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
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
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.
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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.
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