Esther Garlinghouse, concert pianist, was born on August 22, 1901, in Ishpeming, Michigan. She was the daughter of Esther and Andrew W. Jonsson, Swedish immigrants. The family later moved to Chicago, where Esther's father served as organist at the Swedish Lutheran Church. At the age of three or four, according to one story, Esther played on the piano by ear a chorale her father had played earlier at church. She studied music first with her father and at the age of eight was playing Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. She began to study music formally when she was nine. Her family moved to Amarillo about 1909, and Esther gave her first recital there before an audience in the Henderson Music Store. She spent much of her adolescence and young adulthood in Amarillo in the home of B. V. Blackwell, who by 1919 had become her guardian.
She attended the University School of Music in Lincoln (which was later absorbed by the University of Nebraska) in 1918–19 and 1919–20, studying with Sidney Silber. She reportedly earned a bachelor's degree in music at the school when she was seventeen, although there is no official record of her having done so. She then studied in New York with Milan Blanchet and Sigismund Stojowski; in London; in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; and in Vienna with Emil Sauer. Esther Jonsson made her professional debut in Paris with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, with Philippe Gaubert conducting. In 1931 she became the first American to perform as a soloist at the Quarter-Century Mozart Festival in Salzburg (this may have been the festival held in January 1931, commemorating the 175th anniversary of the composer's birth and featuring students from the Salzburg Mozarteum Conservatory). She was also reportedly the first American chosen as an "official soloist" at the Salzburg Festival, held later in 1931. A reporter in Salzburg noted her relaxed approach, commenting that she confined her practice to three or four hours a day, while other pianists practiced twice as long.
Jonsson studied in Salzburg for a year and assisted Dr. Bernhard Paumgartner, director of the Salzburg Mozarteum, during one of the summer schools there. Although she gave concerts in the United States and in Canada, she became better known in Europe, where she toured extensively and won special acclaim for her playing of Mozart. Her concert career harmonized with an interest in international relations and a gift for languages. In addition to a reading knowledge of Greek, she spoke Swedish, German, French, and Italian.
By 1935 her tours of southern Europe had led to a fascination with the music of the Balkans. In 1938 her study of Slavic music took her to southern Serbia. Equipped with a recording machine and movie camera, she sought out the music of villages where the radio had not yet intruded. The expedition to such isolated communities, sometimes little known even to scholars, necessitated both guides and frequent travel by burro. Esther Jonsson's collecting efforts may have been inspired in part by the ambitious program of field recordings made in Yugoslavia by Milman Parry and Albert Bates Lord in the mid-1930s. She translated some of the folk music she studied during these years into piano compositions and incorporated her films and recordings in her concerts whenever she performed Balkan music for American audiences. She also published articles about Balkan music and began work on a book-length manuscript concerning that subject. She was performing in Greece when Italy invaded that country in October 1940. About 1946 she returned to Yugoslavia and made additional field recordings. Her music, which she deemed the "music of the people," was broadcast in London, Vienna, Paris, and New York. The National Broadcasting Company included her in the inaugural radio program of the Dance International Festival.
In 1941 Esther Jonsson married Arthur A. Garlinghouse, and by 1949 they were residing in Amarillo. Mrs. Garlinghouse became involved in civic and cultural affairs and in the 1960s fought renovation and highway construction that would significantly alter or destroy some older areas of the city. She was described as a modest, deeply religious woman. She died on April 25, 1982, and was buried in the Llano Mausoleum in Amarillo. The Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music has several collections of field recordings that she made of Yugoslavian poems and Bulgarian and Yugoslavian music.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.