Berwald was born in Stockholm. His father, a German orchestral violinist, imparted some training on his son, but Franz was largely self-taught. At 16 he joined the Royal Opera Orchestra and began to compose. His Grand Septet for Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and String Quartet was premiered in 1828; already a pattern was set, for that idiosyncratic work met with indifference from Swedish audiences.
Berwald spent some time in Norway, then went to Berlin to study music further. From there he went to Vienna where he found an audience for his work. There his opera Estrella di Soria was performed to acclaim. In 1841, he married in that city and the following year produced his First Symphony, "La Serieuse." That same year he returned to Sweden only to find that his reputation had not preceded him. Nonetheless he continued to compose, turning out operas and three more symphonies: No. 2 ("La Capricieuse"), No. 3 ("La Singuliere"), and No. 4.
Failed performances induced Berwald to go abroad again, unsuccessfully to Paris where he received no performances, and to Vienna where once again he found an appreciative audience for his opera A Swedish Country Betrothal. It was ironic then that in his homeland he obtained neither the post of music director at Uppsala University nor that of court conductor.
Thwarted in his first career, the composer was often forced to turn to other endeavors such as glass-blowing and running a sawmill. But Berwald, a kindly and humanistic man, seemed to find his non-musical niche in orthopedics and in blazing trails in its accompanying physical therapy, specializing in congenital spinal deformities of children. Here would seem to be a rarity among creative artists, one to put the inner urge and ego on hold sublimating these in tending to the external needs of humankind.
Finally, in his sixties, musical breaks came his way in Sweden. His first Vienna-period opera Estrella di Soria was performed and earlier instrumental works began to appear in print. He was accepted in the Swedish Academy and made a professor of composition in 1867. But, sadly, Berwald succumbed to pneumonia the following year.
Like his contemporary Berlioz, Berwald was a visionary. He preferred to use established forms to contain a unique mode of thought. His four symphonies (1842-1845) are especially significant as they are precursors of Sibelius
and Nielsen in their streamlined contours and unexpected harmonic and melodic devices. As such, he was one of the most important of the early Romantics.