Helena Munktell

Helena Munktell


• 1852 1919


Among the country's earliest major female composers, Helena Munktell was the first Swedish woman to have an opera performed in Sweden. She also attained some popularity in France, where she studied and lived part-time.

Munktell was born in the small town of Grycksbo in central Sweden on November 24, 1852. Her father was a wealthy local industrialist who also played music as an amateur and headed a local musical society. Munktell's mother spent winters in comparatively balmy Stockholm, soaking up cultural events and running a salon where she welcomed groups of creative people to her home. Munktell had already had singing, piano, and counterpoint lessons in Sweden, and in 1879, mother and daughter set off on a grand tour of Europe, during which she studied with local teachers in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. When they ended their journey in Paris, Munktell decided to keep wintering there. She had already attracted attention for recitals in which she accompanied herself on piano in performances of her own songs, and she was able to enroll for further studies with composers Benjamin Godard and Vincent d'Indy. The latter accepted her into courses at the Schola Cantorum music school and backed her career.

With a style that merged French and Swedish elements, Munktell moved from song composition into phases of piano music and chamber music. Her Violin Sonata in E flat major, Op. 21, was premiered by virtuoso and composer George Enescu and became one of her most popular works. Munktell wrote a comic opera, I Firenze (In Florence), which was performed at the Royal Opera in Stockholm and became the first opera by a Swedish woman performed in Sweden. The work was also staged in France and was well received. She wrote several orchestral works, two of which, a Suite symphonique and a symphonic poem titled Bränningar, were performed as far afield as Monte Carlo, Monaco. Munktell also wrote several large choral pieces, one of which was performed at the opening of London's Swedish Church in 1911. She was inducted into Sweden's Royal Musical Academy in 1915, and in 1918, she co-founded the Föreningen Svenska Tonsättare (Society of Swedish Composers). Munktell died in Stockholm on September 10, 1919. Her music remained obscure for some decades but attracted interest in the 21st century as female composers were rediscovered. As of 2021, more than 15 of her works had been recorded; the Gävle Symphony Orchestra under conductor Tobias Ringborg issued an album of her orchestral works on the Sterling label in 2016. In 2021, an album of Munktell's chamber music, including the Violin Sonata, appeared on the BIS label.