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NA203012 - Composers' Letters

Composers’ Letters

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 the man.


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 people

like working in a vacuum and it becomes evident through the letters how

composers thrive on musical gossip, meeting and playing with other

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 remains a

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 fringe.

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