Henning Mankell – The Composer

Composer, music critic and teacher Ivar Henning Mankell was born in Härnösand 3 June 1868 and died in Stockholm 5 May 1930. He composed mainly for piano and his creative output was, for the time, both bold and innovative. His role models included Chopin and Liszt as well as later composers such as Debussy and Ravel. He was elected into the memberships of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1917. The same year he was also elected to the board of the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Family and childhood

Henning Mankell was the nephew of music historian and composer Abraham Mankell (1802−1868), and cousin to the liberal politician and historian Julius Mankell (1828−1897), in addition to being the grandfather of the author Henning Mankell (b. 1948). Originally, the family is descended from a line of German musicians named Mangold.
Johan Hermann Mangold moved to Sweden in 1832 and took the name Mankell. He was married twice and had five sons. The youngest son from his second marriage, Emil Theodor, was the father of Ivar Henning Mankell. After finishing studies in Stockholm he moved to Härnösand where he taught physical education and drawing. He was also a skilful amateur violinist and took active part in the town’s music life.
Quite a bit of chamber music was played in the Mankell home. Among those who participated were active amateur musicians from the town as well as Henning and his two brothers. Together, the three brothers built a trio with Gunnar on violin, Gustav on cello and Henning at the piano. Even though music was a constant part of Henning’s childhood, he had a number of talents and, at first, was uncertain into which sphere he would channel his creativity. For a long time he had thought about becoming a painter or a writer.

Student years in Härnösand and Stockholm
Despite his broad artistic interests, in the end it was music that took the upper hand. Parallel with his studies at Härnösand’s teachers’ school, he took private lessons from the school’s music teachers. After his higher-level examinations in Härnösand, he moved to Stockholm for further study at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music). He took his organist examination in 1889 and both teaching and church song examinations in 1891. He went on to study piano with Hilda Thegerström (1892−95) and with Lennart Lundberg (1895−99). He also studied music theory with Aron Bergenson.
Those first years after finishing his studies at the Musikkonservatoriet were pervaded by his quest for his own consistent musical style. He questioned how he could support himself financially, while at the same time express the emotional energy he possessed and wanted to articulate. He engaged in an extensive correspondence with the writer and philosophically oriented liberal politician, Ernst Liljedahl. In one letter, Mankell wrote: ‘There must be a primordial source for these feelings whose pale image they glorify. This source must then be equally attuned with our concept of God. And in order for these feelings to be clear, they must be true, as God is the personification of truthfulness, and we must then become the means for searching after the truth.’
Mankell had already begun composing during his time at the conservatory. Many of his early works are tentative and betray a stylistic uncertainty. However, he showed much more clarity in his work as a music critic, first in the newspaper Svenska Morgonbladet from 1899 to 1907, and later during a shorter period in Stockholms-Tidningen. Immediately after finishing his studies, he began teaching lessons in piano and harmony, which was to give him a life-long basic income.

Security: marriage and composing
An important life’s event occurred when, in the spring of 1905, he wed Anges Lindblom who had been one of his piano students. Together with the stabilising effect that the new family situation afforded, he began a period in which he, with less timidity and more boldness, created a distinctive music with a clearly personal style. He also began to acknowledge and take up his great interest in nature and made regular visits to the area of his childhood around Härnösand.
Henning Mankell’s position within Swedish music life was not a particularly successful one, but neither was it totally hidden from sight. Privately, he gladly socialised with friends and acquaintances at home, where he felt comfortable. He seldom took part in public social life. Because of this, there is a substantial contrast between Mankell’s typically humble, almost mild image and the experimentation that marks a large part of his music.
At the end of the 1920s, it was discovered the Henning Mankell had diabetes. It is hard to say how long he had suffered from this illness. Insulin treatment was still looked upon with scepticism and he was put on a harsh diet. He quickly became extremely weak and his productivity declined, with the exception of a short active period at the end of 1929. Henning Mankell died from diabetes on 8 May 1930.

The musical work
In the beginning, Henning Mankell’s music found no prominent place on concert programmes. However, several of his ballads for piano were printed by the renowned German publisher Breitkopf and Härtel, which found good standing in Belgium through the work of pianist Gunnar Mellström. Many of Mankell’s works are only available in handwritten manuscript form.
The first year after WWI was a very productive period for Mankell and his music was heard more often in larger concert contexts. At the same time, music critics such as Andreas Hallén and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger remained very critical, describing his music as futuristic, a description that was meant to be demeaning. However, he also had his supporters, particularly Ture Rangström, a composer with whom he developed a close friendship. The composer Kurt Atterberg was also positive toward Mankell’s music.
His piano quintet in G minor op. 22, as well as his viola sonata in B minor and several songs were performed in the spring of 1918. Thereafter, several of the time’s most prominent Swedish musicians included his music in their repertoire and in March 1921 his piano concerto in D minor was performed with Aurora Molander as soloist.
As a composer, Henning Mankell was an autodidact and wrote mainly for piano. His role models include Scandinavian composers such as Emil Sjögren and Edvard Grieg, and in later years he also took inspiration from Debussy and Ravel. However, his main musical ideology was anchored in the traditions of Chopin and Liszt. From Chopin he took music forms such a ballads, nocturnes, preludes and impromptu works, and his teacher at the conservatory, Hilda Thegerström, had in turn studied with Liszt. He also wrote intermezzi, romantic legends and shaped his own particular formal type of fantasy sonatas.

A characteristic of piano music

Mankell composed very freely within the framework of these smaller forms. He allowed the music to develop in a way that, as musicologist Ingmar Bengtsson formulated it, can be called ‘pianistically-dynamic’. With this as a starting point Mankell created a highly personal and independent late-romantic expressive style with an added component of impressionism. Harmonically, his works are often advanced, while for the most part, still maintaining a tonal centre. As a role model and a source of inspiration, Mankell used Chopin’s ballads, especially the one in F minor. In his later works, mainly the fantasy sonatas, one can see connections to Liszt’s B minor sonata. Here he departs consistently from the structural forms of the traditional sonata and allows the many improvisatorial and independent sections to instead be held together by the motivic relationships and a natural flow of varying expressionistic modes.
Henning Mankell did not strive after formal structure or schematic clarity in his work. Music was his way of expressing moods, feelings and associations. In a letter to Ernst Liljedahl, likely as early as the beginning of the 1890s, Mankell wrote: ‘What powers do not the tones possess! They draw out those inner feelings for one’s ears, realising them and making them almost physical. One image stands together with another, the melodies binding themselves together, the one with the other, the power of the tones to enchant is wonderful.’

Göran Persson © 2015
Transaltion from Swedish: Jill Ann Johnson