Classical Music on Stamps
A weekly feature
presented by David Barker
I think it is a reasonablly safe proposition that many readers of
MusicWeb International will have had some degree of interest in stamps - it's a
collecting thing. In my case, philately came first,
though it had faded away by the
time I became seriously interested in classical music. Only in the last year
or so have the two interests coincided - I guess that's what retirement
This feature is not intended to become a comprehensive survey of
classical music on stamps, but rather to present a particular topic each
week. This might be a composer, country or event. There are in excess of
2000 stamps featuring a composer, plus many more with a musical
connection, so there are plenty to choose from.
Illustrations are either from my own collection or the
online database Colnect. The most recent topic will always be
at the top of this page.
2. Claude Debussy on stamps
Debussy is probably the biggest name in classical music to have an
anniversary in 2018, that being the hundredth anniversary of his death, so it
seems appropriate to see how he has been celebrated in the past on
stamps. Not widely it would seem, as there are only eight stamps in total to
feature him or his music. This compares with more than 200 for Mozart,
and forty-plus for Haydn.
The first two come from France - not a surprise - and date from 1939
and 1940, using the same design, that of a faun surveying a pastoral
scene; in the afternoon, one assumes.
As with the Austrian ones from last week, these are charity stamps,
and this time, the prices for both postage and charity (10c) are shown.
The charity this time? Unemployed intellectuals! It is surprising that
they comprise the only two French stamps to have a connection with
Debussy - his birth centenary in 1962 went by without a mention. It will
be interesting to see if a Debussy stamp appears from La Poste this
The 150th anniversary of his birth in 2012 was commemorated by two
countries: Monaco, so at least a French connection there, and also by
Bulgaria, rather less obviously.
This was in fact the second Debussy-related stamp from Monaco, there having been
one ten years earlier, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the
premiere of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. In case you are
wondering, as I was, there was no Monaco connection with the opera's
first performance, which was in Paris. The portrait of Debussy used is based on an 1884 portrait by Marcel Baschet.
In 1993, the opening of Finland's new opera house was celebrated in a
series of four stamps picturing operas and ballets performed there.
Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was used for a
ballet, and a visually striking photograph of the action was used for
That leaves us with two final contributions, neither of which seem to
have any connection to Debussy dates or significant performances. In
1967, the African country Togo celebrated the 20th anniversary of UNESCO
with a stamp whose main feature was that of the best known portrait of
Debussy. If someone is able to link this organisation with the composer,
I'd love to hear it; I'm fairly sure that he has no connection to the
Finally, in 1980, Paraguay released a set of nine stamps featuring
paintings of ballerinas and small images of composers, Debussy being
one. Whilst it is true that Debussy did compose music for a number of
ballets, this would seem to not really have been an important aspect in
the choices made by the stamps' designer. Firstly, Tchaikovsky is
notable by his absence from the set, and the presence of Bach, Chopin
and Beethoven is rather curious to say the least.
1. The first stamps to feature composers
As far as I can tell, the first country to put a composer on its stamps
was Austria. Given its musical heritage, that is probably not
surprising. In April 1922 the new Republic of Austria released a set of
stamps featuring seven of its greatest composers: Haydn,
Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Strauss Jnr and Wolf. The latter is perhaps the most surprising inclusion (with apologies to Hugo
They were produced in print runs of around 500,000 and only available
for a month. This may seem a quite large number, but this was in an era
when the more common stamps were produced in tens of millions.
Nonetheless, the set is not especially valuable: Stanley Gibbons gives a
price of £34 for a mint set, and £70 for a used one - clearly they found
their way into collector's albums more frequently than onto letters.
These stamps are known as charity stamps, where the
normal postage cost was augmented by an extra charge used to raise money
for various causes. This was common in a number of countries, such as
France, Germany, Finland, Switzerland and New Zealand. These particular
stamps were sold for ten times the value shown, the funds raised used
for supporting needy musicians. What makes them unusual philatelically
is that the charity amount is not shown on the stamp, only the amount of
postage. For example, the Haydn sold for 25 kronen, 2½ of which was the
postage, the balance for the charity.
You will see the more usual approach, where both postage and charity
charges are shown, in future issues of this series.
While I don't intend to make this a column discussing
the artistic and aesthetic merits of stamps, I think these are quite
beautiful by any criteria. The designer used classic portraits
for the four older composers, and photographs for the other three.