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Classical Music on Stamps
A weekly feature presented by David Barker

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 Wolf aficionados).


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.

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 year.

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 the stamp.

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 country.

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.

3. Schumann's death centenary

In July 1956, both West and East Germany released stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Robert Schumann, each bearing a likeness of the composer and some bars of music. Stamps such as these, which mark a particular event or similar, are known as commemoratives.

In the case of West Germany, it was a single stamp with a cameo of Schumann; it is not recorded anywhere I can find what the music is.

East Germany opted for two releases, released ten days apart for no obvious reason, using the same design - a famous portrait in front of a score - in different colours for the different denominations.

Unfortunately, there was a "slight" problem: the admirable detail in the score revealed that the designer had somehow managed to use music by Schubert, his Wanderers Nachtlied. So a new design, bearing Schumann's Mondnacht, was released in October.

Did this make the error stamps more valuable? Surprisingly no. Both releases had the same print runs - 1 million for the 10 and 5 million for the 20 - and the prices shown in Stanley Gibbons indicate that it is the correct designs that are worth more, albeit not much. For example, the less common 10 pfennig is valued at £3.25 for the incorrect and £7.50 for the correct issue (in mint condition).

4. The most unlikely stamps #1

I remarked two weeks ago in the Debussy column about two of the stamps being rather surprising in their content and also because of the countries which had issued them. That has prompted me to have an occasional entry in this series on stamps from unlikely sources or on unlikely topics. Today's is the first nomination, and I suggest that it may be quite hard to beat.

In doing research for last week's topic on Robert Schumann, I found a set of three stamps featuring a much less well-known Schumann: Georg (1866-1952), also from Germany and no relation. He is not entirely unknown as a composer - the CPO label has released five CDs of his music in the last few years - so it would not have been a total surprise had Germany decided to issue stamps in 2016 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth. However, the reason that they appear here under the heading of "unlikely" is because the issuing country was the African nation of Djibouti!

There were a number of Djibouti releases in 2016 celebrating the life and works of famous people, namely Wolfgang Mozart, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Robert Baden-Powell, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Walt Disney. Georg Schumann does seem to be a rather unlikely inclusion in this list of luminaries.

5. British stamps

The UK was, of course, the originator of government-issued stamps with the Penny Blacks of 1840, and even had a head of state for 25 years obsessed by stamps: George V. However, it would seem that the commissioning body for stamp designs had little interest in classical music, because it was not until 1972 that any British stamp with that theme. This first stamp commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, in a set with three other (non-musical) anniversaries.

In 1980, we have a series celebrating four famous British conductors, and while three of them - Sir Henry Wood, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir John Barbirolli - would have made just about everyone's shortlist, I suspect quite a few of you might have opted for Sir Adrian Boult ahead of Sir Malcolm Sargeant.

In 1984, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the British Council, a set of four stamps was issued, depicting different aspects of its work. One "Promoting the arts" depicts a violinist, some music and the Parthenon.

It is not until 1985 that Sir Edward Elgar receives a philatelic mention, in a beautifully and unusually designed series which uses art to portray four famous British works, Handel's Water Music, Holst's Planets, Delius' The First Cuckoo of Spring and Elgar's Sea Pictures. The set was released as part of the European Year of Music.

Notice anything unusual about the Elgar stamp? He is named plain "Edward Elgar", whereas the four conductor knights have been given their title.

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1992 was celebrated with a set of five stamps, with colourful images depicting five of the most famous G&S operettas.

The remaining two to this point - were issued in 2009 and 2013, using a common design, to commemorate birth anniversaries for great names who had previously been absent from British stamps: Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten.

So, after a slow start, 17 stamps with a classical theme isn't too bad, though it should be noted that the number of issues featuring either The Beatles or David Bowie is also 17.

6. Bach, Handel & Schütz anniversaries - Germany

I'm sure you are all aware that Bach and Handel were born in the same year (1685), and many would also know that Heinrich Schütz was born 100 years before. This meant that 1985 saw the release of numerous stamps from around the world celebrating the 300th anniversary for Bach and Handel, and a small number for Schütz's 400th. In Germany, we can go back 50 years earlier, for the 250/350th anniversaries.

In 1985, there were, of course, two Germanies, and both released anniversary stamps, though West Germany did not honour Schütz, just Bach and Handel. The designers from both countries used the same portraits, but while West Germany went with the simple option of using the paintings unaltered, the East Germans used sketch reproductions. Handel seems to have faired rather better, losing some weight in the process, while Bach has gone from benign in the painting to something rather more angry in the sketch.


7. Bach, Handel & Schütz anniversaries - world

Last week, I looked at the celebration of the shared anniversary years for these composers in their native land of Germany. In 1985, quite a number of other countries also commemorated their birth anniversaries on stamps. It should be noted that 1985 was also the International and European Year of Music, which meant that the "limelight" was often shared with other composers without significant anniversaries in the year; for example, in Great Britain, where Elgar, Delius and Holst were also included in a set with Handel (see Article 4 below).

Of these countries, Hungary seems to be the most obvious one in terms of its classical musical heritage, though Ireland does of course have the Handelian connection through Messiah. Hungary's set for the International Year also included Cherubini, Chopin, Mahler and Ferenc Erkel, while Ireland had Domenico Scarlatti, appropriate since he also was born in 1685.

India and Monaco celebrated Bach and Handel's tercentenary with stamps showing both men.

Three other countries, all rather unlikely, issued stamps for both Bach and Handel: (the Islamic Republic of) Mauritania, the Turkish sector of Cyprus and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the latter really splurging with four stamps for each composer (I have only shown two).

Heinrich Schütz's anniversary was commemorated by only one country outside the two Germanys - Guinea-Bissau - which also included Handel, but not Bach, in its set of composers for the International Year.

Finally, seven more countries issued stamps for Bach alone: Albania, the Republic of Congo, Dominica, Grenada, Mexico, Poland and the USSR. If you are struggling to find the Albania stamp(s), they are the two inscribed RPS E Shqiperise; the blue one apparently depicts Eisenach.

8. Orchestra Anniversaries - Part 1

It is not just composers who feature on commemorative stamps celebrating a particular anniversary, but also some of the orchestras they wrote for. There are a significant number of stamps in this category, too many for one week's column.

Let's begin with the first orchestra-related stamps, a set of six issued by Romania in 1946 to celebrate the 25th birthday of the Bucharest Philharmonic. I have shown only the three different designs, as the XXV design featured on three in different colours and denominations, and similarly the Athenaeum (concert hall) appears on two. The profile appearing on the third is that of Romania's greatest composer, George Enescu.

I will stay in eastern Europe for the rest of this week's column. Czechoslovakia, and the two independent nations it became after the fall of Communism, have been prolific in terms of classical music on stamps. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has had three anniversaries commemorated on stamps: its 70th (in 1966), 90th and 100th.

The Slovak RSO had its 50th anniversary in 1979, and the Slovak Philharmonic its 50th in 1999.

Finally, three more former Iron Curtain countries commemorated orchestras in the last two decades: the Warsaw Philharmonic's 100th (2001), the Pannon Philharmonic (formerly known as the Pécs SO) its 200th (2011) and perhaps most fittingly, given the form of commemoration, the 80th anniversary of the Post Office Brass Band of Slovenia also in 2011.

Next time, I will look at orchestra stamps from other countries, but very surprisingly, four that will not receive a visit are France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, as they have not elected to celebrate their very famous orchestras philatelically.

9. Orchestra Anniversaries - Part 2

To continue from last week's topic, let's go to Vienna and its two orchestras, the Philharmonic and the Symphony. Each has received its due recognition on Austrian stamps, more than once in each case: the VPO for its 125th (in 1967), 150th and 175th anniversaries, and the VSO its 75th (1975) and 100th.


I found just two other stamps celebrating the anniversaries of European orchestras: the Royal Concertgebouw (100th, 1988) and the Luxembourg Philharmonic (75th, 2008).

To finish this topic, there are stamps from Argentina (Buenos Aires City Symphony, 100th in 2010), Canada (Montreal SO: 50th in 1984, & Quebec SO: 100th in 2002), Israel (Israel PO: 25th, 1961 & 75th) and Mexico (State SO, 45th in 2016).

10. "Fantasia" in Liechtenstein

Before Disney's lawyers get busy, let me say that the designers of the 2006 set of eight stamps that is the subject of this week's column have not impinged on the intellectual property of the 1940 classic animated film. It's just what the combination of cartoon-style artwork and famous classical pieces brought to mind for me. The stamps illustrate, in delightful whimsy, eight works, one of which does happen to be in common with the film (the Beethoven Pastoral). No more words are needed - please click on the images to get larger versions to better enjoy them.

Pastoral Symphony Rhapsody in Blue Water Music Midsummer Night's Dream
The Magic Flute The Swan Radetzky March Waltz of the Flowers


<<<  Newest entries ~ Entries 11-20 ~ Entries 21-30 ~ Entries 31-40

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