Laura Netzel spent nearly all of her life in Sweden, but her roots were in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland in the Russian Empire. She was born in Rantasalmi into the family of Georg Fredrik Pistolekors, a nobleman and high-ranking civil servant, in 1839. Her mother passed away only months after her birth, and soon afterwards the family relocated to Stockholm.
The Swedish capital offered excellent potential for the daughters of high-born families to study music, though seeking a career as a professional musician was not considered proper. Laura Pistolekors took private piano and voice lessons. She developed a passion for music at an early age, and by her teens she was already performing as a piano soloist at orchestra concerts.
In 1866, the young pianist married Professor Wilhelm Netzel, a medical doctor, but marriage and the duties of managing a household and bringing up children never meant giving up music. From the 1870s onwards, Laura Netzel began to attract attention not only as a pianist but also as a composer, initially writing solo songs and choral works. She went on to write a wide range of chamber music and also orchestral works.
Like many of her female colleagues, Laura Netzel published her compositions under a pseudonym, ‘N. Lago’. In an era of steep gender prejudices questioning the professional skills of women who wrote music, this represented a way for musical works to be judged by the content of their character, so to speak. Beyond this, Netzel challenged the gender roles of her day by conducting choral and orchestral concerts herself. She eventually became a respected model and pioneer in the Nordic women’s rights movement, as witness for instance a glowing article on women’s affairs in the Swedish periodical Idun in the early 1890s.
Although by her own account Laura Netzel had been writing music from an early age, her composer career was at its peak from the 1870s to the 1890s. Having studied composition with Wilhelm Heintze in Stockholm, she went to Paris to study with organist-composer Charles-Marie Widor. Paris became the focal point of her international career: many of her works were performed and published in France around the turn of the 20th century. Over time, she evolved into a sort of musical emissary between France and Sweden, for instance as the Stockholm correspondent of the French music periodical Le Monde Musical.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Netzel attracted attention with major works such as the Stabat Mater for choir and organ. Her chamber music works and solo songs also received positive attention around the same time in France, Belgium, Germany and Romania. In music journalism, she was often identified with the French tradition, and indeed her flowing harmonies and chromatic writing support this view. Contemporary listeners also heard echoes of crisp Nordic ‘fiords’. She was repeatedly compared to Edvard Grieg, and indeed mistakenly labelled as Norwegian in some reviews.
Music and charity
Laura Netzel’s relationship to the Swedish royal family is an interesting detail in her career. Not only was her husband the physician in attendance to the ladies of the royal household, Laura herself was actively involved in the private singing soirées held by King Oskar II. She even published a setting of a poem written by the King, a melodrama titled Adaptation symphonique for reciter and orchestra. Her duet Blåa grottan [The blue cave] is also dedicated to the King, who enjoyed singing tenor parts.
Netzel’s upper-class background led her to be involved not only in music but also in charitable works. She was a founder of a children’s hospital and of a women’s refuge. She was also one of the earliest patrons of the open-air museum established at Skansen in Stockholm.
She combined her two passions in her “workers’ concerts” (arbetarkonserter), which she held in Stockholm on Saturday nights from 1892 to 1908. With tickets priced affordably at 25 öre, these events had an educational function – paralleling, for example, the popular “folk concerts” in Finland. Through her widespread networks, Netzel was able to engage some of the top performers of the day.
Musician, composer and social activist
The life of Laura Netzel demonstrates what a wide and varied career a woman composer might have around the turn of the 20th century. Not only was she a prolific composer, she also organised concerts, wrote about music in professional periodicals, performed music, conducted music and was actively engaged in social improvement. As a member of the Stockholm intelligentsia, she had the opportunity to contribute to a variety of cultural projects.
On the other hand, the life of an upper-class woman and wife was restrictive. Netzel could never earn her living as a musician, unlike some of her unmarried or less well-off colleagues. Nevertheless, the frequent occurrence of names of women writing music in her scrapbook (Pauline Viardot and Teresa Carreño, to name a few) demonstrate what a wide peer support network she had in this male-dominated sphere.
Netzel lived in Stockholm for almost all of her life and is much better known in Sweden than in Finland. Her music should be performed more in this country, as indeed it was at the end of the 19th century. She herself never forgot her Rantasalmi roots: in 1887, for instance, she dedicated three choral pieces to the Muntra Musikanter male choir in Helsinki.
The question of whether Netzel was more ‘Swedish’ than ‘Finnish’ is irrelevant. Instead, her career should be taken as a good example of how fluid the boundaries between states, cultures and languages could be in late 19th-century musical life.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Laura Netzel. Source: Archives of the Music and Theatre Library of Sweden
Violinist Mirka Malmi and pianist Tiina Karakorpi perform Netzel’s ‘Romanssi’ and ‘Slaavialinen laulu’ at a recital entitled Nainen ja viulu: Romanssi [Women and Violin: Romance] at the Gallen-Kallela Museum in Espoo, Finland, on 11 August 2019. The recital also features music written by other Finnish and Nordic women (Tschetschulin, Moberg, Holmberg, etc.). It is hosted by Susanna Välimäki.
Watch performances of Netzel's works for violin and piano by Mirka Malmi and Tiina Karakorpi here.
On 8 December 2021 - the Day of Finnish Music - the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra streamed a concert with music by Laura Netzel, Edith Sohlström, Helvi Leiviskä, Outi Tarkiainen, Andrea Tarrodi and W.A. Mozart. Watch the concert video here.
Powers, Katherine. ‘Class, Gender, Accomplishment: Laura Netzel in nineteenth-century Sweden’. In Sleuthing the muse: Essays in honor of William F. Prizer (eds. Forney, Christine K. & Smith, Jeremy L., Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press 2012), pp. 271–284.
Öhrström, Eva. Borgerliga kvinnors musicerande i 1800-talets Sverige. Doctoral dissertation (Skrifter från Musikvetenskapliga institutionen 15), University of Gothenburg 1987.