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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 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.

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.

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.


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