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947, there were other changes in the German cultural and political landscape, like the Munich music scene purge described above, which were equally insidious, if less dramatic and gut-wrenching.[6] These changes were an attempt to coercively reorient German musical culture in a direction designed explicitly by the occupying forces (in particular the Americans) to sever the German people from their cultural roots, or more precisely, from what the occupying forces deemed to be their cultural roots: militarism, nationalism, and conservatism. American music and movies, as well as music that had been suppressed under Nazi control, were forced upon the Germans in order to shift their culture towards an internationalism with a distinctly American flavor. As Edward Peterson writes, “Chewing gum and Lucky Strike . . . were the harbingers of McDonalds.”[7]

The postwar occupation government wreaked havoc across the nation, but Bavaria in particular felt the brunt of the new artistic political correctness, especially with regard to (perhaps because of) its vibrant and unabashedly Germanic music culture. Composers and musicians who were associated even peripherally with Nazism found themselves out of work and blacklisted, replaced by often less talented and/or popularly disliked but ideologically “correct” collaborators.[8] David Monod writes, for example, that in “the third week of July [1945], the assistant conductor of the Munich Philharmonic was dismissed for having been as SS member and nineteen members of his orchestra as well as 40 percent of the Staatsoper Orchestra lost their jobs.”[9]

In classical music circles Oswald Kabasta is little known even to this day. There are only a handful of recordings currently available, all of which are on minor labels, and none receive the attention they deserve. Though he is known by a select few as an especially magnificent Anton Bruckner interpreter, we will turn our attention to one recording in particular that is extraordinarily compelling: his March 1940 recording of Franz Schubert’s Third Symphony (1815). This symphony is, as one might guess considering its author, well-represented on record, with many excellent performances by many different conductors and orchestras, but no one performs it with the same depth and emotional charge as Oswald Kabasta. In most cases it is performed as a somewhat “light” work–happy, optimistic, tuneful, and summery. Sir Thomas Beecham’s wonderful performance on EMI Records (from 1958-59) is a perfect example of this approach.[10] His is very much an Englishman’s offering: genteel and delightfully urbane–a tea and tweed Schubert. It is highly recommended in its own right but, in relation to Mr. Kabasta’s, it is on the opposite side of the emotional spectrum. When compared, they almost sound like completely different pieces of music. Until one hears the latter performance, one has only scratched the surface of the symphony.

From the opening bars of the first movement, the listener can hear that Mr. Kabasta takes this music very seriously. One does not find a trace of English garden charm, any attempt to envelope the listener in the warmth and safety of the concert hall, or even a shred of gratuitous nostalgia in this performance. The adagios and allegros blossom not with good cheer and boyish enthusiasm but with manly determination and resolve.[11] And the presto of the final movement is not a mere exercise in virtuosic entertainment but rather a profound and insistent call for optimism and a rallying of spirit and fight. Indeed, of the many performances of this work on record, it has never sounded more philosophical. Each note matters. Nothing is glossed over or taken lightly. Mr. Kabasta defines his terms and then proceeds to build his argument with devastatingly effective controlled passion, taking the music’s premises to new heights. Under his baton, the symphony urges the listener to willfully push history forward, to look toward the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Schubert’s youthful “summer” becomes instead the white hot light of the sun.

Like other World War II-era German recordings, it certainly takes on a special gravity in retrospect, but the ear does not lie. The intensity of emotion and the weight of conviction one hears in this recording is absolutely not a construct of hindsight. It is what one might call “War Schubert.”[12] This is not necessarily to imply any violent overtones but rather an atmosphere of heightened expectation, risk, and needfulness expressed through art — an almost Futurist awakening of the senses. The power of this performance and its unwavering message of hope through struggle makes the conductor’s own suicide all the more jarring. That the man who created this could be so brutally crushed by the dictates of a merciless foreign regime that he took his own life less than six years later is deeply disturbing and painful. For some people, as was obviously the case with Oswald Kabasta, the world is so out of sync with their deeply-held values, ambitions, and visions that continuing to exist in it can be simply unbearable. It is with this in mind that we now turn our attention to the 19th-century Swedish composer, Franz Berwald.

Franz Berwald

Franz Berwald

Mr. Berwald was born in 1796 (one year before Franz Schubert) in Stockholm to a family of musicians of German ancestry. He had a number of relatively successful careers over the course of his lifetime — but music was not one of them. Despite being a prolific composer of consistently high-quality, unique, and engaging music, he is now famous for a few symphonies and, at least as much, for having been almost completely ignored in his lifetime.

As with Oswald Kabasta, there is precious little scholarship on the man. There is only one English language biography of him, and it has been out of print for decades.[13] Nor are there more than a few scholarly articles that mention him, and the ones that do tend to focus on his very marginal role in 19th century Swedish music in general or, trivially, on his seemingly odd methods of supporting himself.

One of these few is an article that appeared in the British Medical Journal in which his music is not even discussed. He is presented in passing as a mere curiosity for having managed a sawmill and run an orthopedic clinic at various times as day jobs.[14] This is, of course, all true. Even if we did not know that he had to continually hold positions entirely unrelated to his craft, the dismal archival record of performances of his music would make his failure apparent.

By any standard his music career left much to be desired. The author of his long out-of-print biography, Robert Layton, posits a few ideas as to why this was the case:

First, there is the fact that he absented himself from Stockholm during crucial periods of his career (from 1828 to 1842, and from 1846 to 1849); secondly it is worth recalling that the Berwald his countrymen encountered was the composer of operettas. . . . These works give a very different impression than that formed by posterity from the four symphonies on which his reputation now chiefly rests. Moreover, in the 1840s and ’50s, there was no really first-class symphony orchestra in Sweden to play the symphonies . . .[15]

Layton also mentions, as an additional piece of the puzzle, that the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn had, after having encountered Berwald in Berlin in the 1830s written to a friend that he was arrogant.[16] Make of that what you will. What is clear is that Franz Berwald, for whatever reason, was unappreciated until the 20th century, and then only by a relatively small number of devoted fans who were introduced to his music by contemporary Swedish composers and Berwald advocates such as Wilhelm Stenhammar.[17] This relative obscurity continues to the present. Only one of the works for which he is now known was performed in his lifetime — his first symphony, the Sinfonie sérieuse (1842). But it is to his third and most well-known symphony, the Sinfonie singulière (1845) that we will now turn.

In many ways the Sinfonie singulière is very similar to Schubert’s Third Symphony. It is a supremely optimistic, forward-moving, and ecstatically “sunny” piece of music. These qualities are so well-rendered in the original score that one would be hard-pressed to find a bad recording of it. No one seems to be able to mangle it — even conductors who might otherwise be considered mediocre. There are differing levels of greatness between performances but one could strap on a blindfold, throw a dart at a Berwald symphony collection and hit a fantastic recording of his Third Symphony every single time. It just so happens, however, that one of the very best performances is the one that is most easily accessible these days: the Swedish conductor Ulf Björlin’s recording on EMI with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1977. He manages to communicate the symphony’s vivifying power just a little bit better than anyone else.

The crucial element of this symphony is the degree of “bounce” maintained in the decisive and distinctive first movement. The lighter, faster, and “looser” the conducting, the more vivacity the movement has and thus the more energy and life the symphony as a whole takes on; these two characteristics are the bedrock of the entire work. Rarely does a piece of music convey such buoyant faith in the human spirit. Robert Layton writes that “the opening of the symphony is quite unlike any other music of its time — or, for that matter, of any other.”[18] He also “attribute[s] the transparent textures to the quality of light in the northern latitudes.”[19] Whether it is based in Nordic light or simply the musical emanations of a sawmill manager’s soul, there are only a few who manage to capture the silvery magic of this symphony, and of Mr. Berwald himself, exactly right. Mr. Björlin is one of them.

Just as Oswald Kabasta’s suicide seems so out of character with the unyielding strength of his music, so too does Franz Berwald’s radiance seem at odds with his life story. Ultimately, what these two men demonstrate is that the there are two ways of handling disappointment and failure in the face of bad odds or misfortune: wallowing in defeat or exalting in defiance. Franz Berwald’s life seemed to revolve solely around maintaining a measure of financial security, not for the mere sake of financial security, but in order to pursue his vision. He had a long-term plan and he never allowed his personal failures or the attitudes of others to determine his course of action. He never gave up, never stopped writing — he never even lost a hint of the rapture, vitality, and joie de vivre that undergirds his work. He does not, for example, have a late piece of music filled with anguish or pathos. He clearly possessed an inner light that could not be extinguished by the drudgery of bourgeois life or artistic marginalization.

Oswald Kabasta’s career might have recovered, as we can see in retrospect by comparing it to the postwar careers of other conductors and musicians “tainted” with Nazism. He could very well have lived through his ordeal and come out on top. He could have been the German artist who refused to capitulate to American postwar terror, to be the lone voice in the music world who would not cave in to the lies, emotional blackmail, and social pressures inflicted on the country and people to which he was so obviously devoted. He could have gone “stealth” and conducted various orchestras around the world for decades while funneling money to postwar German or European Rightist groups. He could even have simply continued to conduct, staying out of politics entirely, while using his natural musical abilities to help ease the suffering of those of his countrymen and political comrades who did not commit suicide and were left to bear the suffering inflicted on them in lonely silence, fear, and pain. But instead he deliberately ended his capacity to do anything.

The Americans beat Oswald Kabasta. They attempted to destroy him and he acquiesced in the most unfortunate fashion. Franz Berwald, by comparison, was determined, patient, steadfast, and true to his vision no matter the degree to which the 19th-century Swedish music world ignored him. It is in this sense, as well as in their shared quality of stellar musicianship, that these two men’s lives and work are worthy of juxtaposition. There are, of course, many musicians whose entire oeuvres are worth investigating bur rarely are they relegated to the degree of obscurity to which Oswald Kabasta and Franz Berwald have been. Musical treasures await the uninitiated — and perhaps a moral lesson as well.


1. Gabriele Meyer, liner notes to Oswald Kabasta, Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, Dvorak: Symphony No. 9, Bruckner: Symphony No. 4, ©2000, 1943, 1944, Music and Arts, 1074, Compact disc: 13.

Lest any reader question my use of compact disc liner notes as reference materials in this piece, I want to state up front that when dealing with obscure classical musicians there are very few scholars who work on any given musician at any given time (and this number continues to dwindle) and so they often get commissions to write the notes for compact disc releases. As such, very often the most easily–sometimes the only–accessible works by these experts are in this format.

2. Ibid., 13.

3. Ibid., 9.

4. David Monod, “Internationalism, Regionalism, and National Culture: Music Control in Bavaria, 1945-1948,” Central European History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2000): 348-349.

Regarding Edward Kilenyi (born Kilenyi Ede), I have tried to determine whether or not he was Jewish. It seems highly likely that he was. Florida State University houses the Edward Kilenyi archives which contains documents that suggest he was Jewish. See: (accessed July 27, 2015).

In addition, Edward Kilenyi’s name appears on the program of a concert of Jewish music given at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in December 2013. See: (accessed July 27, 2015).

5. Monod, 349.

6. Thomas Goodrich, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947 (Sheridan, Colorado: Aberdeen Books, 2010).

7. Quoted in Monod, 345.

8. Well-known collaborator musicians include the Germans Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Hans Rosbaud, Ferdinand Leitner, and the deliberately-imported Hungarian Jew, Georg Solti. See: Monod, 339-368.

9. Monod, 349.

10. Sir Thomas Beecham, Schubert: Symphonies 3, 5 & 6, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, ©1999, 1955, 1958-59, EMI Records, 66999, Compact disc.

11. It is worth noting that the symphony was written when Schubert was 18 years old.

12. Compare this recording to Willem Mengelberg’s recordings of Beethoven on the cusp of World War II. There is a similar sense of gravity and a quickening of time. I consider these performances examples of what I call “War Beethoven.” My favorite example of this discursive musical phenomenon is: Willem Mengelberg, Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 6 “Pastoral,” with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, ©1999, 1937 Teldec, 3984-28408-2, Compact disc.

13. Robert Layton, Franz Berwald, (London: A. Blond, 1959).

14. Fritz Spiegl, “The Medical Muse,” BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 301, No. 6766 (Dec. 22-29, 1990): 1454-1456.

15. Robert Layton, liner notes to Neeme Järvi, Franz Berwald: 4 Symphonies, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, ©1985 Polydor International, Deutsche Grammophon, 415 502-2, Compact disc.

16. Ibid., 2.

17. For an interesting brief discussion of the Swedish presence in the classical music world see:

Fritz Tutenberg, “A National School of Composition in Sweden,” The Musical Times Vol. 76, No. 1104 (Feb., 1935): 122-123.

18. Ibid., 5.

19. Ibid., 5.




  1. Tegnér
    Posted July 30, 2015 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    Franz Berwald is still mostly unknown in Sweden today, unfortunately. Most have only heard of his name in connection with Berwaldhallen, an ugly piece of modernist architecture which is the home of the Swedish State Radio’s orchestra. Curiously, Grieg and Sibelius (the latter of which came from one of the old Swedish settlements in Finland) from our neighbouring countries are quite well known.

  2. A. Reader
    Posted July 30, 2015 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Beautiful piece, and a fine antidote to James O’Meara’s bizarre suggestion that we jettison Western art music in favor of New Age (or something like that).

    Never have “the musical emanations of a sawmill manager’s soul” been made to sound so appealing.

    • Donald Thoresen
      Posted July 30, 2015 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your very nice comment.

  3. Donald Thoresen
    Posted July 31, 2015 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the nice comments. Sadly, the first requirement under the classical music composer job description is “have another job too.”

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