Helena Munktell (1852−1919)


Helena Munktell (born in Grycksbo 24 November 1852, died in Stockholm 10 September 1919) trained initially as a singer and pianist, but became primarily a composer. Like some of her Swedish female colleagues, she opted to develop her skills in Paris, where she studied piano for Théodore Ritter, a former pupil of Liszt’s, and composition for Émile Durand and Benjamin Godard in the 1880s. In the following decade she took lessons for Vincent d'Indy. She displayed a solid grasp of form and instrumentation in her four symphonic works and was the first Swedish woman to write an opera.




Early years and studies in Sweden

Helena Munktell was born in Grycksbo in the Swedish province of Dalecarlia (Dalarna) as the ninth and youngest child of paper mill owner Henrik Munktell and his wife Augusta. The mill had been in the family’s possession for many generations, and gave them a financially privileged existence, which shaped Helena’s childhood and entire adult life. Her father, himself a gifted amateur pianist, was a friend of Erik Gustaf Geijer and Adolf Fredrik Lindblad in Uppsala, and during an extensive foreign trip in his own youth had made the acquaintance of Franz Berwald and Felix Mendelssohn. Henrik died when Helena was only eight years old, after which Augusta and her youngest children spent the winters in Stockholm, returning to Grycksbo for the summers. Her closest sibling was the barely two-year-older Emma, who would later marry Baron Carl Axel Sparre and enjoy a degree of success as an artist.

Helena Munktell exhibited her musical talents at an early age through the little shows that she would put on to amuse her family and friends. She began her music studies at a young age and after leaving her private girls’ school, she went on to study at Ivar Hallström's music institute.

In the autumn of 1870 she developed a serious eye condition, which would continue to give her trouble for the rest of her life. Also that autumn, Augusta Munktell took her youngest daughters, the newly married Emma and Helena, to Vienna; this was Helena’s first trip to the continent, and she used it to take lessons in singing and piano, the latter with Julius Epstein. She proved a successful student in both these disciplines.

On returning home, she sought a broader and more professional music education in Stockholm, and began to take lessons for some of Stockholm’s leading music teachers, including Conrad Nordqvist, Ludvig Norman and Johan Lindegren. Some of her teachers were also invited to the Munktells’ cultural circles in Grycksbo.

The Paris years

In the winters of 1877 to 1879, Munktell took her studies to Paris, now the home of her two sisters, Clara Gérard and Emma Sparre, who owned an artist’s studio-cum-social venue to which she would invite artists and other prominent guests. During this time, she studied piano for several teachers, one of whom was former Liszt student Théodore Ritter. The following decade saw frequent visits to Paris, where she studied composition at first for Émile Durand, opera composer and professor of harmony at the conservatory, and then for the popular composer Benjamin Godard, who became her personal friend and music promoter in the city.

It is difficult to trace Munktell’s earlier compositions in detail, but she seems to have started with solo songs, her first public performance being when two of them − ‘Sof, sof’ and ‘Åter i Sorrento’ − were sung by Augusta Öhrström in Stockholm in the autumn of 1885. These early songs reveal a predilection for brief harmonic passages that broke with the expected chord progressions, a style no doubt inspired by her studies in France − a fact that did not go unnoticed by the Swedish critics of the time.

In the 1880s, Munktell wrote the comic opera I Firenze, the first Swedish work of music drama composed by a woman, to a libretto by poet Daniel Fallström. The plot centres on an amorous romp in the artistic circles of 15th century Florence, and is told through a combination of song and spoken word. The instrumentation was the work of Munktell’s teacher, Joseph Dente, and much later the composer herself would turn the spoken parts into recitative. I Firenze was first performed at the Kungliga Teatern (the Royal Opera) in Stockholm in 1889, with performances resuming in 1891. The following year she performed it to a private audience in Emma Sparre’s Paris studio. The critical reactions in both Stockholm and Paris were unequivocally positive.

Thus far, Munktell’s contact with French music had confined itself to the traditional opera and salon sector, which was well known in Sweden thanks to all the French-tutored Swedish singers there. However, in 1887 she made contact with the leading teacher of new French music, Vincent d’Indy. She became his pupil, and surviving letters reveal a close friendship and a lengthy course of private lessons, most frequently between 1897 and 1900. It also seems she attended d’Indy’s lessons in composition for a while at Schola Cantorum in Paris.

D’Indy, who was a skilled instrumentalist himself, gave Munktell further lessons in orchestral composition, creating the essential platform for her four symphonic works, Suite for large orchestra (c. 1895), Bränningar (c. 1895), Dalsvit (c. 1910), and Valborgsmässoeld (after 1910).

She became a member of the Société Nationale de Musique, the institution that promoted new, serious French music. D’Indy had been appointed its leader in 1890, which made it possible for Munktell to debut several of her works in the society’s concert series: some of her songs were performed in the spring of 1892 by Esther Sidner; in the spring of 1899 her orchestral ballad Isjungfrun (Vision polaire) was included in the annual orchestral concert; in 1905, her violin sonata was played by George Enescu, one of the greatest violinists of the time; and in 1910 her orchestral work Dalsvit received its premier. All this gave her music a highly prestigious Parisian setting. Alongside the Société Nationale de Musique she had another forum for her orchestral music in Monte Carlo, where Suite for large orchestra and Bränningar were performed in the 1890s.

A single chamber music piece was penned by Munktell, the Violin Sonata in E-flat major, which was printed in Paris in 1905 and which, at the formal level, bears the distinct impression of d’Indy. An interesting word of advice on another level is given in one of his letters to her: ‘If you continue to draw sustenance from your Swedish soil, you will surely create works that are not banal’. This suggests that her French tutor, who himself was convinced of the significance of a composer’s regional and national anchorage, helped to motivate her two orchestral pieces with a Dalecarlian motif, Dalsvit and Valborgsmässoeld.

Return to Sweden

Munktell had been in poor health for many years with serious headaches and heart problems, and around 1910 she moved back to Sweden, where she spent the winters in Stockholm and the summers in her own handsome log house in the Dalecarlian village of Sjurberg. It was then that she received her only properly official commission for a composition: a cantata to honour the opening of the Swedish Church in London in 1911. This work, which was never printed, was warmly received. More recognition from the Swedish music scene came in 1915, when she was voted into Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). When Föreningen svenska tonsättare (Society of Swedish Composers) was formed in 1918, she was one of its members. She died in the summer of 1919 after a bout of serious illness.


Helena Munktell’s total oeuvre, while not large, is relatively broad: solo song, choral song, opera, chamber music and orchestral works.

With her background as a singer, pianist and composer, she was perfectly suited to the solo song, and her contributions to the genre are characteristic for her art. The melodic lines of the vocal part are personally drawn, and although quite elementary at times, they sometimes contain wilful vocal leaps. The accompaniment can also fluctuate between extreme simplicity and imaginative writing. This, in combination with the music’s almost ubiquitous harmonic fluidity, creates a kind of suppressed lyricism, where the restrained ingredient is some attribute that is probably French yet at the same time very Munktellesque.

Munktell liked to compose for female choir with piano, notable pieces being the three released by a French music publisher − ‘Maj’, ‘Äppelträdets visa’ and ‘Hymn’ − as well as the song ‘Jul’, with its chiming piano accompaniment. All these choral pieces are well conceived; the piano parts often have a more interesting role than the mere supportive, and the choral lines are simple but effective.

Munktell’s I Firenze, ‘an opéra comique in one act’, comprises a brief overture and eight songs. Most of the numbers involve more than one singer, and some are quite substantial. The composer’s sense of melodic unrestraint, harmonic fluidity and rhythmic energy provide a strong element of variation, and favour the dramatic element of the music.

Her violin sonata is perhaps the most ‘French’ of the many Swedish works in this genre that were written around the turn of the century. It is cyclic in structure with a theme that recurs in varying rhythmic forms in the different movements, as ordained by d’Indy’s formal principles. The expanded triads that are laid out like carpets of sound and the dissonant chords that are never properly resolved are also in the French manner. Offsetting all this is a motile energy that runs through the entire sonata, at times with folk-like polska rhythms.

Munktell composed four works for orchestra, a genre in which she developed a competence that stands well in comparison with that of her Swedish contemporaries. As a female Swedish symphonist with the power to master the orchestra’s tonal resources, she was a pioneer.

It is not easy to trace the exact chronology of the four orchestral works; not only did the composer omit to date them herself, she also repeatedly revised them. The four-movement Suite for large orchestra is, at least in its original conception, the eldest. In Bränningar, a symphonic poem that is said to have been inspired by the Mediterranean Sea, she uses limited thematic material to create a carefully sculpted tone painting of great majesty. The same can be said of Valborgsmässoeld, her final orchestral piece, inspired by her Dalecarlian home. Dalsvit also contains provincial motifs, depicting as it does a day by Lake Siljan with its natural and cultural milieu and allusions to folk music − although never without the composer’s own melodic sensibilities.


Helena Munktell was, as one French colleague put it, ‘not a lady who composes but a composer’. She had a social status that both favoured and disfavoured her role as a composer. She could choose the teachers and advisors she wanted and had the wherewithal to concentrate on her music. All contemporary judgements of her, both as a composer and interpreter, are positive. And yet only one of her orchestral works was performed in Sweden during her lifetime − Dalsvit, in 1916. Like other female composers, she was barred from public music life. Another partial handicap was her association with France, and on her death, her obituary writers stressed the national Swedish elements of her music, and toned down the French.

A French musical language in a Swedish composer does not deter the modern listener, however. A good many of Munktell’s works − the solo and choral songs, the orchestral pieces and the violin sonata − are well worth bringing to the fore.

Anders Edling © 2013
Trans. Neil Betteridge


Danielsson, Eva: 'Helena Munktell', in: Dalarna: Dalarnas hembygdsbok, vol. 78, 2008, pp. 94−101.
Edling, Anders: 'Helena Munktell', in: Franskt i svensk musik 1880−1920: stilpåverkan hos parisstuderande svenska tonsättare och särskilt hos Emil Sjögren, Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1982, pp. 143−158.
Ellberg, Ernst: 'Några ord om Helena Munktell som tonsättarinna', in: Helena Munktell: några minnesblad, utgivna av vänner, Stockholm, 1920, pp. 71−76.
Lindén, Karl: Helena Munktells musikaliska verksamhet och produktion, seminarieuppsats, Uppsala universitet, 1968.
Lindhjem, Anna: Kvinnelige komponister i Skandinavien, Fredrikstad, Norge: Fredriksstad Centraltrykkeri AS, 1931.
Olander, Valborg, Axel Wachtmeister, & Ernst Ellberg, Ernst (eds.): Helena Munktell: några minnesblad, utgivna av vänner, Stockholm, 1920.
Olander, Valborg
: 'Helena Munktell: hennes liv och personlighet', in: Helena Munktell: några minnesblad, utgivna av vänner, Stockholm, 1920, pp. 9−61.
Wachtmeister, Axel Raoul: 'Helena Munktell in memoriam', in: Helena Munktell: några minnesblad, utgivna av vänner, Stockholm, 1920, pp. 63−70.
Öhrström, Eva: '1800-talets svenska musikhistoria ur kvinnoperspektiv', Kvinnovetenskaplig tidskrift, no. 21, 1983.
−−−: ”Helena M Munktell”, Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 126, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 1987−89.

Radio programme:
Tobeck, Christina: 'Tonsättarinnor i ett manligt musikliv', part 5, 6 and 7 (December 2011 and January 2012) in Sveriges Radio P2.


Musik- och teaterbiblioteket

Summary list of works

1 opera (I Firenze), orchestral works (e.g. Bränningar, Suite for large orchestra, Valborgsmässoeld and Dalsvit), chamber music (the violin sonata in E-flat major), works for piano, songs with piano (including Maj, Äppelträdets visa, Hymn and Jul).

Works by Helena Munktell

This is not a complete list of works. The following works are those that have been inventoried so far.

Number of works: 57