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Classical Music on Stamps
A weekly feature presented by David Barker

I think it is a reasonably 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 allows.

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.

20. The Prague Spring Music Festival

This famous festival was first held in 1946, and continues to this day. Since 1952, the festival has opened on May 12 — the anniversary of the death of Bedřich Smetana. In the 1950s, it was a regular feature on Czechoslovakian stamps, the first issued in 1951, celebrating not surprisingly the country's two foremost composers, Smetana and Antonín Dvořák.

The 1952 release focussed on Beethoven (I'm not sure why) and also included an image of the Rudolfinum, one of Prague's most famous concert halls.

1953 saw a return to homegrown musicians, Josef Slavík, a 19th century composer/violinist, and Leoš Janáček.

I presume that the festival was held in 1954, but there were no stamps featuring it that year. In 1955, the stamp designs avoided specific subjects, and were inspired by classical imagery.

In 1956, the theme of the festival stamps was the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth, though three of the stamps - the 45, 60 & 1.40 - featured local composers. Bertramka House was the house owned by František Dušek & his wife Josefína Dušková where Mozart stayed in Prague in 1787, while the Nostic Theatre held the premiere of Don Giovanni.

Mozart Josef Mysliveček Jiri Benda
Bertramka House Josefína Dušková &
František Dušek
Nostic Theatre

1957 was the last hurrah for large scale philatelic recognition of the festival, featuring six Czech composers, the first three of whom were new names to me.

Jan Stamic Ferdinand Laub František Ondříček
Josef Foerster Vítĕzslav Novák Josef Suk

And then there was silence ... almost: just two more stamps, one in 1967 and another in 1986.

19. The Chopin International Piano Competition

There's no doubting how revered Chopin is in his homeland of Poland, and the country's postal service has issued numerous stamps celebrating him, but those are for another day. Today's column is specifically about the prestigious piano competition named after him that was first held in 1927, and since 1955 is held every five years. Previous winners include Lev Oborin (1927), Maurizio Pollini (1960), Martha Argerich (1965), Garrick Ohlsson (1970) and Krystian Zimerman (1975).

 It would be one of the most highly regarded competitions of its type, along with the Tchaikovsky and Cliburn, but I'm fairly sure it is the only one that has been so regularly celebrated on stamps. Poland has released twelve stamps connected to eight of the competitions.

In 1954, leading up to the 1955 event, a set of three was issued, and then in the competition year, another two were released.

 

Since then, the competition has been a regular visitor to the Polish postage release list.

1960 1970 1975 1980
 
1995 2005 2015  

18. Composers on American stamps

The USA has released well in excess of 10,000 stamps since the first one in 1842. The number featuring classical composers is, however, quite small: just fourteen. Overlap with the worlds of jazz and musical theatre does make for tricky distinctions, but I think most would agree that great musicians such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and Duke Ellington are not generally considered as classical composers (and yes, I know that there is a symphony by Ellington recorded on Chandos).

Interestingly, there is one major American composer who is absent from the list. I will wait to the end to let you know who, if you haven't already worked it out.

In 1940, the USA released a number of sets of stamps, in similar designs, celebrating authors, poets, scientists, educators and musicians. Among the latter group were John Philip Sousa, Victor Herbert, Edward MacDowell and Ethelbert Nevin; Stephen Foster was the other in the set.

We then move forward more than 30 years to a set of American artists in 1973, one of which was George Gershwin.

In 1982, we find Igor Stravinsky included in the Great Americans definitives series. For those not up on stamp terminology, a definitive is a stamp generally released in a large number of numerous denominations with similar designs, intended for long term release in large quantities. The best known example are the UK's Queen's head stamps (known to collectors as Machins after the designer).

 

Throughout the 1990s, the US Postal Service released a number of sets entitled American Music, mostly featuring great musicians from other genres. In 1997, Samuel Barber, Louis Gottschalk, Ferde Grofé and Charles Ives were celebrated. In 1999, in a set dedicated to film score composers, we find Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman, and in a set of musical theatre composers, George and Ira Gershwin and Meredith Willson.

Have you spotted who is missing? Quite amazingly, perhaps the most famous of all - Aaron Copland!

17. The 200th anniversary of Beethoven's birth

In 1970, nineteen countries recognised this anniverary on a total of 30 stamps. This has been only exceeded by Mozart anniversaries, with both the 200th of his death in 1991, and the 250th of his birth in 2006 generating more philatelic interest. However, let me put that into context: the number of stamps being issued by all countries from the 1990s onwards is far greater than in 1970.

Some of the nineteen contries were the expected ones: Austria, and both Germanys. East Germany released two, one in January, the other December, the latter being the month of his birth.

Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and the USSR also have significant classical traditions, so they too are among the expected list. I have to say that the Romanian designer's "interpretation" of a well-known Beethoven portrait is a rather interesting one.

Two countries seriously celebrated the anniversary with sets of five, mostly using different portraits of the composer. Being in Europe, Albania has a connection, albeit fairly slight, to the Western classical tradition, but as for the small South American nation of Surinam ...

Before we leave Europe, there are also issues from Bulgaria, Greece and Monaco. This means none from France, Poland, the Scandinavian and Benelux nations, Spain, Portugal or the UK.

Nine stamps remain, from seven countries: Cameroon, Dahomey (2), India, Mexico, Niger, Senegal (2) and Sharjah. As you can see, Mexico hasn't simply utilised a portrait of the composer, opting instead for two bars of the manuscript of the Ninth Symphony.

16. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

From opera to ballet, and one of the most popular of all, philatelically as well. No great surprise that Russia, and the former Soviet Union, should celebrate this work and its composer, visiting the topic four times from 1958, in conjunction with the Tchaikovsky International Music Competition, to 1993, the centenary of his death.

1958 1961 1970 1993

Russia is outdone by its former political ally, Cuba, which has issued five stamps related to Swan Lake. Admittedly four of those are more about celebrating the Cuban National Ballet, including its 50th and 60th anniversaries in 1998 and 2008. The other is a 1993 Tchaikovsky centenary issue (second row left).

 

That leaves us with stamps from three other countries: Austria in 1969, celebrating 100 years of the Vienna Opera (?), New Zealand in 2003 for the 50th anniversary of the Royal NZ Ballet, and France in 2016, with a release that celebrates the ballet itself.

15. Wagner operas from Germany - 1933

Given how much Hitler loved Wagner's music, it is perhaps unsurprising that the first stamps issued under the Third Reich featured his operas. They were charity stamps, issued in part to raise money for "emergency relief". As beautifully designed as they undoubtedly are, it is difficult to ignore their political connotations, especially if you turn them over and find the swastika watermark.

Tannhauser Die Fliegende Holländer Das Rheingold
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Die Walküre Siegfried
Tristan und Isolde Lohengrin Parsifal
   

14. Swiss composers

This topic was prompted by sorting through a recent acquisition of Swiss stamps. Switzerland is not renowned for its composers, but certainly Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin have a reasonable presence in the catalogue. However, I'm sure I will not be alone in not recognising some of the other names that appear below.

Hans Georg Nägeli Alberich Zwyssig

These two belong to long-running series of Swiss stamps issued for charitable purposes. The "Pro Juventute" releases raise money for an organisation of that name, which is dedicated to supporting the rights and needs of Swiss children and youth, while the "Pro Patria" series (this translates as "for our nation") benefits social and cultural works of national public interest. Regarding the second stamp, where the likeness of the composer does not appear, it was Zwyssig (oh, how I wish names were allowed in Scrabble) who wrote the psalm which is used as the country's national anthem.

Othmar Schoeck (1969) Joseph Bovet (1978) Frank Martin (1985)

Arthur Honegger appears not only on a Swiss stamp, but also on French and German ones as well, the latter two celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. Given his association with Les Six and the time he spent in Paris, the former is not unexpected.

1972 1992 1992

Aficionados of modernist music - that counts me out - may recognise the last two names from these 2010/11 stamps.

Paul Burkhard Heinrich Sutermeister

13. Jean Sibelius

No great surprise that Finland would dedicate a number of stamps to its greatest composer. The first was released in 1945, commemorating his 80th birthday, and then following up 12 years later for his death. Only one other country recognised his death on a stamp, that being Romania.

The 100th anniversary of his birth in 1965 saw another Finnish stamp, but it would be almost 40 years before Finland issued any more Sibelius-related stamps, the first in 2002 recognising the monument erected in his name, the second not showing his face or giving his name, but it is a photograph of him playing the piano. Neither of these stamps seems to coincide with a Sibelius anniversary.

The 150th anniversary of his birth in 2015 gave an opportunity for more issues, three from Finland in an miniature sheet, and two from Portugal.

Finally, we have another entry in the "Most unlikely composer-related stamp" competition. In 1988, there was a major stamp exhibition in Finland, and the landlocked African country of Lesotho chose to issue a stamp with an image of the Sibelius monument, surprising in itself, but made all the more curious by the presence of Micky Mouse and Goofy!

12. French composers on French stamps - Part 2

Back to France we go. As I said last week, I am only including home-grown composers, but this doesn't actually omit many others. Apart from Beethoven and Mozart, the only other composers to have been honoured on French stamps are almost honorary Frenchmen anyway: Chopin, Franck and Honegger.

Dukas (1965) Fauré (1966) F Couperin (1968) Auber (1971)
Poulenc (1974) Offenbach (1981) Berlioz (1983) de la Halle (1985)
Milhaud (1985) Satie (1992) Schmitt (1992) Auric (1992)
 
Tailleferre (1992) Auber (2012) N Boulanger (2017)  

11. French composers on French stamps - Part 1

French stamps have long been regarded by many as among the most consistently well-designed, and as a collector, I share that opinion. Music has been a rich source of inspiration for their designers, and more than 30 composers have been featured over the years. The great majority have been home-grown, and they are the ones I will present here and next week.

I will omit the Debussy as it has already been included in an earlier column (2). Only two composers have had a return visit from the designers: that Berlioz is one of them is not surprising, but that Daniel Auber is the other is less expected.

They are presented in chronological order, so that the change in design over the years can be appreciated. You will see that the last two stamps, from the early 1960s, are the first to use more than one colour. The 1936 Berlioz design was reused two years later for another issue, in violet.

Berlioz (1936) Chabrier (1942) Massenet (1942) Gounod (1944)
d'Indy (1951) Saint-Saëns (1952) Rameau (1953) Ravel (1956)
Lully (1956) Bizet (1960) G Charpentier (1962) Mehul (1963)

Older entries >>>




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