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ClassicsOnline Home » Composers' Letters
Edited by Jan Fielden
In these composers’ letters, as well as in their music, we
can hear the voices of the men themselves. Through their own words expressed
simply on paper and committed to the postal services — whatever they may have
been like at the time — a portrait of the composer as a human being emerges.
Frequently, this shows a different, perhaps unexpected side
to the master of sound and artifice known to us more usually through a series of
symphonies or concertos.
It is impossible to give a rounded portrait of each composer
through a small selection of correspondence and music such as this; however, it
is hoped that the incidents and feelings related in the composers’ letters, coupled
with their own music, will give us a vivid impression and distinctive flavor of
From the truly fascinating — and huge — library of letters
that exists from European composers of the past four centuries, several broad
themes emerge. These include creativity, the struggles of earning a living,
friendships (particularly with other composers), romance, composers’ place in
society, traveling, and, of course, performances.
This collection begins in the eighteenth century with George
Frederic Handel and ends in the mid-twentieth with Benjamin Britten, and it is
possible to detect from the letters how over the centuries the status and role
of the composer has changed. Handel, Bach and Mozart were little more than servants
or tradesmen to minor princes or city and church officials now long forgotten
except for their, often parsimonious, patronage of their ‘servants’.
Fortunately the creativity of these composers survived to
leave us the Vespers of 1610, the Mass in B minor and Cosi fan Tutti!
Gradually, as the centuries passed by, composers became less dependent and were
able to live, often precariously, on what they earned from their music,
unencumbered by a commanding patron. As the practice of subscription concerts
and private and public commissions developed, so they became more independent.
It is striking, on reading the correspondence of composers,
how efficient they had to be — so often their own publicists, agents, and
travel managers. Nowadays the pressure is relieved by agents, though a
well-organized, worldly musician is still at an advantage.
The community of composers has always been important. Few
like working in a vacuum and it becomes evident through the
composers thrive on musical gossip, meeting and playing with
musicians, writing letters, listening to each other’s work.
The influence of one composer upon another is important. For example, Frederick
Delius and Edvard Grieg inspired and supported each other, Wagner appreciated
having Liszt to write to, especially when he was in exile in Switzerland, and
Prokofiev and Stravinsky, despite their uneasy, competitive relationship, were
good friends, as were Berlioz and Mendelssohn. Then of course there are the
love affairs — Schumann’s, Tchaikovsky’s and Wagner’s, to name a few.
Each composer experiences the events and turmoil of his age
and this is reflected in his music.
Despite the gradual change in status of composers, there
constancy of themes in their letters. The struggle to get on
and do what they wanted and not what was expedient, the struggle to make a
living, the common experience of the hurt inflicted by the critics. In
compiling this collection one is forcibly reminded that though music was the
primary creative medium of these composers, they have also proved to be expressive
letter writers. It is hoped that you too, in listening to these letters and
hearing again the music, will gain fresh insight into the lives and times of
those composers we so admire.
Notes by Jan Fielden
About the Readers
Jeremy Nicholas is an actor, writer, musician and
broadcaster. Apart from his many roles on television he presents his solo stage
performance of Three Men In A Boat, and many radio series including The Tingle
Factor. He has written The Beginner’s Guide to Opera and an album of songs
called Funny You Should Sing That.
Edward de Souza is a familiar figure on the London stage
having played leading roles in over a dozen West End plays and in several
seasons at Stratford, the Old Vic and the National Theatre. Apart from many TV
and film appearances, (including The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Spy Who Loved
Me) he has done numerous readings on radio and cassette, and is particularly
well-known to listeners as The Man in Black in ‘Fear on Four’ (BBC Radio).
Daniel Philpott trained at LAMDA and after success in the
prestigious Carleton Hobbs Award for Radio Drama recorded for BBC Radio 4 and
other broadcast work. His theater work includes productions on the London
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