Laura Netzel (1839−1927)

Laura Constance Netzel (née Pistolekors), b. 1 March 1839 in Rantasalmi, Finland, d. 10 February 1927, Stockholm, grew up in Stockholm and was both pianist and composer (from 1874 onwards using the sobriquet ‘Lago’). She studied composition under Wilhelm Heintze in Stockholm and Charles-Marie Widor in Paris. For many years she also worked as a concert arranger and orchestral director. Most of her compositions are in late Romantic, chromatic style, with touches of contemporary French music, and her work received coverage not least in French music journals.

Background, studies and début

Laura Constance Pistolekors was born on 1 March 1839 in Rantasalmi, Finland, the youngest of six children. Her mother Emilia (née Malm) died in childbed soon after giving birth to Laura, and the father, collegiate assessor Georg Fredrik Pistolekors, took the family to live in Stockholm when Laura was a year old.

She showed a talent for music from a very early age. Her musical education began under the tuition of Mauritz Gisiko, one of Stockholm’s most sought-after piano teachers. Later she studied singing under the opera singer Julius Günther and piano playing under the Viennese virtuoso pianist Anton Door, who visited Stockholm for the first time in 1857. That same year, aged 18, she made her public début as a pianist, playing Ignaz Moscheles’ piano concerto in G minor with Hovkapellet (the Royal Court Orchestra). Subsequently she took part in several chamber music evenings and in concerts given by Harmoniska sällskapet (the Harmonic Society).

It was not, however, as either singer or pianist but as a composer that Laura Netzel gradually made a reputation for herself. Her composition tutors in adult years included, for example, the organist and conductor Wilhelm Heintze in her home city of Stockholm and, later on, Charles-Marie Widor in Paris. When, at the age of 35, she made a successful début as composer using the sobriquet ‘Lago’ (later on also ‘N. Lago’) with a couple of unaccompanied choruses for women’s voices at one of the Harmoniska sällskapet’s concerts, many people wondered who the composer could be. The following year she presented the beautiful lied ‘Fjäriln’, which made such an impression at one concert that it was encored and caught the attention of composers August Söderman and Ludvig Norman, among others.

Anonymity breached, her career accelerates

‘Lago’s’ compositions were very popular with assistant musicians performing in between the main divisions of concerts. Her development did not come to a standstill after her début as a composer, but her true identity was not revealed until 23 January 1891, when the women’s magazine Idun carried a picture and biography, introducing its readers to Laura Constance Netzel, née Pistolekors, married since 1866 to the eminent gynaecologist Professor Wilhelm Netzel. In addition, the magazine included a previously unpublished, but twice performed and acclaimed, ‘song at the piano’, namely ‘Morgonen’, to words by Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Idun highlights Netzel as a pioneer among Swedish women composers, declaring her compositions to betray ‘masculine strength of inspiration and craftsmanship’.

Netzel’s grandest works include Stabat mater for choir, soloists, organ and instrument combinations, dedicated to Crown Prince Gustaf. It was first performed in 1890, in Östermalm Church, at a charity concert under the Crown Prince’s patronage. Even if − ‘of course’, according to Idun − it was found wanting by comparison with works by acknowledged male masters, it still demonstrated that it was not impossible for a women to ‘penetrate the deeper shafts of creative musical art’. A year later the composition was given an orchestral accompaniment instead of the organ part. In 1898 it was published by Gounin-Ghidone in Paris and acclaimed, for example, in Le monde musical, Le progress artistique and Journal musical. It was reviewed and greatly commended in Gazette Liège and in Romania musicala (Bucharest), which found it a very remarkable piece, distinguished by ‘melodic inspiration, coupled with genuine religious feeling’, while the vocal part was judged to be ‘executed with much competence and aesthetic taste.’

The period between the disclosure of her identity and some time after the turn of the century proved to be Netzel’s most active time as a composer. Swedish newspapers and the specialised musical press frequently reported favourable reviews abroad, most often in the Parisian press but also in Germany, Spain, England and Romania, where her music was considered bold, original and shot through with a Nordic tone. Her most popular compositions included the violin pieces Feu follet (1892) and Berceuse et Tarantelle (1894), as well as the song ‘Voici la brice’ (1895), betraying the influences of more recent French music.

Work for charity and public causes

‘Professorskan’ (professor’s wife) Laura Netzel devoted much of her energy to charity and public causes. By arranging concerts and bazaars she furthered the creation of Skansen, Stockholm’s famous open-air museum. Single-handed or in partnership with others, she launched innumerable organisations for the relief of poverty and distress in the Swedish capital. Together with the French pastor Henri Bach she founded a foundation for homeless women, and together with Maria Wærn she started the Samariten organisation in the Södermalm district of Stockholm.

Starting in 1892, Laura Netzel organised musical evenings and, every Saturday from October to April, music soirées for music lovers among the working class population of Stockholm. The whole thing had to be attractive and beautiful, and she was intent on regaling her audiences with the best possible music, with a new programme for every occasion. First she rented premises in Malmskillnadsgatan, then Sveasalen in Hamngatan and finally the auditorium of Vetenskapsakademien (the Royal Academy of Sciences) in Norrtullsgatan. The ballad singer Sven Scholander took part in the very first concert. The violinists Sven Kjellström and Julius Ruthström joined in later, along with singers Märta Petrini, Signe Rappe and Rosa Grünberg. Conservatory students were sent off to attend the workers’ concerts, and Netzel herself conducted both choir and orchestra. She always made sure that only the public for whom the concerts were intended were actually admitted. She was summoned to Paris to organise similar concerts featuring the uppermost French performers, much to the delight of press and public, but following her return to Sweden the interest died down. The workers’ concerts in Sweden also ended in 1908. To a great extent it was the movie theatres that forced her to terminate these activities.

Netzel maintained an outstanding intellectual and physical resilience well into her old age. As late as 11 February 1925 the youthful old lady played her own compositions from memory together with orchestral leader Kjellström. She died on 10 February 1927, survived by a son and two daughters. Her life was described as full, bright and replete with blessings in the service of art and human love.

Works, reception and significance

In 1895, the Women’s exhibition from past to present in Copenhagen invited women composers in the three Scandinavian countries to submit their works for anonymous appraisal. The entries comprised five cantatas, five violin suites and eight choral collections. The jury consisted entirely of men: Victor Bendix, Peter Erasmus Lange-Müller and Franz Neruda. None of the violin compositions found favour in their eyes, but Valborg Aulin was awarded as prize of 200 crowns for her women’s choruses with piano accompaniment. None of the five opening cantata entries received, Netzel’s among them, was judged worthy of the full 300 crowns prize money, and the jury deplored the inability, due to illness, of the foremost women composers Agathe Backer Grøndahl and Helena Munktell to take part in the competition. Laura Netzel and Elisabeth Meyer from Denmark were awarded the prize of 300 crowns to share between them, by way of encouragement, but although Netzel was commended for ‘superior skill and loftier aspiration’, the exhibition was opened to Meyer’s music, as being ‘on the whole most suitable for performance’.

As a species of compensation for the treatment of her cantata, Laura Netzel’s violin suite was performed at one of the women’s exhibition’s soirées, but the reviewer Robert Henriques termed it ‘at best horrendous’. The Stockholm press, and especially Aftonbladet’s Adolf Lindgren, notoriously pilloried the complexity of Netzel’s music: ‘Lago seems’, he wrote on one occasion, ‘to have a genuine horror of being simple and clear’, and subsequently he found her music ‘too intricate’ or ‘somewhat prolix and therefore none too lucid’. Other, similar reviews of her works reveal the tendency for music reviewers to prefer technical complexity in male, not female composers.

Sometimes ‘manliness’ is ascribed to her works and to performances of the same, a ‘manliness’ which probably clashed with the music reviewers’ attitude to women. We are not readily informed what these ‘manly’ attributes consisted of or which of them ‘Lago’ and other women might possibly use (or desist from using) in order to pass muster. When ‘Lago’ chose to write in a less ‘womanly’ style or in ‘manly’ genres, this was remarked on in music journals and daily papers both in Sweden and abroad. For example, in one review of her humoresques (1890) she was counselled to exert herself in favour of a less contrived harmonic texture, because this impeded comprehension and performance of the composition.

Reference to (lack of) masculinity or femininity served as a highly gratifying strategy in the appraisal of ‘Lagos’s compositions, which, according to the Idun article, were characterised by ‘a modulatory artifice and harmonic garb not commonly found among women composers’. Reviewers daring to defy ‘received wisdom’ by viewing ‘Lago’ in a positive light, even in her bolder styles and grander formats, point to her exceptionality among women composers. In The Musical Courier (New York), the French musicologist Eugène Borrel argued in 1905 that ‘Lago’ encountered difficulties in the cultural sphere due to her being a woman composer, and that a man would have been given quite a different reception. Some of what may be termed the qualitative criteria of the time may, it seems, be bound up with general notions of what constituted legitimate culture and of who was entitled to define it.

The Idun article in 1891 also declared women’s achievements in performing arts as far more brilliant than in the creative arts, while at the same time pointing out that, given the same conditions as those applying to men, women composers would be able to achieve works of art rivalling the best compositions by men. Here sceptics are urged to respond to women composers with open, enquiring minds, and among those composers Netzel is accorded pride of place.

Camilla Hambro © 2014
Trans. Roger Tanner

Bibliography

'Laura Netzel', Idun, vol. 4, no. 4 (162), 1891, pp. 25−26 [with list of works].
Montelius, Agda Georgina Dorothea Alexandra: Laura Netzel. Stockholm, 1919.
'N. Lago; Laura Netzel, (1839−1927), svensk kompositör och pianist', Sveriges orkesterförbund.
Öberg, Lars: Wilhelm Netzel, in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 26, 1978−1989 (also discusses the wife Laura Netzel).
Öhrström, Eva: 1800-talets svenska musikhistoria ur kvinnoperspektiv, in Kvinnovetenskaplig tidskrift 4, 1983:2, pp. 32−42.
−−−: Borgerliga kvinnors musicerande i 1800-talets Sverige, diss., Göteborgs universitet, 1987, pp. 218−221.

Sources

Uppsala universitetsbibliotek (letters)

Summary list of works

Orchestral works (fantasy for orchestra and recitalist, lento for piano and orchestra, suite for violin and strings, unfinished piano concerto etc.), chamber music (works for piano trio, short pieces for violin, cello and flute and piano etc.), piano music (1 sonata, concerto for two pianos etc.), vocal compositions (Stabat mater, songs, cantatas, works for solo voices and orchestra, choral music).


Works by Laura Netzel

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

Number of works: 72