From a family with four generations of musicians, his father, a violinist in the Royal Opera Orchestra, taught young Berwald the violin from an early age, and was soon appearing in concerts. In 1811, Karl XIII (brother of Gustavus III) came to power and restored the Royal Chapel; the following year Berwald started working there, as well as playing violin in the court orchestra and the opera, receiving lessons from Edouard Dupuy. He also started composing. The summers were off-season for the orchestra, and Berwald travelled around Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. Of his works from that time, a Septet and a Serenade he still considered worthwhile music in his later years.
In 1818 Berwald started publishing the Musikalsk journal, later renamed Journal de musique, a periodical with easy piano pieces and songs by various composers as well as some of his own originals. In 1821, his Violin Concerto in C# minor was premiered by his brother August. It was not well received. Some people in the audience even burst out laughing during the slow movement.
His family got into dire economic circumstances after the death of his father in 1825. Berwald tried to get several scholarships, but only got one from the King, which enabled him to study in Berlin, where he worked hard on operas despite not getting any chance to put them on the stage. To make a living, Berwald started an orthopedic and physiotherapy clinic in Berlin in 1835, which turned out to be profitable. Some of the orthopedic devices he invented were still in use well into the next century.
But he stopped composing during his time in Berlin, resuming in 1841 with a move to Vienna and marriage to Mathilde Scherer. In 1842 a concert of his tone poems at the Redoutensaal received rave reviews, and over the course of the next three years Berwald wrote four Symphonies.
The Symphony No. 1 in G minor, "Sérieuse", was the only one of Berwald's premiered in his lifetime, in 1843, with his cousin Johan Frederik conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra. At that same concert, his operetta Jag går i kloster was also performed, but its success is credited to one of the roles having been sung by Jenny Lind.
Berwald's music didn't get much recognition in Sweden during his lifetime, even drawing hostile newspaper reviews, but fared a little better in Germany and Austria. The Mozarteum Salzburg made him an honorary member in 1847.
When Berwald got back to Sweden in 1849, he managed a glass works at Sandö in Ångermanland owned by Ludvig Petré, an amateur violinist. During that time Berwald focused his attention on chamber music.
One of his few operas to be staged in his lifetime, Estrella de Soria, was greatly applauded at its premiere at the Royal Theater in April 1862, and was given four more performances in the same month. Following on this success, he wrote Drottningen av Golconda, which would have been premiered in 1864, but was not, due to a change of directorship at the Royal Opera.
In 1866, Berwald received the Order of the North Star, in recognition of his musical achievements. In 1867, shortly before his death, the Stockholm Conservatory finally appointed Berwald professor of composition, having rejected his application several times before. At around that time he was also given many important commissions, but he would not live to fulfill them all.
Berwald died in Stockholm in 1868 of pneumonia and was interred there in the Norra begravningsplatsen. The second movement of the Symphony No. 1 in G minor was played at his funeral.
Eduard Hanslick, writing in his 1869 book Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien, opined of Berwald, "a man stimulating, witty, prone to bizarrerie, as a composer lacked creative power and fantasy". On the other hand, Ludvig Norman and the composers Tor Aulin and Wilhelm Stenhammar worked hard to promote Berwald's music, and it took a while before Berwald was recognized as Sweden's "most original and modern composer" (Wilhelm Peterson-Berger writing in Dagens nyheter). In 1911, Carl Nielsen wrote of Berwald, "Neither the media, money nor power can damage or benefit good Art. It will always find some simple, decent artists who forge ahead and produce and stand up for their works. In Sweden, you have the finest example of this: Berwald."
Ten years after Berwald's death, the Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, "Naïve", was premiered in 1878, with the originally planned Paris 1848 premiere date postponed by the French Revolution. But this was relatively quick compared to the other two, Symphony No. 2 in D major, "Capriceuse" and Symphony No. 3 in C major, "Singulière", which were not premiered until the following century.