Hélène Tham (1843-1925)

Hélène (Helena) Gustava Tham (née Murray) was born on 16 December 1843 in Stockholm, and died there on 26 July 1925 and is among the pioneers of female composers. Information about her as a musician and composer is vague, even though relatively many of her musical works have been preserved. She evidently composed from an early age and published both songs and piano pieces. She was married to factory manager and member of parliament, Vollrath Tham.

Life

Hélène Tham belongs to the ranks of female pioneers among Swedish composers. She is typical of those who had good economic circumstances, which allowed her, and her female contemporaries, to devote themselves to composing without having to think about how their works would generate income. Within this pattern, these women received conscious musical stimulation during childhood. This included not only the obligatory piano lessons, but also the encouragement inherent in taking part in music salons where both skilful amateurs and experienced musicians could perform. For women composers, the salons provided a forum where their own works could be heard by a knowledgeable audience.

Hélène Tham was born in Stockholm in 1843, the daughter of merchant Uno Murray and his wife Charlotte (née Venus). Four daughters were born into the marriage, all of whom were music-oriented − and according to family tradition, they were excellent singers at an early age. Uno Murray had a son, Adolf, from an earlier marriage, who was at least as musically active as his younger half-sisters. Hélène Tham’s godmother was the singer Jenny Lind, who socialised with the family. At that time, Jenny Lind lived at the composer Adolf Fredrik Lindblad’s home, which indicates that the Murray family belonged to Stockholm’s main musical circles. In 1843, Hélène Tham’s birth year, Jenny Lind was on the verge of continuing her successful career abroad. However, she stayed in contact with the Murray family, especially with Charlotte who was one of the singer’s closest friends.

Hélène Tham’s childhood home was filled with music and literature. Both of her parents played music and also wrote poetry that Hélène occasionally set to music. Her first steps as a composer consequently began at a young age.

She likely received her musical education at Adolf Fredrik Lindblad’s music school. If this assumption is true, she probably had Lindblad’s daughter, the 14-year older Lotten (m. von Feilitzen) as her piano teacher. In any case, there was a close friendship between these two women, which is documented in letters that have been preserved. In addition, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad may have taught composition to Hélène.

In 1864 she married the factory manager, and later member of parliament, Vollrath Tham, who also had a deep interest in music. He reportedly loved to sing the songs of Swedish preacher and musician, Oscar Ahnfelt. The couple had no fewer than nine children, seven of whom − according the church records − survived early childhood. The eldest was born in 1866 and the youngest in 1883. Their home was said to have been ‘unusually happy and harmonious’. The husband’s career took the family to several industrial communities in various parts of the country: Åvike iron works, south of Härnösand in northern Sweden, Huså copper works in western Jämtland and Kloten’s factory community in the northern part of the Örebro region. In 1897 the family moved to Stockholm and remained there for the rest of their lives.

When Vollrath Tham became the managing director for the copper works in Huså, not far from the Norwegian border, he succeeded his brother-in-law, Axel Bernhard Beskow who was married to Hélène Tham’s sister, Anna Mathilda. Both sisters brought music to the manager’s home, which sat in the shadow of the 1,420 metre-high mountain, Åreskutan. It should be mentioned that Axel Bernhard Beskow was the son of the factory’s owner, Gustav Beskow, in whose Stockholm-based wholesaler’s business Uno Murray was employed. This shows how intertwined family ties could be − and at the same time how important these relationships were for the lives of those involved. The Murray family had a similarly close connection with the Lindblad family.

Vollrath Tham has been characterised as having ‘a manager’s nature with a modern orientation, full of initiative and reform-minded’. He and Hélène must have made an attractive couple in society, in which, not least, her playing and singing added richness to their social circles. The couple was generally known for being unusually tall compared to the factory workers.

Hélène Tham was also active as a piano teacher. Her students included Victor Wiklund, who was brother to the composer and conductor, Adolf Wiklund. Victor Wiklund would later become a professor in piano at Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music).

Compositions

There is very little information about Hélène Tham’s composing, and furthermore, it is unknown to what extent the surviving pieces represent the whole of her work, or how many have been lost. Because some of her preserved works are autographed with her maiden name, we know that she composed regularly before her marriage. However, she did produce printed works when she was between 40 and 50 years old, from which we can conclude that she continued composing despite time-consuming family obligations. These observations lead to the conclusion that she was actively composing over a long period of time. It is, however, uncertain whether she composed during intense stretches of time when family life allowed, or whether she sat on a regular basis with music notepaper in front of her.

Furthermore, there is no documentation showing that Hélène Tham’s works were ever performed in public concerts. The list of her compositions indicates that she composed exclusively for smaller contexts, thus requiring no greater resources than those found near at hand. There is therefore reason to conclude that the majority of her works were written to be performed in private contexts. But her compositions have a scope that stretches far beyond the bourgeois salons of the time. They bear witness to a composer who wanted to do more than entertain and create a pleasant atmosphere. Many of her works are full of expression, well written and on a technical level that exceeds what amateurs at that time could achieve.

Gunnar Ternhag © 2014
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson

Bibliography

G-m, H.: Murray, släkt, in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 26, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 1987−89.
Ullberg, Gösta: Huså bruks historia, Östersund: Wisénska bokhandeln, 1967, new ed. 1989, p. 251ff.

Sources

Musik- och teaterbiblioteket, Murrayska släktarkivet - Riksarkivet

Summary list of works

Songs, piano pieces, some works for violin and piano.

Collected works

Piano music
6 pianoforte pieces composed by Hélène Tham née Murray. To Lotten von Feilitzen. Stockholm: Bagge, 1883.
1. Allegro agitato 2. Allegretto vivace 3. Allegro 4. Allegro assai 5. Allegro apassionato 6. Tempo di menuetto.
8 piano pieces by Hélène Tham née Murray. To professor Ivar Hallström. Stockholm: Lundquist, 1894.
1. Allegro moderato in E major 2. Allegro assai in G minor 3. Allegretto marcia in G major 4. Allegro comodo in E minor 5. Andantino in G major 6. Lento in G minor 7. Raskt in E minor 8. Andantino D major.

Organ music
Prelude. To Adolf Murray Christmas Eve 1893.

Violin and piano
Romance, 1888.
Vårmorgonen, 1892.

Voice(s) and piano/organ
Three spiritual songs for one voice and piano or organ. Abr. Lundquist (2824) 1.'Hvad bedröfvar Du mi' (Psalm 41:12), 2.'Detta är med Faderns vilj' (Joh. 3:69), 3.'Lofva Herren min sjä' (Davids psalm 103:2).
Songs for one voice and piano. Stockholm: Abr. Lundquist no. 2825, 1893. 1. Helsning ('Med toner igen'), text: 'Mamma', 2. Svanen ('Hör du de böljor små', U. M-y [Uno Murray= HT's father]), 3. Från nya hemmet ('Långt från er'), 4. Erinran ('Dig jag minnes i barndomsår'), 5. Fågeln ('Säg mig du lilla fågel', J L Runeberg), 6. Ur Stens visor ('Rätt så, du lille, framåt', Albert Theodor Gellerstedt), 7. Med ett album ('Då toner smyga till ditt öra'), 8. Till min mor ('Ack! Hur saligt är'), 9. Till en vän ('Hvarför har du fått din penna').
'O, låt mig lefva en liten tid' or voice and piano.
Gubbens dröm for voice and piano, text: 'Pappa'.
Tonerna for voice and piano, text: 'Pappa'.
Till Hélèn ('Dig jag minnes') for voice and piano, text 'Mammas ord'.
Floden ('Se den klara strömmen', E J Stagnelius) for voice and piano.
Den fångna fogeln for voice and piano.
Vintervisa ('Vind och hvita vågor', Topelius) for voice and piano.
Ljus i mörkret ('På underbara vägar går vår Herre') for voice and piano. Abr. Lundquist 1893 (2823)
Luke 2:29−30 for voice and piano.

Duet ('Stilla sjung din sång') for 2 sopranos and piano. 23 Dec. 1859.
From David's 90th psalm for two voices and piano.

Mixed choir
Quartette ('O Jesu kärleksrike'). Nov. 1886.
I allt detta öfvervinna vi. To Gustaf in May 1894.
Än är vinterns djupa dvala for SATB.

Male choir/quartet
Nytt år ('Flyg ut, flyg ut'), male quartet, for TTBB.


Works by Hélène Tham

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

Number of works: 21